World War II P.O.W.s Worked at Germantown, Gaithersburg Farms
During World War II Prisoners of War from Germany helped farmers in Germantown plant the seeds and harvest the crops. Many of the farmers said that they could not have done it without them because so many of their workers had gone to war.
When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1841 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of men and women volunteered for the armed forces. Thousands more were drafted into service. This left many farms and peacetime industries short of manpower.
Often, women stepped in to fill the vacancies, but farms, especially at harvest time, were feeling the pinch. Farms all over the nation were struggling to produce more crops to feed both the nation and the armed forces. Here in Germantown, Liberty Mill—the second largest mill in the state—ground local wheat into flour that was bagged and sent directly to the Army.
So in the fall of 1942, when the local farmers found out that more than 2,000 prisoners of war were being held at Fort Meade in Maryland, they pressured the war department to allow them to be used as workers for local farms and factories.
Subsequently, eight branch camps were established for the prisoners in Maryland. One of those camps was in Gaithersburg on what is now Emory Grove Park on Washington Grove Lane, where 200 prisoners were allowed to go out to work on the farms.
Harold Hargett and his brother, Wesley, were among Germantown farmers who used POWs.
”I remember pulling my truck up to the red sandstone entranceway to pick up the POWs in the morning and take them back to the farm,” Harold Hargett said. “They were a godsend.”
Wesley Hargett owned the only rubber-tired tractor in the area and shared it with his brother, and Henry Hickerson, Bill Thompson and the Burdette family, so it was only natural that they share the prisoners as well.
There were rules about taking out the prisoners. Prisoners were not allowed to come within 100 yards of the house or to speak to women. The farmers were not supposed to feed the prisoners, who were given sandwiches when they left the camp. Farmers could take the same men only three days in a row.
Of course, there were ways to get around these rules, and most farmers gave farm produce and milk to the workers. Either Harold, Wesley or one of their friends would pick up the workers from the POW camp, and that way they could most always get the same ones. They wanted men who would work hard and to have at least one of them able to speak some English so that it would be easier to direct them.
That is how a friendship grew between the Hargetts, Josef Taglang and a man whose last name was Seib.
According to Wesley, in an interview I did with him in 1986:
“Seib could speak, read and write English. He had been a long-distance runner in the Olympics and had a store back in Germany. Taglang could speak a little English and his father was the mayor of a little town near Munich. The majority of people used them. It was the only help they could get. The prisoners were all well-screened before they were let out to work on the farms. They had a German Lieutenant there that was supposed to supervise them along with the U.S. officer, but don’t think those guys didn’t know where they wanted to work. They wanted to go to the places that treated them best.”
Harold Hargett recalled that the prisoners never tried to escape or do any damage, and that most of them seemed to be glad to be working and were respectful to the local people.
In a later interview Billy King reflected, “I always figured they were somebody’s boys that were here and we were treating them that way.”
Working side by side with the Germans, many farmers formed friendships in spite of the language barrier.
Harold located Josef Taglang after the war and kept up a correspondence with him. In the letters Josef (through an interpreter) tells Harold about his life after the war, and asks him to “remember me to the kind Mrs. Haid whom I shall never forget as well as to William at Dr. Norse’s,” and also to the King brothers.
In 1983 Harold Hargett visited Josef Taglang at his home in Munich while on a tour of Germany.
Wesley Hargett died in 1997 and Harold in 2003. The Hargett house on Schaeffer Road where they grew up was torn down around 2005.
For more information on the use of prisoners of war in Montgomery County see: The Montgomery County Story, Vol. 45, No. 3, Aug. 2002, by Patricia Abelard Anderson. Produced by the Montgomery County Historical Society.
Susan Soderberg is the president of the Germantown Historical Society. Her column appears monthly at Germantown Patch.