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Monday, April 1, 2013
Q: My retired neighbor has lived all his life in Roanoke and is full of interesting facts. Last fall he told me that part of Carvins Cove was dug out by German prisoners of war. He’s not a tall-tale teller, but that was a new one to me! I enjoy the Cove regularly and I’ve never heard anything about this. Can you uncover any details?
John Wiercioch, Roanoke
A: Thanks for asking, John. The social studies teacher in me loves questions like this. The short answer to your question is yes, there were German prisoners of war who were conscripted to work on Carvins Cove during World War II. Sarah Baumgardner is the environmental communications coordinator for the Western Virginia Water Authority and confirmed this right away, and sent along several documents and photos.
By the time the prisoners arrived in 1944, the reservoir had been a work in progress for decades. W.W. Boxley Construction Co. completed the 80-foot-high dam in 1928, but a combination of a valleywide drought and the Great Depression put the brakes on the project, and people continued to live in the to-be-submerged community known as the Happy Valley behind the dam for years. In 1938, Roanoke assumed control of the project from the defunct Roanoke Water Works company and began the process of moving the residents out.
According to a 2011 Roanoke Times story, there were POW camps in Salem and Masons Cove on Bradshaw Road, and the prisoners were farmed out to apple orchards, lumber mills, corn fields and other labor intensive worksites. Military documents show that there were more requests for workers than the camps could provide. Salem residents reported seeing the men go to work, standing in open trucks each morning, and returning at the end of the day. Local farmers must have been glad for the help, especially because their sons were in Europe and the Pacific at the time.
The dearth of laborers brought on by the war had an effect on the pace of work at the reservoir, too, so the arrival of workers in the form of recently captured German POWs probably seemed like a godsend for the city. And while being a prisoner of war is less than desirable, the men were well fed and generally well cared-for, far from the battlefields of Europe, and fared much better than their Allied counterparts in terms of prison conditions.
Baumgardner has some cool documents from the era, including a roster of a day’s work crew complete with the names of 20 prisoners who arrived on site at 7:30 a.m. had a lunch that cost a total of $12 in June 1945. As many as 42 POWs a day are known to have worked there, and it appears that security wasn’t a problem, as only one guard was assigned for the 20 on the roster. As per the Geneva Conventions , they were paid 35 cents a day. The men cleared trees and brush from what would become the lake bed just as the dam was sealed up, and the cove reached full pond on May 17, 1946, by which time the Germans had all been sent home.
If you’d like to know more about this story, John Long, the director of the Salem Museum, said he has a whole folder on the topic.
The POWs are long gone, but there still are reminders of their time in the valley. Salem still uses one of the buildings where the POWs were housed for maintenance purposes, and the Masons Cove camp is now the Ward Haven Youth and Adult Retreat Center, a ministry of the Roanoke Valley Baptist Association. And every time you turn on the tap, you can thank a German POW for his part in satisfying your thirst.
You can learn more about POWs in Salem by reading this story by Roanoke Times reporter Duncan Adams at http://bit.ly/16W6inG
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