Editor’s Note: At the Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation (DMHEF), we are interested in the variety of personal experiences that connect to military history, including those of civilians. This article comes from a DMHEF interview with Delaware City residents John and Shirley Compton, who grew up in the shadow of World War II. John’s brother George Compton is himself a veteran—he served stateside in the Air Force during the Korean War, attending technology school for radar operations.
In the Spring of 1943, some 1,000 German and Italian POWs captured from Rommel’s Afrika Korps began arriving via rail at the Delaware City train depot. Shirley (Baker) Compton, whose family lived near the depot, watched them march up the street from the station, through Delaware City and around Fifth Street before heading onto the grounds of Fort DuPont.
Shirley and her husband John Compton are life-long Delawareans who now live in Middletown. As children in the 1940s, Shirley’s family lived in Delaware City and John’s in nearby St. Georges, and they both spent time in and around Fort DuPont when it was an active military base.
Both Comptons hold vivid memories of the German POWs housed at Fort DuPont. Shirley’s mother Myrtle Baker worked in the Post Exchange (PX), her sister Janie worked in the personnel office, and aunt Grace Austin worked in the Paymaster’s Office. Shirley remembers attending grade school with kids whose parents were serving in the military, because the families living at Fort DuPont sent their children to the Delaware City schools. Most of these kids were officers’ children, because during WW II, servicemen had to rank as a captain or higher to bring their families with them.
John remembers Fort DuPont well because his parents played poker with officers and their families living in the NCO quarters—while the adults shared card games, John saw many movies at the base theater.
German POWs on the Farm
When working on the base, POWs would not speak to or make eye contact with civilians, but off the base, the dynamic was more relaxed. John recalls seeing trucks with POWs on them waiting near the bridge at St. Georges. During the war years, the Germans would be taken to work at farms and other sites south of Delaware City. At the end of the work day three trucks would meet at St. Georges to convoy back to Fort DuPont. While waiting for all vehicles to arrive, local kids and the German POWs would get into incomprehensible but good-natured conversations—the kids would talk to the prisoners, and the prisons say things in return, but no one understood what the other was saying. Sometimes, at the height of the fruit-picking season, some POWs gave extra peaches to the children. John remembers his mother appreciating such a gesture during the food scarcity of the war years. On base, the POWs had their own symphony orchestra and they played concerts for other prisoners and base personnel, but not for the general public.
Base Provided Jobs
During the war, Delaware City residents and Fort DuPont service personnel shared close ties. Local residents played an important role, working in many support jobs at the base—including as clerks, cashiers, waitresses, and secretaries in the PX, restaurant, store, grill, coffee shop and tailor shop, among others. Several young women from Delaware City met their spouses on base, including Shirley’s sister Jane. Residents from the surrounding rural areas also worked on base, and Fort DuPont ran a daily bus roundtrip from St. Georges for its civilian employees. Local Delaware City children were allowed to use the Fort DuPont pool in the summer, and base employees put on annual variety shows, which George says he was too young to appreciate, at the time simply remembering, “I was bored to death!”
When World War II ended, there was euphoria, and no one gave much thought to the closure of Fort DuPont. Civilians were phased out of their roles after the war; eventually the base closed and the site transferred to the State of Delaware. But the theater was still operating in 1949, when John and Shirley had one of their first official dates (at least to John’s recollection!), attending a showing of the noir thriller Slattery’s Hurricane.
One final thought—the bar was located in the PX in the back of the building. Each Christmas, according to Shirley’s mother, the German POWs decorated a large tree by the bar, hanging blue glass balls as ornaments. Shirley still has a few of these glass ornaments, and each Christmas she and John hang them on their Christmas tree—memories of their childhoods in Delaware City, St. Georges, and Fort DuPont in the war years.