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February 15, 2002

Prisoners of War: Lest we forget

The new prisoner of war movie "Hart’s War" starring Bruce Willis is coming into theatres today. This, plus the treatment of the Taliban and al Qaeda "detainees" in Cuba and the discovery of a wonderful new book on the prisoner of war camp at Gravenhurst sparked my interest in WW II prisoner of war activity in our area. One thing I discovered was that many former Canadian prisoners of war get angry over the "romantic" versions of stories about allied prisoner of war escapes from PoW camps. Hogan’s Heroes in particular insulted many PoW because there was very little humour in life in these camps. There were very few escapes, and most were not successful. In one case, 72 allied men escaped, and only three made it to England. Fifty, including some Canadians, were lined up and shot in the back, as if they had been running away.

The prisoner of war numbers are staggering. One source says there were as many as 15 million on both sides, including Italy and Japan. There were hundreds of PoW camps, 500 in the US and 26 in Canada. Three in the prairies held over 10,000 PoWs each. On top of that, there were millions interned simply because they were "aliens," like many Japanese and German people in Canada. Elsewhere, many were used as slave labour to keep the enemy war plants going, and raising food for the military. There were of course the concentration camps, where people —mostly Jews—were incarcerated for cultural, political, racial, religious or sexual reasons, and were brutalized, starved, and murdered by the millions, in what was the Nazi’s "Final Solution."

Even more shocking than the numbers above were the conditions in many of the enemy camps. The Geneva Convention laid out very generous rules on the treatment of prisoners, but Russia did not sign, Japan did not ratify, and Germany ignored it. Canada and the US, to their credit, followed the Convention remarkably well. One of the main reasons the Convention was followed in North America was the desire to not offend the enemy who had our PoWs even though, in hindsight, this made little difference. In Canada there were only 187 deaths over five years in PoW camps, and most were due to natural causes. There were a few forced suicides, a few murders, a few executions for murder, and a few deaths while escaping.

The Gravenhurst Prisoner of War Camp

The nearest of Ontario’s ten PoW camps to North Bay were at Gravenhurst, Montieth, Petawawa and Espanola. The closest, and now remarkably well documented Gravenhurst camp has been profiled in the book The Gilded Cage (1999) by Cecil Porter of Gravenhurst. The book is beautifully designed and well written, with many excellent photos, maps and drawings. 
The Gilded Cage: Gravenhurst’s German Prisoner-of-War Camp 20, 1940-1946.

The Gilded Cage tells the story of how Gravenhurst Minnewaska Resort became a TB sanatorium and then a PoW camp (July 1940—June 1946), a resort again, and finally a ghost town waiting for development. The book tells the story of the town’s reaction to the marching of still uniformed German officers and men through town from the train station to the camp, and their presence in the life o the community for five years. Norwegian flyers in training nearby were especially unhappy, but knew they had no choice. 
German prisoners of war marching through the streets of Gravenhurst on their way from the train station to the prisoner of war camp.

The PoWs at Gravenhurst developed extensive educational and recreational programs, and were often taken to the beach outside the barbed wire for swims. A small farm was also established, where certain men were allowed to work. Later, when the Canadian government began to classify the PoWs in terms of the extremity of their views, many of the worst Nazis were sent to Gravenhurst were the guards had to be extra alert. 

The attempted escapes are outlined in detail in the book. The only one who got away was a young Luftwaffe pilot, Walter Manhard, who disappeared while swimming and was presumed drowned. In 1991, he reappeared in Gravenhurst on a PoW reunion tour. He had escaped to New York State where he married a Lieutenant in the US Navy and turned himself in in 1952. Many former PoWs have returned to visit the site and several have emigrated to Canada and have had productive lives here. One of these men wrote the last chapter of the book telling about his experiences in the camp. 

The largest Ontario escape took place at Camp Angler on the north shore of Lake Superior, where 28 men broke free. Two were shot and killed, and two got 2,000 km out west before being caught. One became a successful Toronto businessman after the war. 

A North Bay Connection

Lt. Peter Krug, at age 21, escaped from Bowmanville and ended up in Texas were he was discovered and returned. This time he was sent to Gravenhurst, where he developed a detailed plan to escape again. The October 5th, 1943 edition of the North Bay Nugget ran a headline that said "Nab Krug in N. Bay." The Nugget story tells how Sgt. S.E. Devine of the Canadian Provost Core spotted Krug at the CPR station on Oak St. and with the help of another officer arrested him. He was returned to Gravenhurst 24 hours after his escape, where he remained until 1946. The Krug and several other escape stories are told in the book, Escape From Canada (Macmillan 1981) by John Melady, available in many libraries.  

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