Uncovering Chicagoland’s World War II history

Photo By Joan Rykal | For The Bugle James Meierhoff, a member of the Chicago Archaeological Society, shares the story of how World War II POW camps came to be located throughout the Chicago area.

Archaeological Society member sheds light on former POW camps

By Joan Rykal | For The Bugle

During World War II, more than 400,000 prisoners of war were kept in camps throughout the U.S., and many of those POWs were detained in the Chicago area.

The Woodridge Public Library recently hosted a program featuring Chicago Archaeological Society member and Ph.D. candidate James Meierhoff, who shared the story of how German POW camps came to be located throughout Chicagoland and the role archaeologists play in preserving this history.

Meierhoff spoke to a crowd of more than 40 Aug. 28 and shared information regarding the roughly half a million POWs who were kept in these American prison camps during the Second World War. Meierhoff said the majority of the prisoners who were kept in the U.S. were mostly from Rommel’s defeated North African campaign.

“Everyone seems to know a little piece of this,” he told the audience, but added that the information that exists regarding these camps is “very Spartan.”

Meieroff said that 141 Base Camps and 319 branch camps were spread over 46 states.

“The Chicago branch camps have no known maps or detailed historical information,” he said, adding that records were either poorly kept or actually destroyed after the camps were no longer in use.

Meierhoff said the prisoners were typically used as labor for local farms and businesses. 

“The war came home to the suburbs as people watched these trucks of Germans POWS go to work on the local farms,” he said.

Several members of the audience said they recalled the trucks of POWs going down the streets and a few noted that the POWs had actually worked on their own family farms.

One woman, who grew up in Oak Lawn, said she was allowed to visit the soldiers since she spoke fluent German.

“I saw the trucks go up and down Cicero Avenue,” she said.

However, many people said they simply had no idea these camps existed in the Chicago area. And that, Meierhoff says is the problem in regard to archeology.

Meierhoff shared photos of the camps from the 1940s as well as photos of the current area where they stood. Camp Thornton, which was located in the south suburbs, is located in an area of the Cook County Forest Preserves known as Sweet Woods. Meierhoff said that many of the footings for foundations still stand as well as paved or gravel roadways that provided access to the camps.

Other camps in the area included Fort Sheridan, Camp Skokie Valley in Skokie and Camp Pine in Des Plaines. However, only Camp Thornton bears a plaque recognizing that it was once such a camp.

Meierhoff said this is the problem because people are finding objects in these areas and do not know the history behind them.

“Some of these areas are full of artifacts,” he said but cautions that “do gooders” who want to clean up the areas are simply tossing what they believe is garbage. “The context is what is so important about these materials,” he said.   

Patti Naisbitt, the library’s Public Relations and Program Coordinator, said the attendance for Meierhoff’s presentation was above average.

“Our patrons seem to have a connection to this story, whether from serving in the war or hearing stories from family members,” she said. “I am pleased that is has struck a chord of some sort.”

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