Camp Crossville

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: Nov 1942 to Dec 1945
Location: Crossville, Cumberland, Tennessee, United Statesmap
Surnames/tags: Military_and_War Tennessee US_History
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Just outside Crossville a historic camp can be found. For many years it was known locally as Jap-Camp with the misconception that Japanese soldiers were held at the camp during World War II. Upon further research though, we find out there were no Japanese prisoners at the camp, but rather German soldiers. Here is a little history of the camp from Tennessee Magazine including a recollection of being held captive at the camp by a German soldier:


During the Second World War, Tennessee was home to eleven prisoner-of-war camps. Four were large installations. Camp Crossville was built on the site of an abandoned 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps work camp.

Though nicknamed the “Jap Camp” by local residents, the Crossville camp actually contained only Italian and German prisoners. The first prisoners sent there included roughly 1,500 Germans, most of whom were veterans of General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Given benevolent treatment, which was commonplace in American camps, the prisoners generally were cooperative. Italian captives in particular proved congenial. Prisoners were at times for small wages required or requested to perform labor, mostly of an agricultural variety. Commonly, they completed their tasks adequately and without incident. Those who refused to work or performed poorly were punished with reduced rations, sometimes cut to bread and water.

Security at the camps was rather lax. Prisoners were allowed, for example, to go for walks outside the compounds. Most always returned. Of 356,560 prisoners in the United States, only 1,583 “escaped,” and of those only twenty-two were never recaptured.

While escape attempts were rare, they were often interesting. One escapee from Camp Crossville who spoke English fluently remained at large for several months before returning. Not every escape attempt had a happy ending, if the following story is believed. Three German submariners who escaped from Crossville came upon a mountain cabin. Out came “granny,” who told them to “git.” When they did not leave, she shot one of them dead. When a local deputy arrived and told her of the circumstances, the woman sobbed, claiming she would never have fired had she known they were Germans. “I thought they wuz Yankees,” she said.

Conditions were comfortable for “prison.” By the Geneva Convention, the enemy never did without. Entertainments were commonplace. For example, Camp authorities allowed the inmates to publish newspapers. Barring disciplinary problems, the prisoners were even allowed to buy beer and wine!

Educational programs were established at nearly every one of the eleven prisoner of war camps in Tennessee. English instruction was the most common course of study. Standard coursework in chemistry, mathematics and the like was also offered, along with such local specialties as piano lessons at Crossville.

There is little doubt that the prisoners appreciated the kind treatment that they received. They expressed this in letters and during postwar visits. Several even emigrated to the areas in which they had been imprisoned. [1]

Former German soldier recalls life at Crossville POW camp


Most people do not know that there were prisoner-of-war camps in Tennessee during World War II. They were at Camp Forrest, near Tullahoma; Camp Campbell, near Clarksville; Camp Tyson, in Henry County; and Camp Crossville, in Cumberland County.

Best I can tell, there isn’t much left of any of these camps, except Crossville. The same land that used to be the Crossville POW camp is now the Clyde York 4-H Center. Thousands of kids go there every year to learn about archery, swimming and teamwork. I suspect most of them don’t know that the long, white building near the entrance used to be part of a prisoner-of-war hospital.

P.O.W. Hospital at Camp Crossville
Since there were POW camps all over the United States and lots of military paperwork to document their operation, there is quite a bit of information about them in books and on the Internet. I didn’t find this chapter of Tennessee’s history all that interesting, however, until I read about Gerhard Hennes.

Hennes was a German officer who was captured in North Africa on May 13, 1943. Five months later, after short stays in a dozen different holding facilities, he entered the gates of Camp Crossville. He was imprisoned there for two years.

The Barbed Wire by Gerhard Hennes

After World War II, Hennes would become an American citizen and in 2004 published “The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA.” In it he gives a detailed description of life at Camp Crossville.

To summarize, Hennes and his fellow prisoners were treated better than any prisoners of war I’ve ever heard of. They were given new uniforms, they were not interrogated and they were mostly left to the authority of their own German officers.

The best part of Camp Crossville, Hennes claims, was the food. “There were three square meals a day,” he wrote. “Breakfast included long-forgotten or newly cherished things like scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, fresh orange or V8 juice; all kinds of cereal; and hot cakes soaked in maple syrup.”

They were even paid. Since he was a lieutenant, Hennes was given $20 per month. The German prisoners used this money to buy beer, cigarettes, books and just about whatever they chose to order from the Sears catalog. They passed the time taking classes taught by other prisoners, participating in tennis and soccer leagues they organized, playing cards and drinking beer. In 2004, Gerhard Hennes published a book about his time as a prisoner of war at Camp Crossville.

In 2004, Gerhard Hennes published a book about his time as a prisoner of war at Camp Crossville.

“Many evenings were filled with the noise of animated talk, of fists banging cards on the table and of singing, laughing and bawling,” he writes.

In what must have been one of the bizarre coincidences of World War II, Hennes was a prisoner at the same camp as his father, Friedrich Hennes. The elder Hennes was captured by Americans in Europe in the fall of 1944. Sent to a camp in Colorado, he asked for and was granted a transfer to Crossville. Too old to participate in the company sports leagues, Friedrich Hennes watched his son play. “Father came to be one of my most loyal — and least knowledgeable — supporters,” Hennes wrote. “He would not miss a soccer or tennis match.”

I was also surprised to learn from Hennes’ book and from Sean Boring, curator at the Military Memorial Museum in Crossville, that prisoners were routinely allowed to leave Camp Crossville. “With so many young men away, there was a big manpower shortage in the area,” Boring said. “There were German POWs working in factories and on farms, helping farmers bring in the crops.”

Boring and his parents have done much to preserve Cumberland County’s military history, which includes the prisoner-of-war camp. Within the small museum in Crossville, one can see weapons, uniforms, photographs, letters and other objects from the Civil War up through the present.

Among the more interesting objects I found in my recent visit were a bazooka reportedly used in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” a Civil War tombstone rescued from a salvage heap and an Army map used in Vietnam.

A few years ago, local volunteers even created a large wooden model of Camp Crossville based on several sketches and maps of the facility. It is a popular attraction at the museum.

As I read Hennes’ account of being a POW, I began to wonder if there would be a turning point in his experience. It came in the spring of 1945. After Germany’s surrender, all the POWs were herded into a Crossville movie theater where they saw a film containing footage from the liberation of the Nazi-run concentration camps.

“We saw the emaciated bodies and empty eyes of the survivors,” he wrote. “We saw the piles of naked bodies, starved to death. We saw the mass graves. We saw the ovens where tens of thousands had been cremated. We saw and stared in silence, struggling but unable to believe what we Germans had done to Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war and many others deemed inferior or expendable.

“None of us in Crossville will ever forget that documentary.”

Hennes says he and his fellow soldiers and officers were shocked to learn about the Holocaust. He said that, for him, seeing that film was “the day when I turned in one profound transformation from being a hero to being a villain.”

It was also the day the treatment of German prisoners of war changed at Crossville — and at probably every prisoner-of-war camp in the United States. The quality and amount of food were reduced, and the treatment of the prisoners by the guards was changed. Some of this appears to have been a deliberate policy change on the part of the U.S. military. It may have also reflected the attitude of the prison guards, who were no doubt also moved by the images of the mass genocide.

Shortly after Thanksgiving 1945, Hennes and the other prisoners of war were sent by train to New York, then by ship to Europe. Hennes then spent two more months in a POW camp in Attichy, in France. There, the food was scarce, the conditions were overcrowded and treatment was rough.

Life as a POW ended for Hennes on Jan. 30, 1946. The war behind him, he moved back to the town where he grew up in Germany. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1953 and became a citizen five years later.

Hennes later became an administrator for the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey and spent many years providing disaster relief through an international organization called Church World Service.

“For most of my life, I have been an American citizen,” says Hennes, who is now 92 and living in Crossville. “I am very proud of that and thankful for the opportunities the United States gave me.”


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