On Aug. 1, 1944 German POW Franz Bacher escaped the World War II prison camp in Northern New Hampshire, eluding the manhunt for him for more than a month. Whether he was recaptured by clever FBI detective work or by a chance encounter is still a mystery.
He was one of 425,000 prisoners of war incarcerated in 700 camps inside the United States during World War II. Most of the POWs were German, and many of them weren’t Nazis.
More than a dozen prison camps were located in New England. In Massachusetts, prisoners were held in Boston when they arrived, while wounded POWs were sent to hospitals and anti-Nazis imprisoned at Fort Devens. Others were held at Camp McKay, Westover Field, Camp Edwards on Cape Cod and Camp Andrews and Fort Strong in Boston Harbor.
Franz Bacher was sent to northern New Hampshire to cut down trees in the tiny logging town of Stark, named after Revolutionary War hero John Stark. It was Stark, ironically, who gave the state its motto, “Live Free or Die.”
Many prisoners escaped from Camp Stark, only to return after finding that living free meant subsisting on berries in the woods.
Franz Bacher got farther than most.
When the Germans surrendered in North Africa in 1942, Britain was swamped with POWs. America agreed to take 50,000 and transported them in empty ships to New York City, Boston and Norfolk. That number rose to 60,000, then 100,000, and 160,000 by September 1943.
By then a Berlin, N.H., paper firm called the Brown Company had a problem. Its workforce was only half of the 2,000 men it normally employed. The workers were either in the service or working at lucrative jobs in Massachusetts and Connecticut defense plants. The Brown Company couldn’t meet its quota of pulpwood, which was needed for the war effort. In July 1943, the Brown Company began talks with the federal government about getting POW labor.
The U.S. government had a policy of treating German prisoners well, in strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions. There were two reasons: The government hoped the Germans would reciprocate in its handling of American POWs, and it hoped word of the German prisoners’ treatment would encourage the German military to surrender quickly.
The government made one exception, though. Prison labor was forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, but the labor shortage was so acute the rules were bent. German POWs were put to work.
Since it was impractical to transport workers long distances to work, the POW labor camps were located near the worksites. In Maine, for example, German POWs cut wood for paper companies and harvested potatoes for farmers who had plowed under crops when they had no help.
The Brown Company eyed a closed Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Stark as a place to house prison laborers. The camp was hastily renovated for the German POWs.
In April 1944, a train brought to Stark about 100 German prisoners wearing GI fatigues with ‘PW’ painted on their pants and shirts.
Town and Prison
The prison camp and the town coexisted peacefully. Some of the soldiers sent to Stark as guards married local women and settled down in the North Country. They came to church suppers, or to people’s homes for Sunday dinner or a holiday meal. A Groveton woman contributed new furniture to the camp so the soldiers could have a lounge.
One serviceman hitchhiked to the camp with a case of beer on his shoulder. He was picked up by a car carrying the wives of the camp doctor and company commander. Neither ratted him out. The medical officer broke the rules and provided penicillin to the children of Stark. Wives and girlfriends of soldiers were welcomed into the mess hall.
That spirit of cooperation eventually extended to the prisoners. Some of the people of Stark came by the camp to bring small gifts to the POWs. The guards sometimes picked up saws and helped them meet their daily quota of pulpwood. Franz Bacher sketched pictures of the guards and painted portraits of the townspeople. Some of his paintings of the North Country still hang from walls of homes in Stark.
Like most of the Camp Stark prisoners, Bacher had been a political prisoner in Nazi Germany before being sent to North Africa to fight. He was a 27-year-old Austrian, a leftist who spoke four languages, an artist who had won some acclaim. He hated military life and he hated cutting wood.
Fortunately for Bacher, Camp Stark was one of the least secure prison camps in the United States. It was nearly impossible to prevent the men cutting down trees from escaping into the woods.
Escapees, though, couldn’t go back to Germany. The Atlantic Ocean separated them from Europe to the east, Canada to the north and Mexico to the south.
Franz Bacher went to New York City.
While in the camp, Bacher had obtained U.S. currency and a civilian jacket. He painted ‘PW’ with watercolor on the back of the jacket. He wore the jacket to work on August 1, hid in the brush and then washed the paint off in a stream before hiking 20 miles to Jefferson, N.H.
Prison officials found a note on his bed.
I am going to escape today. The reason I am doing this is I live for my art. If I continue to cut wood, my hands will become so mutilated that I will be unable to paint. If I can’t paint, I can do nothing.
In front of one of the big resort hotels in Jefferson, Bacher climbed aboard a bus and headed for New York City. He sold pictures he painted of Central Park, where he slept for a while until he had enough money to rent a room in the East Village.
One day in October, Bacher was walking through Penn Station when he encountered Sgt. Ted Tausig, the U.S. Army interpreter at Camp Stark. Tausig was an Austrian Jew who had escaped the Nazis, come to America and joined the Army. Bacher and Tausig had lived a few blocks away from each other in Vienna. In Camp Stark, they became friends.
Tausig was on three-day leave from the prison camp. In Penn Station, he and Bacher chatted, then parted.
A few days later, FBI agents arrested Franz Bacher at an art supply store in Union Square. According to one version of the story, he had tipped off authorities by asking for a brand of paint known to German artists. According to another, the FBI had circulated his photograph to art supply stores in New York City.
Had Tausig turned him in? Bacher didn’t think so. But Tausig later said he didn’t have a choice but to turn him in. In Stark Decency, historian Allen Koop speculates Tausig may have waited a few days before making the call.
Bache was sent to Fort Devens, and then to Fort Eustis in Virginia for a six-day course in democracy before he was repatriated to Germany. Bacher had been imprisoned by the Nazis for his support of democracy, and he was offered a job with the U.S. military government in Germany. He declined.
When the camp finally closed in 1946, some of the prisoners who had lost their homes and families in Germany wanted to stay in the United States. The War Department insisted on sending them back.
In 1986, a reunion was held in Camp Stark among townspeople, former guards and five former prisoners.
With thanks to Stark Decency by Allen V. Koop.