All the talk of jet engines sounded like techno-babble to the young American interrogating the German prisoner of war.
Seventy years ago, Allied armies advancing from the west, south and east were putting a slow stranglehold on the Third Reich. The end of World War II in Europe was seven months away.
On the ocean, British and American warships were winning the Battle of the Atlantic sinking German U-Boats at every turn. The mounting conquests resulted in large numbers of enemy soldiers and sailors being held captive in the U.S.
One destination was a secluded, fenced-in compound hidden in the wilderness of the present-day Michaux State Forest. Agents assigned to the Pine Grove Furnace Prisoner of War Interrogation Camp used charm and trickery to convince inmates to divulge sensitive information, said John Bland, author of the “Secret War at Home.”
In 2006, Bland published the book through the Cumberland County Historical Society. His research into the camp made him enough of an expert to lead tours of what remains of its buildings on top of South Mountain.
On one of the tours was an 85-year-old retired chemistry professor who once worked as an interrogator at the camp. “He knew German,” Bland said. “He had escaped the Nazis before the war.”
As they walked, the man recalled the memory of pretending to understand the science of jet propulsion as relayed by the German POW. The sly professor strung the enemy along getting what information he could even though it was an enigma at the time.
When the war ended, the POW returned to Europe while the professor went on with his life in America, Bland said. Decades later, their paths crossed at a conference in Paris. By that time, the former Pine Grove inmate had gained some influence as a leader in German industry, but he never forgot the interrogator’s face.
A little more than 7,500 German POWs came through Pine Grove from late May 1943, when it first opened as an interrogation center, to November 1945, when the last inmates were processed for repatriation, said David Smith, a former historical society librarian.
The campsite started as the Bunker Hill Farm, which supplied food to the local iron industry from about 1787 to 1913. At that time, the operation was sold to state government, Smith said. Pennsylvania then leased the land out as a farm until about 1925, when it stopped being used
The site sat vacant until 1933 when the federal government established a Civilian Conservation Corps camp on the old farm to provide work for unemployed men and to repair the ecological damage caused by the iron industry. The camp operated until February 1942, when work began to convert the facility into an internment camp for German POWs.
Partway through the conversion a decision was made to use Pine Grove as one of three interrogation centers in the continental United States, Smith said. The POWs arrived in batches of 20 to 50 men on buses that had blacked-out windows.
In most cases, they stayed in the camp no more than one to two weeks waiting their turn to enter one of the two interrogation rooms located in the former Civilian Conservation Corps forestry office, Smith said. If the interrogators discovered the POW had valuable strategic information, the inmate was transferred to Fort Hunt in Virginia for more in-depth questioning.
The main purpose of Pine Grove was to segregate the prisoners into eight different groupings for shipment to other POW camps across the country, Smith said. Army personnel were separated from navy personnel. Officers were separated from enlisted men. The hard-core Nazis were removed from the rank-and-file Germans more likely to cooperate with the Allies.
The fear was that the Nazis would intimidate the non-Nazi inmates into causing trouble within the POW camp populations, Bland said. He added that the prisoners were not at Pine Grove long enough to organize themselves into escape committees.
There was evidence to suggest the intelligence agents assigned to Pine Grove would put German officers in the same room and then listen to their conversations, Bland said. “Recording equipment was up in the attic.”
It was believed one tactic of the interrogators was to put a collaborator in the same room as an uncooperative German officer and then let the two men drink alcohol, Smith said.
Bland added another tactic used at interrogation camps was to bring in an imposter dressed as a Russian officer and then threaten to turn the uncooperative POW over to the Red Army for further processing.
This terrified the German inmates because of the bitter fighting underway on the Eastern Front. Unlike the war in the West, the vast majority of Germans captured by the Russians died in captivity.
The military police officers who manned the Pine Grove compound kept its location and purpose a closely guarded secret, Bland said. “They could not let people know what they were doing.”
Though local residents knew something was up, they kept their suspicions to themselves out of a sense of patriotism. “It was a war that everybody was fighting,” Bland said.
The inmates at Pine Grove were generally treated well, Smith said. Nine were selected to stay on as trustees tasked with important jobs. One took care of the horses while another was the camp barber.
Later in the war, the Pine Grove camp housed 167 Japanese POWs. The trustees were the last inmates to leave the camp when it closed as an interrogation center on Nov. 28, 1945, Smith said.
While enlisted men were assigned to work details, officers were not required to be laborers. Many of them painted artwork that ended up in the collection of the Cumberland County Historical Society.
Pine Grove operated as a church camp from 1947 to 1972 when it went idle again. In 1975, the state held an auction where it required the successful bidders to dismantle and remove the camp buildings, Smith said.
Remnants of building foundations remain. In recent years, volunteers have cleared paths through the old campsite and have marked important locations with numbered posts. The historical society offers guided tours of the campsite and a self-guided tour book has been published.
In July 2011, an official state historical marker was put up along Route 233 at the road leading up to the camp.