WWII POW camp near Thornton leaves lasting legacy

About 6 years ago, a bus full of local history buffs was driving down Cottage Grove Avenue, just north of Glenwood, when one of the passengers asked the driver to stop in an alley in the forest reserve .

The bus passed a Betsy Ross-style American flag encased in the ground, carved out of concrete with waves to give the effect that it was waving in the wind.

With a strong German accent, she asked the driver to stop.

“I want to walk on this land,” she said. “That’s where my father was a prisoner of war.”

Robin Anderson, president of the South Holland Historical Society and a member of the Lansing and Thornton Historical Societies, helped organize the bus tour and got to know her afterwards.

The woman’s father had been captured during World War II and brought to Camp Thornton, a former Civilian Conservation Corps site between Thornton and Glenwood that had been converted into a POW camp.

It was one of over 500 facilities established in the United States that collectively housed over 400,000 enemy combatants. The majority of the prisoners were captured in 1943 when German General Erwin Rommel’s expeditionary forces traveled to North Africa, according to a presentation by Elgin-based Illinois State Archaeological Survey archaeologist Paula Bryant.

It made sense to bring the prisoners to the United States, she told a 2019 conference on preserving America’s military heritage, because it would be easier to house and feed them here than to ship supplies overseas. In addition, veterans could help fill agricultural labor shortages, work for which they were paid under the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

Three of the camps were in the Cook County Forest Preserves, which in recent years has partnered with the state Archaeological Survey to document sites of cultural significance, including CCC camps on the reservations which are become prisoner of war camps. Besides Camp Thornton, there was Camp Pine in Des Plaines and Camp Skokie Valley in Glenview.

In the former Camp Thornton, that cultural history is mostly “hidden in plain sight,” Bryant said. In its heyday, there were a dozen buildings, wide walkways, and even a baseball diamond. People who know what they’re looking for can still spot remnants of foundations or drainage ditches, but for the most part the reserve now called Sweet Woods is best known for its hiking opportunities.

A historical marker placed by the Illinois and Thornton State Historical Societies prominently indicates the site’s significance, but only one aspect of the former POW camp is clearly visible: the concrete flag corrugated. The concrete art, Bryant said, was created by the prisoners, who painted it in Betsy Ross’ incarnation of the American flag.

Perhaps the prisoners didn’t hesitate to create a landmark with their enemy’s flag. According to many contemporary accounts, they caused very little trouble.

Elaine Egdorf, a longtime Homewood resident and historian, recalled seeing POWs being bussed to workplaces, including Libby’s factory on Blue Island, which canned food to be sent to allied armed forces abroad.

“As a small child, we were afraid of prisoners,” she said. “I thought they would all look like Hitler, but seeing the faces on those buses, a lot of them were blond. They looked like they could be someone’s big brother.

Over the years, she heard stories of groups of POWs working on farms in South Holland and along the Dixie Highway in Homewood, where the Southgate Subdivision now stands.

“They never seemed to create a problem,” Egdorf said. “Frankly, I think the prisoners were relieved to be here in peace.”

Anderson unearthed a 2005 letter to the editor of the Journal of Military History in which Thomas Pearson, a Hickory Hills resident, recalled riding his bike to look at prisoners and being greeted with glares accompanied by a few polite greetings. in German. As the months passed, he noticed that POWs were using English more.

By late 1946, with the war long over, the prisoners were sent home and their old camp became temporary classrooms for Illiana Christian High School, which was building its first building in Lansing.

From the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, the Girl Scouts of America had a camp there, and the last of the Camp Thornton structures on this site was bulldozed in 1989.

But one of the barracks built by the men of the CCC and occupied by German prisoners of war remains. It is now called Senior Hall, thanks to the efforts of Art Senior, a Homewood resident who helped turn 30 acres of marshland into the town’s only nature preserve 76 years ago.

After speaking to Illinois Central Railroad officials about donating land that had been used to mine huge amounts of sand for siding projects in the village of Homewood, Senior heard that Camp Thornton was empty and acquired one of the barracks buildings, which was cut down. into segments and brought to what is now the Homewood Izaak Walton Reservation, where it was reassembled to become the headquarters and meeting hall of the new reservation, according to John Brinkman, president of the reservation.

Brinkman said part of the old barracks which reverted to the building’s original purpose of housing a groundskeeper is being converted into a museum to showcase the reserve’s history as well as its clubhouse .

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He is justifiably proud of the reserve and the 76 years of civic and volunteer effort that went into its creation and expansion from 35 acres to nearly 200 acres. Much of that early work, including the reassembly of the former POW barracks, was done by “unemployed World War II veterans,” Brinkman said, while the building’s foundation, “a whole series of leftover telephone poles, filled with creosote” and sunk into the clay below, were acquired free of charge by “a big ComEd guy who lived in Homewood”.

In the 1980s, according to a recent Homewood newsletter Izaak Walton, executives salvaged plumbing supplies from the recently demolished Washington Park Racecourse, which had burned down a few years earlier not far away on Halsted Street to add new halls. baths in the old barracks. And volunteers this year helped replace those facilities with new ones.

It is a spirit that recalls the origin of the building when it was created by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who would later construct stone lodges and other lasting infrastructure on public lands in the southern suburbs.

And it’s a spirit that may have rubbed off on at least one of the men imprisoned there during World War II.

Anderson, who helped organize the local history bus tour a few years ago, said the woman who asked to stop at Sweet Woods had more to say about her story.

“Once the war was over and (his father) was freed, he returned to Germany and brought her and his wife back to the United States to live there,” Anderson said.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at peisenberg@tribpub.com.

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