Artifact of war
World War II POWs once called Carbon County home
By David Louis
RAWLINS — During World War II, life in Carbon County was pretty much the same as the rest of the county. Food rations, war bond drives, searching for scrap metal to support the war effort.
But a prisoner of war camp?
A little known piece of Carbon County history is the POW camp once located in Ryan Park. The camp, filled with as many as 300 German, Italian and Austrian prisoners of war, found themselves interned behind barbwire between 1943-45.
Although old times can tell the tale, tangible evidence of the POW camp can be found in the Saratoga Museum artifact collection.
The jewelry-sized keepsake box, hand carved by most likely a German prisoner, had been given as a gift to an American supervisor and later donated to the museum.
The box has been selected as one of the top 25 finalists in the running for the Wyoming State Historical Society and University of Wyoming Libraries’ Top 10 Artifacts of 2016 contest.
“I personally find it very exciting to be part of this and part of history,” said Erik Gantt, Saratoga Museum interim director.
“As an archaeologist and now as a museum director, the things that really stand out for me are those pieces that have enough of a story that I can have a real association with, an emotional connection,” he said. “A POW camp at Ryan Park.”
Following the war, the POW camp was transformed into the Ryan Park Campground. Its tremulous past now a distant memory.
A day in the life
In the April 1, 1988, edition of the Rawlins Daily Times, Correspondent Candy Moulton described what daily life at the camp would have been like.
The camp’s existence was borne from the manpower shortages experienced during the war.
At the insistence of Saratoga-based R.R. Crow & Co., men were needed to cut timber in the Snowy Range of the Medicine Bow Mountains and to work at the company’s Saratoga sawmill.
It was not long after the request was made that a caravan of a dozen busses carrying 114 prisoners and 40 guards arrived at Ryan Park in October 1943.
“The Crow Company has found the procurement of manpower an almost insurmountable obstacle to (timber) production for some months past, and it is thought the securing of war prisoner labor will result in a much-desired stepping-up of production at the company’s local sawmill,” Moulton wrote.
One month later, another 50 prisoners arrived and by early 1944 the population of POWs had swelled to nearly 300.
The foreign labor soon paid dividends to R.R. Crow.
By January 1944, the sawmill’s average production reached 300 board feet of lumber cut, skidded and stacked each day.
The Daily Times article stated one civilian employee who had taught POWs the craft of becoming lumberjacks called the Italian prisoners “playboys.”
“They were a happy group who liked to dance, make wood carvings. Play instruments, sing and practice acrobatics,” the article stated. “Most all of them had a sling shot in their pockets,” and “they would pick up rocks and shoot birds out of the trees near the camp.”
Merriment was an important part of the camp’s early days.
A popular pastime for area residents while the Italians were held at Ryan Park was to be at the gate by the guardhouse on Saturday after noon to listen to the prisoners play their music and watch them dance.
The Italians were kept prisoner in Carbon County until early April 1944 as a result of a change in their POW status.
To fill the void, more than 200 German prisoners soon found themselves living the Carbon County POW experience.
While the Italians were more jovial and trustworthy, the same could not be said about the Nazi prisoners.
“Germans were hard workers, but they did cause more problems for the guards,” the article stated.
In July 1944 four German POWs escaped, but their freedom was short lived.
The group was rounded up after three days on the lam sitting in the grandstand of the town’s rodeo grounds. They offered no resistance upon their capture.
It was not always so easy for the guards to corral their prisoners.
Prior to its closure in 1945, the camp suffered through its first and only known riot.
“Most of the German prisoners were in their late teens and none were more than 24-years-old,” Moulton wrote. “They didn’t know anything but war.”