The POWs of Grand County
May 25, 2017
On Christmas Eve in 1943 Pastor Beatty McDonald left the warmth of the Kremmling Community Church and ventured a mile west of town to deliver one final Christmas sermon. It was there, inside a mess hall surrounded by a small cluster of barracks and barbed wire fence, that McDonald encountered his congregation for the night: 30 German prisoners of war.
McDonald treated the prisoners to a German reading of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke, and they closed the night singing Silent Night and other German carols. The prisoners shook hands with McDonald and thanked him for his time and, to McDonald's surprise, asked if they could attend regular church services on Sundays. McDonald agreed.
This is one of many snapshots against the backdrop of World War II that help shed light on one of the most unique and little understood parts of Grand County history, over 70 years ago.
From 1943 to 1946 the towns of Fraser and Kremmling were home to 400 German prisoners of war, or POWs, that were captured during the North African Campaign in WWII. During their time in Colorado these prisoners learned about life in the United States, helped to support the local industries and even befriended some of the locals.
"Of course there was some resentment because these were German soldiers that were killing people from our own community," said Tim Nicklas, director of the Pioneer Village Museum and administrator for the Grand County Historical Association. "… this is the enemy. They're killing our own boys over there. But when you have interaction like you had at the church, it made people realize that these were just boys, too."
The United States' entry into WWII was felt around the nation, and Grand County was no different.
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As young men left home to fight in Europe and the Pacific, labor shortages in Fraser and Kremmling led to the arrival of hundreds of POWs to help fill the gap.
Prisoners in Fraser were primarily put to work cutting and hauling lumber for the Koppers Corporation, managed by Morris Long who would go on to maintain relationships with several of the POWs for years after the war. In Kremmling prisoners were sent to the river to cut ice for the railroads. These prisoners were chosen based on their cooperation and political leanings. Those relocated to Fraser and Kremmling were well behaved and far from Nazi sympathizers, according to Nicklas. Because these were work camps, there were no German officers placed there.
"The prisoners brought to Fraser and Kremmling were pretty much the best behaved of the German POWs," said Nicklas. "These were guys that were very peaceful; they were just German troops who were captured. They weren't really Nazis."
This helps to explain the lavish living conditions compared to POWs living in other areas, as well as the relaxed security and the common interactions between prisoners and the people of Grand County.
By all accounts, the prisoners appreciated the kind conditions.
The mood of their camp was captured in a letter written from former prisoner Werner Christen to former Kremmling resident Horace Brown, the late owner of Brown Mercantile and friend of many prisoners, dated March 7, 1948 from Poyenberg, Germany.
In his letter, Christen recalled his time in Kremmling with pleasure.
"It may look funny to you when I speak of good days in prisonership [sic] because you will think that we would have better days now when we are living as free men," Christen wrote. "But this is not the case."
His living conditions upon returning to Germany were that of suffering; he wrote of his deep desire to return as a prison in the United States, where conditions were much more favorable.
The prisoners in Grand County slept in military barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences, but security was minimal due to the agreeable nature of the POWs and the brutality of the surrounding wilderness.
Stories persist of American guards handing their rifles to the prisoners while tying their shoes, and German prisoners playing harmless pranks on sleeping watchmen.
When not working the POWs enjoyed relative luxury. They were paid 15 cents a day for their labor, which they could spend on cigarettes, candy and reading material. They were given art supplies to paint with, instruments to play music with and would even be escorted to town for movies at the theater and church services with locals.
"They would come to church at Christmastime and sing in the church," said Larry Gross, vice president of museums for the Grand County Historical Association. "Locals say they would march all the way from the river bottom to the church, and at times it was way below zero degrees. They would sit up in the front on one side and there usually was a couple of guards with them, naturally."
The prisoners, especially those in Fraser, also enjoyed good meals, despite the fact that most citizens were still on war rations. This didn't sit well will some of the townsfolk.
"At first the POWs were being fed better than the locals because everyone was on rations, just like the rest of the United States," said Nicklas. "Morris Long (who managed the camp) had to cut back on how well he was feeding the soldiers, and it was only fair, really. If our own citizens are on rations, shouldn't the German POWs be as well?"
Despite the cutback, the POWs realized that their captors were treating them extremely charitably given the circumstances. After their release, many prisoners took it upon themselves to keep in correspondence with some of the community leaders such as Morris Long and Horace Brown.
The letters reflect the kind conditions under which the Germans were kept, as well as emphasize the beleaguered state of the country they were returning.
Most of what is known about the POW camps in Fraser and Kremmling is derived from these letters. The consensus from the letters was that the prisoners enjoyed their time in Grand County, and wished for their return which would never come.