The Home Of New Hampshire’s Only World War II POW Camp
That it existed at all has long since been forgotten. Time has erased most physical evidence, all that remains are the scattered stones that once comprised this most unusual place.
The town of Stark, New Hampshire, named after Revolutionary War General John Stark, who is credited with giving the Granite State its “Live Free or Die” motto was quite possibly never visited by the famous general. But in 1943 the remote logging village 22 miles northwest of Berlin became host to on of the state’s most unusual occurrences.
In 1988 Allen V. Koop, a Professor of History at Colby-Sawyer College and Visiting Professor at Dartmouth College took up his pen to chronicle the events in Stark between the years of 1944 and 1946, unique in that during that time the isolated, quiet village was home the only German Prisoner of War camp in the state.
In his book about the camp, Stark Decency, Koop describes the village that became home to hundreds of German prisoners of war.
“The mountains of New Hampshire’s North Country are not high, only about three thousand feet, but they are steep and rugged. Rocky ledges and sharp cliffs stare out of the dark green fir and spruce forests of their summits. Lower slopes hold the maple, birch, and aspen trees that flame red, orange, and yellow in autumn. The town has never yielded an easy living. In a few places the valley broadens enough to have allowed early settlers to farm rocky but fertile fields along the river, but the steep, forested hillsides and craggy mountains discouraged extensive settlement. Above Stark’s weather-beaten, white painted covered bridge and little white church, the 750-foot dark granite cliff of Devil’s Slide forms an imposing, even ominous backdrop for the quite town.”
Ft. Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts was also the site of a German prisoner of war camp. When the Brown Paper Company in Berlin was unable to meet the wartime demand for pulp wood, which had many military uses, because most of the available man-power was off fighting the war, it was determined that German POW’s would be used; but where to put the new camp?
About two miles north of the Ammonoosuc River, across the covered bridge and beyond the railroad tracks was an old Civilian Conservation Commission work camp on what was know as the Percy plains. Still standing vacant along Route 110 were five CCC wooden barracks, a mess hall and recreation hall.
As Koop notes in his book the small town of Groveton was six miles northwest and Berlin was 22 miles to the south east. Other than that, it was felt that nothing stood between Stark and the Canadian boarder but miles of empty forest.
In early 1944 men working at the Brown Paper Company mill in Berlin began to hear rumors about prisoners of war being used to cut wood. In mid January the U.S. Army sent personnel to examine the abandoned CCC camp. By March a stockade fence and four watchtowers had transformed the abandoned CCC installation into what was to become known as Camp Stark.
Barracks were erected across the road in a field leased from a local farmer to house military personnel.
Stark Decency chronicles the interaction of the German prisoners and their guards and the people of the village of Stark. Initially most of the prisoners were captives from the North Africa fighting and were older and mostly anti-Nazi’s. After the Normandy invasion, Camp Stark began to receive German prisoners captured in the fighting in western Europe, who proved to be younger, some as young as 17-years old; a sign that the manpower resources of the Nazi War effort were stretched.
Koop takes the reader into the woods with the German logging crews and their guards who worked year round regardless of the weather to meet quotas. He offers a glimpse of prison life behind the stockade fence and puts a human face on the war with the interactions of the prisoners and the people of the tiny village of Stark.
The prisoners were repatriated in May of 1946 with about half of them held for between six and 18 months in either Britain or France to provide labor in rebuilding the damage done by the war. Many corresponded with former guards and friends they had made from the village of Stark. The camp was dismantled, with some of the lumber from the barracks used to build a bowling alley in Berlin, which later burned down. Some of the lumber was used to build a new awning on the front porch of the Stark General Store.
Koop has written a social history that explores the themes that, during a world war, brought then enemy soldiers and the people of a small New Hampshire village together.
The friendships that grew out of the experience of such an unlikely scenario were renewed 40 years later when in September of 1986 five former German prisoners and their families returned for what the villagers of Stark called German-American Friendship Day. Speeches, parades, a visit to the site of the camp, which by 1986 was most a field of flowers, a cookout and church service in both English and German marked the happy reunion.
“Looking back,” Koop explains, from the perspective of 40 years later, it all “seemed less troublesome and more meaningful. Americans and Germans sympathized with each other, all having been tossed around the globe by a terrible war. They now realized clearly what years ago they only dimly perceived. They had done something special. In a difficult situation, they indeed had made Camp Stark an island of decency in a world at war.”
A trip to Stark, New Hampshire today reveals almost nothing of what happened in the tiny village during the war, with the exception of an historical marker. For two years, from 1944-46 there were almost as many Germans as Americans in Stark. Together they rose above the chaos as the war tore the rest of the world apart. It was human decency, extended within the roles they each were fated to play, transcending the strife making the legacy of Camp Stark a lesson we should not forget.Click here to see the video.
Today one can hike possibly some of those same areas harvested by the German POW’s during their years at Camp Stark. There is an un-maintained herd path that the AMC White Mountain Guide notes, “makes a very steep and rough ascent up the west slope” of Devil’s Slide (1,590 ft). There is also hiking in the Nash Stream Forest to the north with trails to the Percy Peaks, Bald Mountain with its exposed southern ledges and Victor Head with ledges that offer views of Lake Christine, the village of Stark and the Kilkenny to the south.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.