The snows are building in the mountains again, and the “snowbirds” with homes in Arizona are gone.
And about this time of year, more than 70 years ago, an extraordinary group of summer visitors would have been leaving Camp Dubois. It must have been an unusually melancholy return to civilization for them, traveling to the much larger base camp at Scottsbluff and leaving behind the “most beautiful time” in a place “cut off from the outside world” where, like the hawks, one man wrote, “we could lift ourselves away from the everyday life of the prisoner.”
Its name might bring to mind a summer camp for girls, but Camp Dubois was a temporary home for up to 150 German prisoners of war and U.S. military personnel. Located at about 9000 feet in elevation, far back in the woods roughly 9 miles from town as the crow flies, it was established at the request of Wyoming Tie and Timber, whose free-living American employees lived in villages in the mountains all winter, felling trees to create railroad ties. Camp Dubois was open for 14 months in the milder seasons from 1944 to 1946, helping to fill a wartime labor shortage.
The POW camp was dismantled and bulldozed after the war, although fascinating traces remain hidden in the woods up near Union Pass. Thanks to the extensive records and photos of camp commander Lieutenant Harold Harlamert, to military records, and to the prisoners’ own letters, poems, diaries (and even a Skype interview of a former inmate last April) amassed by local historian Cheryl O’Brien, Camp Dubois may be one of the best-documented “branch” POW camps in the United States.
I was lucky enough to visit the site two summers ago, when I took these pictures. This article is based on a presentation Cheryl gave last August during the week before the solar eclipse.
Due to its isolation, the camp did not need to be heavily guarded. Some POWs at Camp Dubois volunteered to come, in order to escape from harassment by pro-Nazi POWs at the larger base camp. All the evidence suggests its residents were relatively content.
Although they had to wash in the stream while the enlisted men who worked as guards got hot showers, the prisoners were well treated according to the strict guidelines of the Geneva Convention. Only one POW died during the camp’s existence: 19-year-old Max Stoll was killed when a gust of wind blew down a tree he was felling.
The POWs slept in wood-framed tents covered with white canvas, each of which had a wood-burning stove. They did much of the same work as the civilian tie hacks: cutting logs with two-man crosscut saws and axes, and stacking them to be taken to the river and floated down to Riverton.
They would have eaten well, especially when their food was provided by the civilian loggers. The prisoners trapped game in their spare time, and they wrote of bagging rabbits, grouse, and porcupine.
A stray dog that a POW found at one of the sawmills became the camp pet. Their postcards home were sent postage-free through the US mail.
The life held a “special kind of romanticism,” as POW Rudolf Ritschel wrote, and they were excited to see real cowboys. But for all that, remoteness had its loneliness. And they were far from home.
According to Knights of the Broadax, a book about the tie hacks, some men cried when the wife of the store manager at the civilian tie-hack village brought her infant son along on a visit. Kip MacMillan, the grandson of the President of Wyoming Tie & Timber Company, recalls being terrified when, as a young boy, he was told by his grandfather that he would be spending a night at the camp, unaccompanied. But when he got there he was treated like a long-lost member of the family. One POW even gave up his bed for Kip and slept on the floor.
After the war, the men were eventually freed, but it took months and sometimes years for Camp Dubois’ residents to return home. Cheryl knows of only one POW who revisited the camp. Fritz Hartung brought his family to Dubois in 1975, to show them where he once hiked and “swam with beavers”.
Starting two years ago, representatives of the US Forest Service began meeting with interested Dubois residents about how to preserve and provide interpretive information about the Camp Dubois site and make it accessible to visitors. Cheryl is currently working on a book about her research into Camp Dubois and the other 15 branch POW camps that once existed in Wyoming.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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