Community members gathered yesterday at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus for a talk about how what is now an extension of the university’s campus, was once Fort Kearney, a World War II Prisoner of War camp.
While war was still raging in the European and African theaters, the United States began an effort to aid Germany on the off chance that victory would fall into the Allies’ hands. American officials wanted to start a prisoner re-education program, however, at the time, prisoner indoctrination was expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. The military found a loophole and through, what Christian McBurney of “The Online Review of Rhode Island History” called, a “loose interpretation on a clause about intellectual diversion,” Fort Kearney was activated.
During Fort Kearney’s existence, hundreds of thousands of Axis prisoners were housed in camps across America because the Allies wanted to get them out of Europe. The prisoners were diverse in their political sentiments and not all of them were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Divisions in the camp between true Nazis and others that had been forced into service began to form across the United States. Eventually, news got to the White House that there were prisoners murdering each other, and the Prisoner of War Special Projects Division was created.
Prisoners that showed they had the skills to influence German culture and were less than enthusiastic about the Nazi movement, were brought to Fort Kearney. The Camp found itself filled with award winning writers, artists and small-time German cultural icons. All of the teachers were German-American and after they were thoroughly vetted, re-education began.
Life at Fort Kearney was designed to be relaxed for the the prisoners. They were put to work screening movies and radio programs to make sure they portrayed American life in a positive light before they were shown to the other camps. Some prisoners translated classic American texts into German so that they could be passed on to other POW camps throughout the country. Beer was allowed during after hours and in the morning everyone would wake up to popular American music playing over the loudspeakers.
A German language paper, “Dar Ruf” (German for “the call”), was printed there too. It was a newspaper for prisoners of war across America, written and edited by the prisoners at Fort Kearney in association with the U.S. military. While the purpose of the paper was propaganda, writers and editors were never pushed to publish what they did not believe and they were compensated for their efforts.
The attendees of the talk included locals, historians, students and teachers. They were there to learn about a secret former World War II United States prisoner of war camp at, what is today, the URI Bay Campus. Many of them were there because they remembered the community during World War II and wanted to know more about the camp. Others were there because they remembered the camp itself.
“I’m just amazed,” said Holley Stephenson, a lifelong local resident who moved into the apartments that replaced the camp in 1946. “I remember riding my bicycle around and talking to the professors, my father was a professor, and I never knew about it. My parents never talked about what was here [before]”.
The shocking nature of the campus’ history seems to be the reason that brought many of the attendees to the lecture, while some went because they had a more personal connection to the location’s history. Martha Hartman, another local, is the daughter of a man who worked at Camp Devens in Groton, Massachusetts.
“I knew Heinz Hartle before he was moved to Kearney when he was at Devens,” Hartman said. “I kept in contact with him after the war.”
Heinz eventually went back to occupied Germany and served the democratic cause as a clerk in a government building.
Eventually, the war came to an end and there was a rush to relocate the re-educated Germans back to Europe. After being sent back, they gradually assumed positions of influence in occupied Germany. One prisoner began publishing “Dar Ruf” in Germany and was later part of a literary group called Group 47, whose goal was to educate Germany about Democracy in a post-Hitler world. Others worked in the government, and many went to work as civilian police officers to counter the deeply Nazi-Influenced German Police force.