Up a winding forest path, in a remote area of Lyndhurst sits a hidden relic that few Valley residents remember. The story of Camp Lyndhurst and the World War II prisoners of war who labored on farms in the Shenandoah Valley are brought to life in a new independent documentary, which will premiere this Saturday evening at the Waynesboro Public Library.
“It’s fascinating because the location is still up there,” said James Overton, director and producer of the film. “There’s over 70 years of forest covering it – it’s been completely abandoned since 1946, but the foundations and one or two of the buildings are still there.”
Though much of America remained largely untouched by the Second World War, many German prisoners of war were brought to the U.S. where they were put to work on American farms. Camp Lyndhurst was one of those camps where prisoners of war were housed and fed during the war. Despite this prolific past, most people in Waynesboro and the surrounding areas have never heard of the camp.
“Most people are completely in the dark about this chapter of Virginia military history,” Overton said. “The people who were there are fewer and fewer every year.”
“People never talked about it,” said Shirley Bridgeforth, president of the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation. “It’s something to behold that it was a part of this area.”
One day last August, Overton wandered into the Waynesboro Heritage Museum where he saw a display of old windows that had been hand-painted to look like stained glass. When he asked about them, Bridgeforth readily told him they came from the old POW camp not far from Waynesboro. As a history buff, Overton was almost immediately hooked into the story and wanted to bring it to life.
With Bridgeforth’s assistance, along with Gregory Owen, president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, Overton began the task of putting together a film that would tell the story of a camp that was a vital part to many people’s lives in the 1930s and ‘40s.
“We were very fortunate that Gregory Owen, who had written a book about one of the inmates during the prisoner of war era, had done years of research,” Overton said. “He had collected all of the archival photographs.”
“The greatest challenge in making a documentary like this is simply doing the background, what we call the pre-production,” he added. “That can take months, but Greg had already done all of that, so the story was basically there and ready to go.”
There were three distinct eras to Camp Lyndhurst, when it was used for different purposes. It was first built during the Great Depression as a Civilian Conservation Corp, a concept created by Franklin Roosevelt in attempt to take men off of the streets and give them paying jobs, to allow them to support their families.
“The main project was the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Overton said. “There were several hundred civilian conservation laborers up at the camp. These were people that were essentially in a breadline and this program was created to take them off of the streets and put them to work.”
When war broke out, many of those men left the camp to enlist in the Army or were drafted into service. The camp became vacant for about a year, but was eventually turned into Civilian Public Service Camp No. 29 to house conscientious objectors to the war. At the camp, they were not paid, but were required to carry out farm work and finish the Waynesboro section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Then there were a significant number of people, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley that were of pacifist-based religions,” Overton explained. “The Mennonite Church and the Brethren community were all conscientious objectors.”
“Prisoner is too harsh a word, but they were basically kept at the camp and were overseen by the U.S. Army,” he added. “They were not paid and were supported by their church community, sometimes for years at a time.”
Once the parkway was completed, the conscientious objectors were moved to a service camp farther south in Bedford County to continue work on another section of the parkway. Once again, the camp was shut down and left abandoned until it was given a more unusual purpose in 1944: to house German POW’s.
“They were brought here as manpower for the farms in the Shenandoah Valley because all of the able bodied men were in the service,” Overton said. “The German prisoners were sent up there under guard – armed guard – and every day a little convoy of farmers would come pick up their allotment of prisoners and go work for the day before bringing them back.”
According to both Overton and Bridgeforth, the German prisoners were shown the utmost respect and helped feed Americans during the war by helping pick apples and bring in harvests. While many of the young German men might have rather been overseas, fighting for their country, they were granted a safer war experience. Despite this, many of the men hated being at the camp.
“During all three stages of the camp – the Civilian Conservation Corp, the conscientious objector camp and the prisoners of war (along with their guards) – none of them wanted to be there,” Overton said. “Not a single one of these people; they would have rather been anywhere else than up there in the middle of the woods.”
“It’s a very remote, very godforsaken location,” he added. “There’s just a vibe of intense loneliness and melancholy separation.”
Overton and his crew spent a lot of time at the location of Camp Lyndhurst. Today, it’s barely recognizable and covered in 70 years worth of overgrown plants and trees. With the help of old photographs and the expertise of Owen, Overton was able to uncover several of the buildings and landmarks that make up the remainder of the camp.
Describing the camp and its atmosphere, Overton said, “It’s still a remote place today and one can only imagine what it must have been like 70 years ago. It must have seemed like the edge of the planet.”
After the war ended and the German POW’s were sent home in 1946, Camp Lyndhurst shut down for good and became the ghost of a memory for many people in the Valley. For others, it’s an old family story, including those families of POW’s that returned to America... (see more at: http://www.dailyprogress.com/)w of Camp Lyndhurst as it stood in the early days of operation