On Run, Nazi Pows Left Own Legacy

Posted: July 18, 1994

It was the usual morning rush- hour traffic at 19th and Chestnut. Policeman Edmond Mains was doing his usual job, trying to keep things moving.

Suddenly, things took a most unusual turn on that warm summer morning 50 years ago.

A man with several days' growth of beard got out of a taxicab, approached Mains and handed him a note. It read: "I am an escaped prisoner of war. I want to give myself up."

Mains thought it was some kind of gag. But the guy was dressed pretty weird - none of his clothes matched - and he apparently couldn't speak English.

So, the cop took the stranger to the police station at 12th and Pine streets, where German-speaking Detective Matthew Fidler determined the guy really was a German POW.

His name was Hans Bergmann, 30, a captured member of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. He and several hundred comrades were then sitting out the war in a makeshift POW camp at Parvin State Park near Vineland, N.J.

Actually, the 500,000 Axis prisoners that ended up in America didn't do a lot of sitting. They became valuable assets in the war against Hitler by

helping to fill labor shortages in agriculture, factories and forests.

The story of the enemy troops housed in 511 camps in every state is mostly an overlooked footnote to World War II.

There were escapes, a few riots and a major struggle for the hearts and minds of the prisoners between rabid Nazi elements in the camps and American democratic indoctrination.

But mostly the POWs worked hard and caused little trouble as they waited quietly for the end of the war.

Several camps were close to Philadelphia: Fort DuPont in Delaware City, Del., and those at Bridgeton, Vineland and Fort Dix in New Jersey.

POW Bergmann was working at a food cannery near Vineland when he escaped in early June 1944. Security usually was lax at the camps.

He told interrogators he fled to Philadelphia after receiving a letter from his mother telling him an old friend of hers lived in the city and would take care of him if he managed to escape.

But he refused to name the woman.

He was sent back to the camp, was put into solitary confinement and maintained his silence. Nineteen days after his capture, Bergmann again made the headlines: "Nazi Ends Life, Recaptured Prisoner of War Slashes Wrists and Throat," blared the Inquirer's front page.

He got hold of a razor blade and thus took the name of his secret benefactor in Philadelphia to his grave.

Bergmann's capture here was not the most sensational brush the city had with escaped Nazi POWs. In November 1944, FBI agents arrested two escaped prisoners stowed away on a Spanish merchant ship docked in South Philadelphia. The pair had escaped from a POW camp in Nebraska. They had roamed to Canada and New York before coming here and attempting to hide on the ship.

When the war ended, Harry Girth simply put on some stolen civilian clothes and walked away from Fort Dix before he could be shipped back to East Germany. He took a train to Philadelphia, changed his name and landed a dishwashing job on Market Street.

Eventually, he moved to Atlantic City, became a house painter and got engaged. Seven years after his escape, Girth's mother-in-law-to-be spotted his photograph in a magazine article on five German POWs still at large.

Girth was deported to Mexico and entered the United States legally after six months.

He is still living in Atlantic City, building and selling houses, and he is still glad he wasn't returned to East Germany.

The graves of Bergmann and 11 other German POWs who died in South Jersey can be found at the Finn's Point Military Cemetery near Salem, N.J. They lie next to thousands of Confederate POWs of the Civil War who died of disease at a prison camp on an island in the Delaware River called Fort Mott.

Among the Nazi dead, one drowned swimming in a farm pond, and a few died of disease.

Three of the graves contain Nazis who hanged themselves at Fort Dix after the war ended.

All POWs were to be sent back to their country of origin. For these Nazi soldiers, that meant the Soviet Union and the certainty of a firing squad. They preferred to die by their own hands.

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