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Stop 11: The World War II Prisoner of War Camp (Company 7) at Naomi Jones (Pyracantha Park)

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AUDIO NARRATION*
Copyright © 2024
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Visit 38122 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just south of the Moore Mickens Educational Center, now the location of Pyracantha Park, and history will overtake your being from all trajectories. This is not a walking stop, so enjoy it by QR.

 

     Let’s start with the contemporary setting. The space is now named for Naomi Jones who was an early leader of the local NAACP and an activist. She operated the Jones Nursing Home (also a historical site, (STOP 72) with her husband, Otis for over 20 years. Her breadth of service included astonishing landscaping with her garden club, The Busy Bees Garden Club in which she planted over fifty trees, dozens of azaleas and magnificently colorful pyracanthas. The incredible irony so evident solemnizes the magnificent park for the accomplishments of Jones and contemporaries of the Jim Crow South but also the site of a historic yet short event in Dade City history, a German POW camp.

 

    Yes, a POW camp known as Company 7 of Camp Blanding. 

 

The history of the POW camp in Dade City was overlooked for decades until the industrious efforts of Eva Martha Goddard Knapp. An English teacher at Hernando High School, Knapp assigned her tenth-grade students to read a trendy youth literature novel entitled, “The Summer of My German Soldier” by Betty Greene, which also metamorphosed into a trendy television special.  The novel was a hit, and with Mrs. Knapp’s guidance, students during the 1991-92 school year, eagerly uncovered stories of the mysterious Dade City POW camp. They interviewed family members and acquaintances that were old enough to remember the POWS and later tracked down Ludeke Herder in Germany for correspondence.

 

     Luckily Knapp was President and active member of the Pasco Historical Association, and with the help of historians, Eddie Herrmann, Bill Dayton, and Dr. Charles Arnade, they further documented the German POW camp. Then Chamber of Commerce Director, Phyllis Smith whose grandfather was a foreman at Pasco Packing at the time of the POW camp, also assisted. (Smith recalled seeing the prisoners and talking with her grandfather about them. She kept a wooden jewelry box that one of the prisoners carved from scrap wood as a thank you for the benevolent treatment; which Smith inherited. It was stamped with the name, Hans Bader.)

 

     The team created a video interview entitled, “Humanity Through Barbed Wire,” which was unveiled at the St. Petersburg Holocaust Museum in 2004. Herrmann along with James Horgan and Alice Hall wrote “The Historic Places of Pasco County,” in 1992, which is still most widely sited in archaeological documentation for historic preservation.

 

      Dr. Arnade summarized, “Dade City was somewhat removed from the war (World War II) except for those families who had sons and daughters in the armed forces, and the unexpected establishment of a branch German prison camp on the very outskirts of town in 1944 with a prisoner population of around 350, brought the war close to home.”

 

       Dade City got news of the camp after the arrival via an article in the Dade City Banner on April 14, 1944. Mayor Frank M. Ashbrook handled the quiet and rapid construction of the camp with the Army Corps of Engineers so as to not to cause panic.  Simultaneous to Ashbrook’s efforts in Dade City, a total of 22 POW camps were hurriedly erected for POWs around the state of Florida. 

 

Most if not all of the prisoners in Dade City came from Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The camp existed two years and housed a regular average of 300 prisoners. In September 1945, there were 350, the first arriving in Spring, 1944. They stayed beyond the end of the war in Europe and the last prisoners left in January of 1946. 

 

      Retired Dade City property attorney and board member of the Pioneer Florida Museum & Village in Dade City, Clyde Hobby remembered vividly the last troops who left, attired in their German Military uniforms as they marched in formation before climbing aboard the passenger car at Seaboard Coastline Depot. It left an indelible memory that Hobby related.

 

      Prisoners were employed at Pasco Packing Company, Cummer Cypress Company, and McDonald Mines near Brooksville. They received 80 cents a day in stamps and rations. Historian Arnade was able to attain records that indicated that most of the prisoners were officers and many held a prevailing distrust for Hitler’s actions, at least in their dialogue with locals. Among the group were some talented professionals who were tapped for non-blue-collar work. Among those, most noteworthy was Heinz Friedman, who painted a soft pastel mural on several adjoining walls for the office of L.C. “Mark” Edwards, Jr., then president of Pasco Packing. He also did an array of area portraits of citizens and drew the spectacular orange on the company’s water tower that lingered for many decades, replaced only in recent years by the kumquat. (Edwards and Friedman communicated for a few years after the war, and an anecdote emerged that reflects the friendship when Friedman wrote to Edwards about his inability to locate elegant wedding shoes for his fiancé to wear for approaching marriage (as there was a huge shoe shortage in Germany); with a sketch of his fiancé’s foot, Edward located some appropriate style and sized wedding shoes and mailed them to Germany for Friedman’s bride-to-be.)

 

     Not to paint a picture of ideality, there were concerns among local citizens in having several hundred Nazis lingering nearby. Among the prisoners as throughout the state, there were occasional escapees, although only four from Dade City. Ironically, the furniture and equipment of the Compound was auctioned by Madill Furniture Store in downtown Dade City in 1948.

 

    Although there are few lasting mementos or structures of the Camp which was once composed of approximately 77 tents, a wooden barracks that housed washrooms, kitchen and mess hall and a surrounding area enclosed by barbed wire fence and watch towers, an aerial map from NARA shows the components of the camp and a photograph of the last remaining barrack building in the 1980s offer hazy depictions. The war department gave The Tampa Tribune permission to send a staff writer to Dade City to obtain the first story and pictures of the German war prisoners in May of 1944. 

 

      The vestiges which linger, however include a historical marker on site and a series of mural paintings at what is now Dade City Business Center and some miscellaneous letters and artifacts. 

 

     Through the efforts of the historians, the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee erected an official marker at the site in 2005. The materials and research of Knapp’s students were donated to the archives at the University of South Florida. 

 

      Although the greatest generation is leaving us, in the decades of the 1960s through 1990s, a number of the German POWs visited Dade City long after the camp was dismantled. Arthur Lang of Ommersheim, Germany returned in 1986. Herrmann Boettjer, who had been captured by the British in Tunisia and sent eventually to Dade City, attended the historical marker dedication in 2005. In 1960, W.H. Burkert of Schaffhausen, Switzerland came to visit Pasco Packing where he met the former personnel manager, T.D. Barfield who he remembered. Historian Eddie Herrmann also communicated for many years with some of the prisoners via pen-pal.

  • 1939

    Adolph Hitler led Germany to invade Poland from the west and two days later, France and Britain declared war on German, thus beginning World War II.

  • 1939-1941

    Concern and preparations for potential involvement in the war, amidst isolationist views, permeated the USA. Locally, Dade City was aware of the Army Air Base in adjoining town of Zephyrhills where through eminent domain the airport land had been purchased from the Porter family and an aggressive training of pilots was occurring to fly Marauders and Mustangs, etc. In addition, surveillance was occurring in local community, such as the look-out tower on the roof of the Dade City Hall (Stop 7).

  • 1941

    On December 7, a surprise aerial attack by Germany’s axis ally, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor killing 2,403 people.

  • 1941

    On December 11, 1941, The USA declared war on Germany, hours after Germany declared War on the US after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan.

  • 1944

    The Dade City Banner newspaper of April 14, 1944, reported that the Dade City Mayor Frank M. Ashbrook handled the top secret construction of the camp facilitated by the Army Corps of Engineers discreetly to avoid panic. (Twenty-two camps were being built in the state of Florida and many across the country.) Camp began in March of 1944 with three-tent mess hall, canteen attached to a small day room, larger day room with table tennis and piano, sleeping quarters and latrines, and about seventy tents as discerned from aerial photos.

  • 1944

    May: Staff writers with permission from the War Department were sent to Dade City by Tampa Tribune to obtain the first story and photos of German POWs.

  • 1944-1946

    Prisoners were employed at Pasco Packing Company, Cummer Cypress Company, and McDonald Mines near Brooksville.

  • 1944

    POW population was 350.

  • 1945

    January: Four escapes occurred. Two documented escapes from the Dade City POW camp included Harry Fisher and Gunther Gabriel, an actor before the war. They walked away from a Lacoochee work-detail wearing their jackets that had “P.W.” painted in bright orange on the back. They were apprehended in a railroad car in Jacksonville several days later.

  • 1946

    January: POWs were marched to the Seaboard Coastline Depot in downtown Dade City (8th Street near Meridian). The group were in full German military uniform as they marched through town and stood for inspection before boarding the train, heels clicking and salutes given to return to Europe.

  • 1946

    By the end of the war, there were more than 10,000 German POWs in 26 Florida camps.

  • 1948

    Madill Furniture Store in downtown Dade City managed an auction of the furniture and equipment of the POW compound on what is now 7th Street.

  • 1960-1968

    Former POWs returned to visit over time. Documented known visitors: Arthur Lang (and wife, Maria) of Ommersheim, Germany (1986); Herrmann Boettjer with his son-in-law Wolfgang Entelmann from Schaffhausen, Switzerland (1960 and 1993); Hans Meier of Odessa who moved to Toronto and later Florida; and W.H. Berkert of Schaffhausen, Switzerland Luedke Herder of Wiesbaden, Germany communicated with locals as did Heinz Friedman, a painter by trade who painted local portrait as well as a landscape mural in the office L.C. “Mark” Edwards Jr. (Stop 10) at Pasco Packing in April of 1945.

  • 1991-1992

    Eva Martha Goddard Knapp assigned her tenth grade language arts students to read: The Summer of My German Soldier by Betty Greene, a young adult book. Students went on to do research on the German Pow camps in the US during World War II and uncovered some forgotten history. Lang wrote, “The life in this camp was well organized. I made the transition from the European climate to the sub-tropical climate of Florida fairly well. Older people had more difficulty adjusting to the climate.” Knapp donated materials to the University of South Florida historical archives.

  • 2004

    Researchers, Birgit Nessman and Berold Meininger with the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg consulted with historians, Charles Arnade and Bill Dayton and visited the site of the Dade City camp as well as the offices of the Pasco Packing plant where a two-wall mural was painted by Heinz Freidman. Phyllis Smith, then Executive Director of Dade City Chamber of Commerce was also interviewed as she remembered being a young child and her grandfather at Pasco Packing was a foreman at the citrus grove with the POWs. Also, Bill Cox is on the tape as he discusses being a supervisor along with Reverend Gregory Traeger of Saint Leo Abbey who delivered mass at the camp.

  • 2004

    Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg presented “Humanity Through Barbed Wire,” with the Dade City story.

  • 2005

    The Pasco County Historical Committee of the Pasco County Commission erected an official historical marker at the site of the camp.

  • 2021

    Reenactment of The City Massacre at museum for 186th anniversary of the Battle of Black Point indicative of ongoing reenactments at the museum.

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