HOULTON – Four former prisoners of war were on hand Sunday for the dedication of a monument at Houlton International Airport.
It was an event of international significance because the four men were German prisoners of war revisiting the site of a POW internment compound where they once were held captive.
Rudi Richter, Gerhardt Kleindt, Dr. Hans Augustin and Hans Krueger were guests of honor at the dedication. The monument commemorates Camp Houlton, in operation from 1944-46, and also the U.S. Army Airfield, which operated at the site from 1941 to 1944.
POWs were brought to the camp to harvest crops and cut wood in the area because of Maine worker shortages during World War II.
Residents who remember the camp said they never thought of the prisoners of war as “the enemy” – they were more like the boys next door.
“They looked like the neighbor’s kids,” Catherine Bell, acting curator of the Aroostook Historical and Art Museum, said Sunday.
“There was never a feeling that we had to be suspicious of them,” she said.
Bell led the effort to bring the four men to northern Maine, where they also were honored at a community dinner Saturday at the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum in Littleton.
The curator said she considered the placing of the commemorative monument to be of the utmost importance.
“If we didn’t do it now, it was going to be forgotten,” she said. “We don’t want them [the next generation] to forget what this place was in the ’40s – we don’t want them to forget the history.”
The dedication ceremony featured a flyover of a TBM Avenger, a plane that flew during World War II, and speakers U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud and German Deputy Consul General Guenter Wehrmann.
The highlight of the event for many, however, was the stories people exchanged about their experiences with Camp Houlton.
Milton Bailey, an Army occupation specialist assigned to Camp Houlton who was present at Sunday’s ceremony, has published three articles in a four-part series on life at the camp in Echoes magazine, a northern Maine publication.
In part three of “Behind Barbed Wire,” he wrote, “… The prisoners, like most teenagers, delighted in teasing the guards. One favorite pastime was tossing pebbles at the glass windows of the machine gun towers, especially when they thought a guard was napping.”
Former POW Hans Krueger remembered the day he arrived at Camp Houlton and was put to work translating for the officer in charge.
“He wanted me to find out the men’s skills. So I asked each one. … When I got to one man, he told me he was a mason, or bricklayer. When I told the officer he was a mason, he embraced him immediately and asked, ‘Which lodge are you from?'”
Near the end of the ceremony, Deputy Consul General Wehrmann thanked the people who took “good care” of the German prisoners of war. Their acts of kindness were rewarded in a way they may not have expected: “They went back to Germany as America’s friends,” he said.