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