During the Second World War, the German Army had all but obliterated the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Today, the city’s historical significance to the Civil War is well-known, but few know that during the siege of the town, the German Army erected a subterranean building.

For most history buffs, Gettysburg has always been a battlefield for the Civil War. However, an artist, a painter named Alexander Ehrhardt, had a different view of the battle he painted. Ehrhardt, an art student, and his class were in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to make propaganda posters for the Hitler Youth. Ehrhardt was passionate about the Battle of Gettysburg, and he was especially interested in the famous Iron Works of the Confederacy.

Tucked away in a corner of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from his original regiment, and hundreds of miles from the front lines of the war, a German prisoner of war worked to construct a magnificent building. This building was an Art Deco style building which is called the Kriegsgefangenenhaus. The building has 2 floors and used to house prisoners who were held in the Eastern Theater of War during World War II.. Read more about where were german prisoners of war held and let us know what you think.

What does this striking art deco structure have to do with the nation’s most crucial Civil War battleground?

The federal Public Works Administration had already handled hundreds of such projects by the time building on the National Guard Armory on West Confederate Avenue in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, began in January 1938. The PWA, which was established in June 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, had spent $85 billion on 34,000 public works projects, including the Hoover Dam in Nevada, the Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge in New York City, segments of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. The idea was to help relieve the Great Depression’s social and economic evils by providing jobs and purchasing power to construction workers and those working in factories that produced the supplies required for the projects. 

Unlike Depression-era initiatives like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which mostly used its own personnel, the PWA relied on local contractors for much of its work. C. S. Williams of Dillsburg was awarded a $41,321 contract to build the armory. Alfred LeVan of Gettysburg (heating and ventilation), A. G. Crunkleton of Greencastle (electrical), and B. O. Poff and Son of York were among the other contractors (plumbing). As part of the state’s $56 million PWA building program, Pennsylvania’s Armory Board submitted ideas for a $2 million ($30 million in 2023 money) construction program. The Gettysburg Armory was supposed to cost $40,000 (about $600,000 in today’s money). 

The Borough of Gettysburg paid $900 to Calvin Gilbert, a Union Civil War veteran, for land on West Confederate Avenue. Gilbert was a member of the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment and afterwards ran a foundry in Gettysburg that made gun carriages for the cannons positioned throughout the battlefield. The projected armory site was not a major battleground during the Battle of Gettysburg, although it did serve as part of Confederate corps commander A. P. Hill’s artillery line. Atop the second and third days of the fight, the cannons there were among the main threats to the Union artillery on Cemetery Hill, which was the center of the renowned Union “fishhook” defensive line.

Who Knew? German POWs Erected an Art Deco Building in Gettysburg During WWII Other notable art deco features of the armory include the building’s gymnasium-like interior. (From the National Park Service).

The armory was designed by John B. Hamme, an architect from York, Pennsylvania. Hamme started his business in 1900 and ran it until 1945, when he passed it down to his son, J. Alfred Hamme. While many of the PWA’s armories and other structures (including the neighboring Waynesboro Armory) were planned in a sparse, modernistic style known as PWA Moderne, Hamme’s Gettysburg Armory was fashioned in a more spectacular art deco style. Vertical emphasis, straight and smooth lines, streamlined and sleek forms, harsh edges, waffle–pattern glass, and chevron groupings were among the building’s distinguishing art deco features. It was eventually added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural merit and historic significance.

Following a groundbreaking ceremony presided over by the commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard and the president of the county board of commissioners, construction began on January 10, 1938. The armory was erected with almost 63 tons of steel, 65,000 bricks, and 20,000 concrete blocks and measured 96 by 61 feet. It was supposed to open in time for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1938. The Guard units were eager to relocate from their temporary lodgings on the third story of the American Legion building, but the project was plagued by delays. Another revised August 6 deadline passed without being met, and more delays pushed the armory’s occupation date back to March 1939.

Gettysburg is located in Adams County, which has a strong history of national service. Since 1800, its volunteer units have served in every war. The 90-day 2nd Pennsylvania (which responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s first appeal for volunteers) and the three-year 30th, 74th, 87th, and 101st regiments were among the county companies that served during the Civil War. The 26th Emergency Militia was raised in response to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North in June 1863, and it had a brief skirmish with Major General Jubal Early’s division just days before the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1–3.

In 1870, the state militia was renamed the Pennsylvania National Guard. Its units were combined into a single division (the 28th) in 1879, making it the United States Army’s oldest continuously serving division. Gettysburg’s National Guard unit fought alongside other Pennsylvanians in the 28th Division in the United States Army’s 1916–1917 expedition against Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s paramilitary forces. During World War I, the 28th was dispatched to Europe, where it saw particularly hard fighting at Château-Thierry. The 28th sustained approximately 14,000 losses and was dubbed “Men of Iron” by the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing. Because of its red keystone insignia, the opposing Germans dubbed it the “Bloody Bucket” regiment.

Gettysburg’s National Guardsmen had a fantastic drill field but no place to call home during this time. Local residents began protecting the “hallowed ground” nearly as soon as the army left, despite the fact that Gettysburg National Military Park was not established until 1895. The park’s purpose was to protect the land and demarcate battle lines. National military parks, on the other hand, were created to aid in the training of soldiers and future military leaders. Even before the War Department took over control of the site, Gettysburg was used for summer maneuvers by the state’s National Guard forces, and it was later used as a tank training camp, known as Camp Colt, during World War I.

While the new armory’s primary purpose was to support the local National Guard unit, it was also made open to the general public. Public meetings, square dances sponsored by the local 4-H Club, and basketball games for area high schools and Gettysburg College were all held there.

When World War II broke out, the 28th Division was reassigned to the front lines. Company E of the 103rd Quartermaster Regiment, Gettysburg’s local unit, was enrolled in February 1941, ten months before Pearl Harbor, and sent to Fort Indiantown Gap, the state’s National Guard training headquarters, for a year of training. The 28th arrived in Europe on July 24, 1944, just as Operation Cobra, the Allied escape from Normandy, was getting underway. The regiment took part in every European war until V-E day, earning five battle stars and suffering 15,904 fighting casualties (equivalent to nearly its full strength).

While the 28th was stationed in Europe, the Gettysburg Armory was put to an unusual use. On the Gettysburg battlefield, a makeshift POW camp was created in mid-June 1944. The tent camp was located immediately south of the Home Sweet Home Motel on the west side of Emmitsburg Road. (In 2003, the motel was dismantled.) The camp was created by 50 German inmates who were selected from the first 100 German prisoners who were temporarily kept in the armory while the camp was being built. The 400 offenders were exploited as work at local orchards and fruit-and-vegetable-packing industries; this was not a high-security camp. Any farmer, orchard owner, or packer might apply for POW labor through the local employment office. 

POWs from Germany worked on 17 farms, 14 canneries, 3 orchards, a stone quarry, and a fertilizer plant near Gettysburg. Employers paid them $1 per hour, with 90 cents going to the federal government and 10 cents going to the inmates in the form of post office coupons. The government received $138,000 for the usage of the POWs in the last five months of 1944. The captives were held in barracks at Camp Sharpe, in the McMillan Woods on the battlefield, during the winter months.

The inmates were a welcome boost to the labor supply in Adams County, which had been suffering from chronic labor shortages since the majority of its young men had gone off to war. While working, the inmates were constantly watched. A few tried to flee, but for the most part, they were content with their relatively easy and secure existence. The transition from vegetable canning season to cherry and apple harvesting season was particularly appealing to the inmates, who could eat while working and carry leftovers back to camp in their pockets. Indeed, several local newspapers reported that inmates were “well fed and living the high life while valiant Americans were mistreated and starving.”

Who Knew? German POWs Erected an Art Deco Building in Gettysburg During WWII In 1938, a US Army encampment was set up at Gettysburg to commemorate the battle’s 75th anniversary. (From the National Archives)

Despite the fact that there were strong restrictions prohibiting locals from fraternizing with POWs, these rules were largely disregarded. The inmates were naturally seen as a source of fascination by the locals, and one army officer claimed that local ladies were lingering near the camp. “Many interested observers lined the fences Sunday to witness the German youngsters playing a Teutonic style of handball,” according to a York newspaper. John Augustine, a Gettysburg local, recalls seeing German prisoners strumming guitars, playing cards, and drinking beer on the steps of the armory when he was 11 years old in 1944. (They brewed their own beer with sugar stolen from the canning plants.) Joan Thomas, daughter of camp commander Captain Lawrence Thomas, stated the inmates spent their free time playing soccer and singing opera in their camp.

Locals labored in the fields and factories alongside the POWs. Stella Schwartz, a Goucher College student working at the B. F. Shriver Canning Company in Littlestown at the time, recalled that the inmates offered to trade personal items such as highly sought-after pilot’s wings for science and math textbooks. Many Gettysburg residents remarked on the POWs’ technical skill and work ethic, with Marcus Ritter, the manager of the Knouse Foods company, remarking that the POWs “learned English faster than [the townspeople] learnt German.” Some of the detainees even stated that they had surrendered so that they might “see America.”

POWs Hans Harloff and Bernard Wagner slipped under the barbed wire at the work camp on Emmitsburg Road and hid at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Byron Cease, whose daughter, Pearl, had worked with one of the men at a canning factory in Orrtanna and secretly exchanged notes with him after the war, in January 1946. The Ceases were arrested for assisting the escapees, but the judge overturned their convictions, stating that a prison sentence “would serve no legitimate purpose” now that the war was finished. Instead of returning to Germany, Harloff and Wagner stated they fled because they liked America and wanted to experience more of it. Local newspapers reported on the return of a number of former prisoners to the place of their confinement in the years following the war.

The Gettysburg Armory continued in service for more than 70 years after the war ended. More than a dozen times, National Guard forces have been trained and deployed for international conflicts, natural disaster cleanups, and occasions such as diplomatic summits and pope visits. In September 2008, the Gettysburg National Guard battalion deployed for the final time from the armory. Before spending eight months in Iraq, Bravo Battery of the 1st Battalion, 108th Field Artillery was stationed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and Fort Polk, Louisiana. In September 2009, Bravo Battery returned home. The adjoining Waynesboro armory was closed in 1995, and its tenants were merged with those of the Gettysburg Armory. The Gettysburg armory was decommissioned a decade later, and a new, much larger armory was built at South Mountain, Pennsylvania. Battery Bravo’s new mission as a support unit for the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team necessitated the larger facilities.

The Gettysburg Armory and the surrounding three-plus-acre land were transferred to the Gettysburg Foundation, which built and operates the Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center, in January 2014. The foundation and the park built a facility in the armory’s garage on August 29, 2015, to handle maintenance on the park’s approximately 400 gun carriages. Authorities have proposed utilizing the armory for the park’s education program or as a police substation, but for the time being, the structure lies vacant except for its memories. MHQ

Leon Reed, a writer and publisher in Gettysburg, is a retired defense consultant and US history teacher. Eric Lindblade is a licensed battlefield guide for the Battle of Gettysburg and a cohost of the Battle of Gettysburg Podcast.

The headline for this article in MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History’s Summer 2023 issue (Vol. 33, No. 4) is: Arms and the Men | Behind the Lines

Who Knew? German POWs Erected an Art Deco Building in Gettysburg During WWII

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On June 24th, 1864, General George Armstrong Custer and his troops were ordered to take control of a German military hospital located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Unbeknownst to the Union, however, a substantial German military base had been operating in the area since February 17th, 1863, and it was staffed by German military officers, their families, and German soldiers.. Read more about list of american pows in germany and let us know what you think.

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