By CONNIE ZEIGLER
During World War II the United States housed nearly a half-million German prisoners of war. Indiana had its own contingent of German POWs housed at several locations across the state, including for a time at Fort Benjamin Harrison on the north east side.
Those Fort Ben prisoners, The Indianapolis News reported on Feb. 19, 1945, were removed to Fort Knox in Kentucky, “where they will be a lot nearer all that buried gold.”
Another group of German prisoners were housed for the duration of the war not far from Indianapolis at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh.
These men – and their compatriots held in other places in the U.S. – proved to be a helpful boon to stateside factories suffering from wartime manpower shortages. In our state, the POWs were put to work mostly in the production of food, either by farming or in canning manufacturing plants.
An article in The Indianapolis Star on Sept. 24, 1944, noted that the state needed an estimated 45,000 workers to harvest and process Indiana tomatoes. Hoosier farmers had imported Mexican and Jamaican workers to help, and the “government has come to the rescue by putting German prisoners of war on the job in some factories and fields.”
In accordance with the Geneva Convention, employers paid for POW labor. They paid the federal government the prevailing wage for such work and the government then gave the POWs script worth 80 cents a day to use in camp canteens and commissaries, or to be credited to the workers’ account for dispersal when they were released.
It seems likely that some of these former German soldiers worked in the capital city, where plenty of food was processed at places such as Stokley-Van Camp on South East Street or Koweba foods located in several different Downtown locations. Research in local newspapers, however, didn’t definitively reveal if that was the case. And the story of their work here would be a good one. But lacking information, that is not the tale told here.
Still, there is a story or two to be found that involves German POWs in Indianapolis. Contemporary newspapers had some surprising references to that topic.
In October 1944, The Indianapolis Star reported that Patrolmen Harry Whitaker and Jack Heavenridge had apprehended two German POWS in Indianapolis. The police officers reported that they’d seen the two men “acting suspiciously in the 600 block of Indiana Avenue” during the night of Oct. 13 and, “upon investigation found they spoke very little English.” The POWs, Frank Koptisch and Wilhelm Schulz, “admitted escaping from the packing company where they were employed and said they had been traveling at night and sleeping during the day.”
The article went on to report that Schulz had a “false registration card and Koptisch had a concealed knife.” Nothing much happened during the arrest and the men were returned to Camp Atterbury, where they were presumably kept under a closer eye by their guards.
The citizens of Indianapolis must have been relieved to know those Nazis were back under guard. But this wasn’t the only news of escaped Germans running loose in Indianapolis. Just a few months later, in April 1946, The Indianapolis Star reported yet another occasion when escapee German POWs were captured in Indianapolis.
The article that followed the peculiar headline: “Apprehension Bares Gay Parties for Pair,” is almost unbelievable. The newspaper deemed it “a fantastic story of how two German prisoners of war made repeated escapes to attend gay [in this case meaning ‘festive’] parties in Indianapolis homes.” The story was related to the newspaper by FBI agents.
Paul Schneider, 27 years old, and Heinz Bialis, 25, were arrested by the FBI at a local home. The two Germans were found wearing U.S. uniforms and being “entertained” by two Indianapolis women at the home of Albert Witt on 1005 East Cameron St. Witt was also arrested along with three Camp Atterbury employees, including one identified only as “Sergeant Motzel.”
As the story unfolded, it was revealed that this was not the only time the two men had partied in Indy. Apparently, the sergeant and one of the Atterbury employees had brought the pair to the same house for an earlier party in March. They charged the Germans $5 for the ride.
One of the two women found entertaining the German pair was, in fact, Witt’s wife, “a tall brunette,” The Star reported. The other was her sister, Mrs. Sofie Horneffer of 1634 Ringgold St., “a blonde.” One of the prisoners told the FBI agents that this was his fourth visit to the city; the other reported that it was only his third trip.
Mrs. Witt was a German native but a naturalized citizen. She met her future husband while visiting her nephew, who was also a war prisoner at Camp Atterbury. The brunette and the blonde reported feeling sorry for “two men who had spent the best years of their life in the German army and in prison, and who longed just to talk to someone and to see how Americans live.”
Sgt. Motzel was turned over to military authorities. The women were held overnight and then released. The two Germans were returned to Camp Atterbury.
A month later, the war in Europe was over. German POWs who had helped America keep food on its tables, and who had partied in Indianapolis, were presumably returned to their homeland. Mrs. Witt, the tall brunette, presumably had a decision to make about her marriage.
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County. Here she wends her way through the local restaurants; there she watches the pileated woodpeckers wend their way through the suet feeders.