Herbert Richard Stoerzer, at left, was one of the many German prisoners who worked at the Phillips Packing Plant in Cambridge during the Second World War. He was captured after being wounded in Normandy in June, 1944.
CAMBRIDGE — “I wonder if you would be interested,” Karl Stoerzer said in a phone message to Dorchester Banner.
Mr. Stoerzer was referring to his father’s time as a German prisoner of war in Cambridge, working at the Phillips Packing Company. He said he had information, photos and even his father’s diary, with references to the young soldier’s time in Easton, Cambridge and other areas in 1944 and 1945.
The answer to Mr. Stoerzer’s question, of course, was yes.
Captured in Normandy
Herbert Richard Stoerzer was drafted into the Wehrmacht, or regular German Army, in early 1944, just in time for basic training and a trip to the front lines. The Allies had invaded France with the Normandy Landings on June 6, and he found himself fighting there soon afterwards.
In his diary, brief entries made after his capture recorded the events.
24 Juni wurde ich verwundet – “June 24 I was wounded.”
The diary continues, 6 Tage im Feldlazeret in Frankreich anschliessend kurze zeit in England – “Six days in a field hospital in France, then a short time in England.”
He crossed the Atlantic in a ship he remembered as the “Alexander,” landing in New York on July 27, 1944.
The next day, he arrived in a camp in Easton, where he stayed until Nov. 9, when he was transferred to Cambridge.
Memories of Maryland
His son Karl lives in Lexington, Ky. As he was returning there from a vacation, and ready to pass through the Eastern Shore, he realized he could share details of his father’s history.
“He liked it in Maryland,” Mr. Stoerzer wrote later in an email to The Banner, “And always said that local farmers with German ancestry treated them well, and promised them jobs after the war was over.”
Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, it was prohibited to put prisoners to work on weapons or ammunition. Many captured Germans, therefore, worked in food production.
Phillips Packing Company’s Plant F was already the nation’s largest fruit cannery before the war.
When the United States entered the war, production at the plant shifted to C rations, pre-cooked meals packed for the military. Though it has been years since the plant produced canned goods, the building is still there, on Dorchester Avenue. It houses businesses now, and is undergoing a revitalization.
Decent treatment and pretty girls
While he was in the States, Herbert Stoerzer found that not everything was tough. On their way to work in the back of trucks, they would wave at pretty girls, his son said.
The decent treatment — and maybe the girls — helped create a good impression for the soldier, who returned to settle in the United States in 1954. But there were still some challenges to face before he could do that.
When the war ended in 1945, that didn’t mean that everyone went home right away. For one thing, Germany was in ruins and there wasn’t enough housing for the people already there, never mind returning troops.
And as for the prisoners, Allied leaders were not enthusiastic about allowing millions of captured soldiers to return all at once. Not that the elder Mr. Stoerzer was involved in politics, though.
He was, “a young, innocent, naïve kid getting drafted into the Wehrmacht, along with many other poor young men, all through no fault of their own,” Karl Stoerzer wrote. “His brother was in Russia, the whole time, and my grandfather was in Russia in both WWI and WWII. Both were very lucky and survived.”
He continued, “I do remember a story he told about some of the longer-term POWs in Cambridge who were more ideologists than the younger newly arrived. This group, to the dismay of the new arrivals, still believed that Germany would win the war, and would try to paint a swastika on the water tower. Of course, the new POWs disavowed themselves from this group.”
A soldier’s journey ends
But politics or not, there were reparations to be made. When the men crossed the Atlantic again, in 1946, they thought they might be returning to Germany. But instead, they were brought to Belgium, where they “almost starved to death,” Karl Stoerzer said.
After a year there, so close to home, it was the turn of the British, who also wanted the prisoners’ labor. It wasn’t until another year and a half had gone by that the men were allowed to return to Germany.
27 Nov. 1947 Nun endlich wird die Fahrt nach der geliebten Heimat wahr – “Now, finally, the journey to the beloved homeland comes true.”
“Despite being a POW, he was grateful for his good treatment in Maryland, and it definitely sparked his interest in America, and contributed to his decision to move here with his family, in 1954,” Karl Stoerzer said. “He saw it as a land of opportunity, worked hard, was very successful as a textile tool maker and lived the American Dream.”