During World War II, the Allied forces faced a dilemma: what to do with hundreds of thousands of POWs. Prison camps in Europe were overflowing. So thousands of prisoners were loaded onto ships and sent to America, about 425,000 in all between 1943 and 1945. Mostly Nazis, but some Italians, they were incarcerated in more than 500 prison camps across the U.S.
About 13,000 ended up at Fort Meade, just outside Annapolis Junction in Maryland. They were not to sit idly. Area farmers were desperate for help with millions of men overseas, so they began petitioning the Army to use prisoners as day laborers in canneries, mills, farms and other places deemed minimal security risks. The Army agreed, and eventually set up 19 POW camps across the Maryland countryside, filled with able-bodied prisoners ready to work.
Two hundred of them were brought to a camp in Emory Grove, just outside of Gaithersburg. Tents had been erected, and military police stood guard along the fenced perimeter—26 armed soldiers under the command of two officers.
Every morning, farmers would arrive at the camp’s front gate, parking by two stone pillars constructed by the prisoners. A selection of men, usually two or three at a time, would be carted off to work wherever needed. Prisoners were provided lunch and, at the end of the day, given minimal pay before returning to camp.
On May 7, 1945, the war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender. But the thousands of POWs in America weren’t released immediately. In fact, most remained under guard, with prisoners from the Gaithersburg camp continuing to work at area farms.
On the morning of Sept. 6, 1945, a man named Clifton Veirs picked up a group of prisoners and took them to his “Green Meadows” farm near Rockville. Among the prisoners was 25-year-old Werner Koehler. He wore his prison garb: khaki trousers, shirt and fatigue cap, the last of which bore the letters “PW.” He also had a regular Army raincoat with the same initials.
As the men harvested the crops, Koehler suddenly bolted into the woods. Veirs alerted the military police at the camp that one of the prisoners had escaped.
Montgomery County police quickly joined the chase, scouring the area between Bethesda and Gaithersburg. Word reached the FBI that a German prisoner of war was on the loose near Washington, D.C., and agents were dispatched to help track him down. Koehler spoke no English, but nevertheless managed to blend in with the countryside. Days passed with no sightings. Eventually the hunt was called off.
About a year later, the prisoners were released and the Gaithersburg camp closed. But Koehler was never found.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.