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Artifact of the Month

April 2010


Camp Ellis Plaque

 

The "Artifact of the Month" for April is a plaque from Camp Ellis, a World War II U.S. Army training center and German prisoner-of-war camp that was near the towns of Bernadotte, Ipava and Table Grove.

Despite the camps significant place in the region's history, artifacts from Camp Ellis are rare. Measuring 12 ½ inches high by 12 inches wide at its widest point, with painted front and annotated backside, this plaque is a piece of history. 

On the backside is hand-written in a distinctive European slant, a list of dates detailing the weeks from February to August 1945, and which company kitchen won the honor of displaying this plaque.

It is easy to imagine the prisoners coming up with the idea of the weekly contest and producing this plaque in the camp carpentry shop. Probably this plaque and contest were created as a way to pass the time imprisoned in a slightly more pleasant way.  As the final months of the war in Europe passed, from February to August 1945, the prisoners passed their time at Camp Ellis “battling” it out for the Best Kitchen of the Week distinction.

Crystal Nance recently donated the plaque to the museum.  Raised in Paris, Illinois, and currently living in Hardin Illinois, Nance shared her story of how she came to own the plaque.  About nine years ago, “my mother and I were at a garage sale in Paris, Illinois, and I recognized the name Camp Ellis” on the sign (Nance had worked in Fulton County).  When she saw the handwriting on the backside, she “realized this was a one-of-a-kind item” and immediately purchased the sign.  Nance understood the historical significance of the sign and for the next nine years, she happily hung it in her own kitchen. 

Although neither Nance nor her family had a direct connection to Camp Ellis, in a way they have a tangential connection that made the sign special for them.  Nance’s mother-in-law was originally from Germany and her father was killed in action during WWII. After the war, Nance’s mother-in-law immigrated to the US on her own and settled in Illinois.

Lately, Nance redecorated her kitchen, took down her sign, and stored it away.  However, after thinking about it, she realized that this special sign “wasn’t being appreciated by anyone” and that “it’s a shame, it’s a treasure” and she felt that she should find a proper home for the plaque.  So, from a POW camp kitchen, to a kitchen in a home, to finally ending up in a museum, this little sign has passed from hand to hand.  From a time that shaped the world, this piece of history is now protected and preserved for future generations, a reminder that a prisoner-of-war camp once stood in this region.

There were hundreds of prisoner-of-war camps all over the US during the war.  Camp Ellis was both a prisoner-of-war camp and a training facility.   The camp was named after Sergeant Michael B. Ellis, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient.

The need for new training facilities was realized soon after the beginning of the war. In September 1942, the Army bought 17,500 acres in Fulton County in order to build a training camp. The army chose the location in Fulton County for Camp Ellis because there was a large flat area for buildings and an adjacent wooded area that could be used for combat training. Camp construction began immediately in September 1942.  Farmers and their families had to quickly clear out, and all existing farm buildings were demolished and the camp opened April 1943.   

Camp Ellis was like its very own “city.”  It had over 2,000 buildings, an airplane landing strip, its own sewage, water, electrical and telephone operations.  It housed nearly 40,000 military and civilians. There was a Camp Ellis post office, newspaper and radio network.  A list of some of the facilities illustrates how extensive the compound was.  It had chapels, a baseball diamond,  200 acre victory garden, basketball and baseball teams, six movie theaters with an average attendance of 40,000 persons weekly, 16 post exchanges, 3 libraries, 4 bands, not to mention one of the largest military hospitals in the US at that time.

The United States first had to deal with prisoners-of-war after the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Northern Africa in May 1943.  Initially, food was shipped from the United States to the prisoners housed in prison camps in Africa.  It was soon realized that it would be very expensive to feed and house prisoners-of-war so far away from the US.  The logical thing to do was to bring the prisoners to the US and keep them there for the duration of the war.  When troop transport ships docked in Europe and Africa, they returned to the US with the prisoners-of-war where they were housed and fed for the duration of the war.

Each month through the war, thousands of prisoners-of-war arrived in the US.  By the end of the war there were about 425,000 enemy prisoners scattered in over 500 camps throughout the United States.  Every state with the exception of Nevada, North Dakota and Vermont had POW camps.  At its peak in late spring of 1945, the German POW population in the US was over 371,000.

Enemy prisoners-of-war could be used for non-military related labor.  With an extreme shortage of able-bodied males in the US, many states, including Illinois, used prisoners for farm and manual laborers.  Most POW camps were located in areas of sparse population, and Camp Ellis was an ideal location.

At Camp Ellis, the first group of about 1,000 prisoners arrived in August 1943. The German prisoners were guarded by the 475th and 476th Military Police Escort Guard Companies.  While under guard, the prisoners performed manual labor at the camp and some even left the camp to work in nearby locations.

Prisoners worked a maximum of 12 hours a day including travel time to and from work.  They worked six days a week.  All sorts of jobs were completed by the prisoners in camp, including tending the camp victory garden, repairing machinery, cutting grass, digging ditches, k.p. duty and other manual labor.  For some of the work they were paid about 80 cents a day. The prisoners could spend their money at their own Post Exchange in the POW camp section of Camp Ellis. 

 At its peak in 1944, almost 5,000 prisoners were housed at the camp, most were soldiers from Rommel’s Afrika Korps.  Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, some of the American soldiers in Camp Ellis referred to the POW stockade as “Little Berlin.”

According to From Cornfields to Marching Feet, a book about Camp Ellis, the prisoners “received the same rations that are specified for all American soldiers…But they did not get ice cream or ‘cokes’ or candy when there was a scarcity of such commodities…” A sports field in the prisoner stockade provided a place to play soccer.  The prisoners even had the opportunity to watch movies.  And as evidenced by this plaque, the prisoners had the opportunity to create diversions for themselves, as in the creation of the “Best Kitchen of The Week” contest in 1945.

Army training at the camp concluded in November 1944, the prisoners were sent back to Germany and Camp Ellis was officially closed down in 1945.  By the time it closed, the camp had trained over 125,000 men.

The National Guard used parts of the grounds until 1950, and in 1953, the Air Force used part of the property.  Beginning in the mid-1950s, the government started selling the land.  Most of it has returned to farmland.

Little remains of Camp Ellis now.  Driving east from Table Grove towards Ipava on Route 136, it is possible to see "Main Gate Road" and "North Camp Ellis Road."  The remnants of these roads are all that survives from the camps’ original 21 "north/south" streets, and 47 "east/west" streets.  Visible from Route 136 are the remains of two giant, bombproof water storage towers that stored water from the Spoon River for use by the camp.

 

Essay by Heather Munro