Thursday the city of Wilmington will mark a unique piece of its history. During World War 2, Wilmington was called upon to serve the country in an unusual way. It was a sacrifice that had its benefits. Erwin Rommel was a legendary Nazi field marshal. His "Afrika Korps" was among the German army's most elite units. It was defeated by allied forces in May of 1943. There was still a lot of war left to fight and thousands of prisoners to house. The city of Wilmington was drafted. Local historian Wilbur Jones remembered it well. Thirty acres of land at the corner of Shipyard Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road behind where the CVS currently stands became a prisoner of war camp in February of 1944. The war with the Germans was still raging in Europe. The prisoners were a haunting curiosity for young Wilbur and his friends. Jones said, "I can remember coming up to the fence and looking at them. I was just a young boy and wondering if any of these young men killed an American soldier." Within a matter of months, the original camp was not big enough to hold the 280 prisoners that had arrived. The Army proposed moving the POW's into the heart of Wilmington. This was already an established neighborhood called the Bottom. People lived here but the Army wanted to move the prisoners to this two block area between 8th and 10th along Ann Street. It was the site of a former Marine hospital. The site of the current day Robert Strange Park. It was not an entirely popular decision. In fact the City Council put up quite an uproar when the Army was about to make the move. The war with the Germans was still raging in Europe and Nazi U-boats still lurked off the coasts. It was an uneasy time on the home front. But Rommel's soldiers had become a valuable part of the local economy, replacing the fighting men in local factories and on local farms. This group worked at a local dairy farm. The men were praised for their attitude and work ethic. The business owners wanted the prisoners closer and more accessible. The city relented and the camp moved to this spot, swelling to a peak population of 550 Nazi prisoners. People gradually adjusted to their new neighbors. They became quite a tourist attraction. People would drive by and gawk at them. They would be moving about the city in trucks, going to their worksites and wave to the people. The camp shut down in April 1946, but prisoners like Bernhardt Thiel stayed in touch with his Wilmington contacts by letter after the war. Some of them even came back to visit long after their former prison site became a city park. The city will dedicate a new historic marker at the corner of 10th and Ann Streets Thursday afternoon at four. Wilbur Jones and others who remember the prisoners' time here will be present.
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