It's been nearly 40 years since the last remnant of the World War II prisoner of war camp in Orem was torn down and the barracks torched, cleansing the ground to make way for future housing developments and eventually Canyon View Junior High and Orchard Elementary School.
Most Orem residents likely aren't aware of the camp's existence, or that there is a historical marker at the northwest corner of 950 North and 800 East telling a brief history of the camp and its residents.
To keep the memory alive for the current generation of children that attend school on the ground where the camp was located and those interested in its history, the Orem Heritage Museum (located on the second floor of the SCERA Center for the Arts) has a small exhibit about the POW camp. A new booklet published by the city's Historic Preservation Advisory Commission dubbed "Historic Homes and Sites of Interest" also notes the camp's existence.
To understand why a POW/labor camp was located in Orem during the war, one has only to look at the large-scale call up of young men from Utah Valley to serve in the armed forces after Pearl Harbor, according to records compiled by the late Hollis Scott, an Orem resident who kept a history of the camp. In the absence of the men that helped harvest cherries, peaches, pears, strawberries and other crops, local farmers called upon the government for help. With their boys off to war, the local farmers needed help.
Orem farmer James Stratton owned property that was used to set up the camp and the Utah Farm Laborers Association and the state got involved. On Dec. 12, 1943, the camp was dedicated by then-Gov. Herbert Maw.
The history of the camp has been detailed by many scholars and historians, particularly Hollis, whose notes and articles are available for viewing at the Orem Heritage Museum. Payson resident Doug Lamb was commissioned by the museum to construct a three-dimensional diorama depicting the camp that is also part of the museum exhibit.
The five-acre POW compound held three large barracks, a mess hall and kitchen, a commissary, offices and shower rooms and latrines, according to information with the diorama. There were also six large tent-top cabins that housed prisoners. By the end of the war, 42 more tent cabins were added.
The first occupants were 200 Japanese-American laborers who had volunteered to be transferred from the Topaz internment camp near Delta.
"The Japanese workers proved to be both industrious and honest," according to Scott's notes.
The Japanese Americans were hired by several local farmers and the city during the planting and harvesting season of 1944.
In the fall of 1944, the Japanese Americans were replaced by 60 Italian POWs from Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City. While they did some work with local farmers, the Italian prisoners were brought to the camp for about six weeks specifically to build a barbed wire fence around the camp, four watchtowers at each corner of the camp, and to install lighting around the camp. All of this was in preparation for a large contingency of German POWs that would be arriving, according to Scott's records.
For one year, between June 1945 and June 1946, approximately 350 German prisoners resided at the Orem POW camp, working with the local farmers by day and being guarded by U.S. troops by night.
"They came out of the Ogden Depot in the spring and fall and worked in the orchards," said Gareth Seastrand, founder and former chairman of the Orem Heritage Museum. "They loved it here. The people were fed better here then where they were in Germany."
These particular German POWs were all officers from the North African campaign. They came to camps in America voluntarily to get out of the prison camps over there. They were college educated and professionals including professors and even a physician. Many spoke English, Scott wrote in his notes.
Richard Gappmayer was just 10 years old when his father had a handful of German prisoners working on their farm in Orem. He said they were pleasant to be with and they joked with him. He tells of one day when the military guard that accompanied them had fallen asleep under a cherry tree.
"Some of the guys talked me into taking the guard's rifle and putting it up in the cherry tree," Gappmayer said. "When he woke up he searched and searched, he even asked me if I knew where it was and I lied. A little later he was quite worried and I told him if he'd give me a quarter, I'd tell him where his gun is."
The camp functioned with few incidents. It was reported that one German POW escaped, but was soon apprehended, according to local historians.
"Apparently the gentleman got bored in the POW camp," Seastrand said. "They found him swimming at the old Park Roche in Springville."
Gappmayer said one of the Germans was very friendly. At the end of the day his father had to fill out a report and answer if the men had worked well. The German, Kurt Treiter, told his father to put down that he was "extra good." That became Treiter's nickname, Gappmayer said.
"They missed their families, but knew they were better off here. They were upscale German prisoners and they were gentlemen," he said.
After the war, Treiter returned to Germany, but continued to communicate, as did other former German POWs, with the Gappmayers. Gappmayer happened to be in Germany in 1956-1957 and was invited to Treiter's home and spent Christmas Day with his family.
Following the war, from 1946 to 1970, the camp was used as housing in the summer for Mexican and American Indian migrant farm workers laboring in the local orchards. In the 1980s the Alpine School District bought the parcels for the elementary and junior high schools.
To learn more about the POW Camp, the Orem Heritage Museum is open from Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. or Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m, and is open other times by appointment by calling (801) 225-2569 ext. 1030.