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Camp Au Train

Camp Au Train was used as a prisoner of war camp during WWII. This camp is located just outside of Munising Michigan and housed over 200 POWs from the German Afrika campaign after opening up in 1944. They were used as cheap labor to cut pulp wood while laborers were hard to find.

Sign at the entrance to Camp Au Train
(Lansing State Journal)

Camp Au Train started off as a CCC camp to give jobs to unemployed men who could not find work. The camp was opened in 1935. These camps were set up to bring the economy back after the great depression. The goal was to give unemployed men a place to work and earn money to support their families back home. The men who worked at this camp were also cutting pine to make into pulpwood. Of the men at Camp Au Train during this time, they were mostly made up of unmarried men who could be away from home for a long period of time. This allowed them to work tougher and much more dangerous jobs with less worry for people who were counting on them at home. The camp closed in 1942, but was repurposed to hold German prisoners of war in 1944. 

         The Munising area was starting to grow quickly during this time. Lumber was a huge resource for the war effort, and while all of America’s able-bodied men were off fighting there was a need for workers. The United States had taken around 375,000 German POWs and placed them in camps all across America. There were five camps across the Upper Peninsula that were focused on cutting pulpwood with over a thousand Germans working in them. They were paid 80 cents per day which they could spend on things within their camp. After the war, they were also given pay for their time spent in the camp. The POWs that were at Camp Au Train worked for the Bay de Noquet and Niemi and Niemi companies. They worked at lumber camps cutting pine to send to the mills along Lake Michigan.

Skidding logs out of the woods by dozer
( )
Crane loading Nahma and North Lumber cars ( )

         The Bay de Noquet lumber company was a Wisconsin company, but they had a mill located in Nahma township along the South side of the Upper Peninsula. The town was built solely for the purpose of building a Mill to process logs from their Upper Peninsula lumber camps. They had their own railroad built to get their lumber from their northern logging camps back to the mill for processing. Bay de Noquet built on this location due to the easy access to the water with the mouth of the Sturgeon River and the North side of Lake Michigan as its borders. The Mill operated in this location from 1881 to 1951 when the entire town was sold to an Indian playground manufacturer who wanted to turn the town into a resort.

                 Due to the remoteness of Camp Au Train, most people didn’t even know that there were German POWs in the area. It became much more noticeable when a few of them escaped and made their way to local houses. Sheriffs, state troopers, and FBI agents were all across the Upper Peninsula looking for the three escaped prisoners (POW camps in the U.P., p.6). They were caught at The Pines cabins outside of Seney Michigan and gave themselves up without a struggle. These escapees were rare and never ended in violence. Most of them were just POWs walking off of the job and being caught shortly after with no idea where they were going in the remote U.P. wilderness. This was a severe risk to their life, especially in the winter. If a prisoner was lost in the woods in the winter, their chance of survival was extremely low due to frigid temperatures with vast forests that can swallow up a person and they’ll never be seen again. 

         There were escaped prisoners of war that realized that a remote location like the Upper Peninsula would be a great place to hide. Some came from out of state after escaping and attempted to start new lives. They would also travel through the area on their way to Detroit or a city out East where they could take on a new identity and start over in the United States (Sumner). In a town like Munising, it would be easy to disappear in a cabin outside of town. The area was heavily forested, and it would be easy to go for months, or possibly years, with no contact with another human. It was extremely rare for a prisoner to escape and even when they did they were usually quickly caught by the police as they didn’t know anything about the area that they were in. 

         Munising was perfect for a logging town for that exact reason. A densely forested area with plentiful amounts of pine for pulpwood that was in demand at the time. The Upper Peninsula was one of the largest producers of pulpwood in the United States during World War II, and the German prisoners were used to help fill the demand. The problem with pulpwood was that it usually grew in the most unreachable and most dangerous locations. From cutting pine in dark swamps to working in snow for almost half of the year, there was nothing easy about the work done in Camp Au Train.

         The Geneva Convention states that dangerous work is not allowed in work camps, but after investigating the hazards of logging it was cleared in the Upper Peninsula camps as legal work. At Camp Au Train they commonly logged in the worst conditions. From swamps in the summer, to trudging through two or three feet of snow in the winter. The Geneva Convention may have made this work legal, but it was still extremely dangerous and led to multiple injuries in the field. Getting logs out of the woods was just one of the hazards that came with the job. Teams of horses were still commonly used to pull out massive stacks of logs to get them to a mill. If a stack of logs tipped off of its sled while they moved it, it could crush everyone in its path. The logs that they would cut could be over five feet in diameter at times. A log of this size could do serious damage to any machinery in its path, or lead to injury or death. 

         Although the Germans were seen as the enemy, they were usually very polite when interacting with the local population. They worked hard to make the jobs of the local loggers easier. The loggers who ran crews that worked with these prisoners of war commonly said that they were the hardest workers in the crew, and rarely complained. They were also very good with children, as many of them had left their own families back in Germany. The locals also returned these types of gestures. Some of them grew fresh vegetables for the POWs or gave them gifts of other types that they could use such as fishing gear or fresh meats. There were also prisoners who the United States saw as dangerous due to their ties with the Nazis, but they were sent to areas with much more security. The prisoners kept in the Upper Peninsula were made up of soldiers who were forced to fight in the Nazi Afrika campaign. They were sent to lower security areas because they weren’t seen as much of a threat. It was common for the guards at camp to gamble and partake in soccer games with the prisoners. Sometimes the guards would even ask the prisoners to cover their shift so they could take a quick nap during the day (Sumner).

         While at the camp there were opportunities for prisoners to learn or participate in recreational sports. Some of the prisoners would get together around September and start some small classes to teach each other English, German, and some science (Magnaghi). There were even more advanced courses in machinery, technical drawing, and even electricity taught through books that were donated to the camp library by YMCA. All of these small courses were taught by prisoners that were more knowledgeable in these areas than the rest. There were some occasions where the American soldiers on guard would help the Germans with the english lessons.    

German POWs playing soccer

They also put together recreational soccer teams and played against each other within the camp. They even held a championship between the top two teams in camp and locals would come from town to watch the game. The local YMCA even provided medals for the winners. Camp Au Train even had a professional stage write come in and put on a show for everyone at the camp. The camp also had its own orchestra, as many of the prisoners could play an instrument and wanted to keep in practice while also entertaining their fellow prisoners at the same time. 

During the fall most of the locals hunted deer for meat for the year. This led to a problem as the Germans were working in the forest. The guards decided to wrap pieces of red cloth around the Germans arms or hats so that they wouldn’t accidentally be shot. During this time the guards also needed to provide food for the camp. They did this by using their sub-machine guns to kill more deer. When the local authorities heard about this practice, they quickly shut it down. Although most of the Germans were put out in the woods to cut pulpwood, some were left at camp to cook for the camp. They had to make sure that there were meals that could be brought into the woods and easily eaten while working. This included the use of pasties as they adopted them from local culture, and their initial purpose of feeding workers who were not wealthy and had little to work with.

Once the war came to an end, the German soldiers were all sent home whether they wanted to or not. The Geneva Convention said that they had to go home once the conflict that was going on has come to an end. After they returned home they were welcome to immigrate back to the United States, and many of them did (Heisler). Many of the prisoners who were at Camp Au Train didn’t want to leave as they enjoyed the hospitality from the local people who they encountered at work or in towns. Some of the German soldiers continued to write to the American guards and the people that they worked with in the woods for decades after they left. Some of the German soldiers who served in the Upper Peninsula even came back to visit. Some of them would take trips, while others moved to the United States to chase the American dream. 

When the German soldiers started to immigrate back there was a lot of skepticism about spies and what their intent was in the United states. Most Americans did not want to live next door to someone who fought for the Nazis. In the Upper Peninsula towns that the camps were near, the locals knew more about what the Germans were really like and the way they acted. They learned the American way and wanted to be a part of what was going on over here. After working in the forests outside of Munising, the German soldiers realized the beauty of the Upper Peninsula and many found that they wanted to come back to this place after they were done.

Secondary Sources:

Pepin, J. (2017). German POWs were interned in Upper Peninsula. The Mining Journal

Sumner, Gregory D. Michigan POW Camps in World War II. History Press, 2018.

Magnaghi, Russell M. Upper Peninsula of Michigan: a History. 906 Heritage, 2017.

Franzen, John G. “Northern Michigan Logging Camps: Material Culture and Worker Adaptation on the Industrial Frontier.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 26, no. 2, 1992, pp. 74–98.

 Heisler, Barbara Schmitter. “Returning to America: German Prisoners of War and the American Experience.” German Studies Review, vol. 31, no. 3, 2008, pp. 537–556.

Further Reading:

German POWs in the Upper Peninsula: Northern Michigan (2007). POW Camps in the U.P.

Pepin, J. (2004). The Enemy in our Midst Viewers Guide.

Runk, A. (2018). “They did not feel like the Enemy”: German Prisoners of War in Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University.