A year of intensive research has now provided a clear picture of the daily lives of 150 German and Austrian prisoners of war who lived in the mountains above Dubois 70 years ago, during World War II.
On Saturday, in a program sponsored by Central Wyoming College, local historian Cheryl O’Brien guided about a dozen area residents on a tour of the POW camp abandoned 70 years ago, giving insights from her studies into how they lived and worked, and pointing out some of the features that remain on the site.
Careful on-site investigations and preliminary mapping, backed by supporting documents from the National Archives, photographs, letters, and military records, create an unusually rich legacy of the history of the camp, says O’Brien, who has visited numerous other POW camps in Wyoming and Nebraska.
At the end of the tour, retired forester Bob Baker led the group to a site about a mile away where prisoners worked for the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company felling trees and processing them into railroad ties using a portable sawmill. His investigations have found numerous such milling sites in the area, he said.
At the site of the camp, which was in operation from July 1944 to January 1946, O’Brien showed where the prisoners lived in tents on platforms and ate in a large mess hall (all bulldozed away when the camp closed, and now overgrown with willows). Camp residents were fenced in at night but allowed to roam the camp freely during the day, records show, guarded by eight enlisted American men.
Remnants of a boardwalk, a spring house, a latrine, and other structures remain, as well as scrap metal and remains of fencing. Prisoners worked hard for six days but had Sundays off, when they could attend religious services offered by local ministers. In its second year the camp included a German doctor and a medic.
The POWs were not allowed to hunt for obvious reasons, O’Brien said, but did supplement their rations by trapping grouse, snowshoe hares, and porcupine. Only two residents, one enlisted American and a prisoner, died during the camp’s two years of operation — the American in a pickup accident and the POW due to an accident while working at the sawmill. No residents of the camp tried to escape, which would have been difficult in the remote location.
O’Brien has submitted her research into the 70-year-old site for publication in a professional journal. BBaker, along with Dubois Main Street Inc., is preparing to seek funding for a new educational center about the POW camp, the tie hack history of the Dubois area, and the history of forestry in general. The center would recreate the camp on a site adjacent to the Dubois town park.
Credits for the article: Lois Wingerson & Pitch Engine Communities. Published with permission.