M.J. Neuberger Staff Writer
CENTREVILLE With its grand house, great old barn, tree-lined lane, and scenic pond, Chestnut Hill Farm is certainly idyllic. During World War II, it was a refuge for Josef Oeller.
On Oct. 9, more than 60 years after he was captured and brought to Queen Anne's County as a German prisoner of war, Oeller returned to see first-hand the places where he lived and worked so long ago.
"This was for me a second home," Oeller tells an interpreter, his eyes welling up as he walks up the same farm lane he traveled in 1946.
The surrounding coastal plain was quite different from the hilly landscape of his native Bavaria and his pay as a farm worker was just a dollar a day, but he had a kind boss, a co-worker who he called his best friend and forbidden but much appreciated meals on the farm during his nine months as an Eastern Shore POW.
"He says Church Hill camp saved his life," offers Edmund Schneider, Oeller's son-in-law who accompanied him on the trip from Germany.
Oeller, who doesn't speak English, mimes shooting a rifle and shakes his head, trying to let his American hosts know that he never wanted to kill anyone. He was barely 17 and hadn't been in the army more than six months before he was captured and sent to a POW camp in France along with 10,000 other Germans.
Oeller noticed the trucks taking prisoners on one side of the camp away and, fearing he'd be sent to a harsh Russion prison camp, the teenager "crawled under the fence and came to the American side," says Schneider.
Oeller was taken away, by boat, towards America, through Norfolk, Va., and then finally to Church Hill camp, one of many small POW camps in the U.S. at the time.
Prisoners often ended up doing the work that American men who were off fighting the war couldn't do. George Schelhouse, who managed Chestnut Hill for its owner, Centreville attorney Jackson Collins, came every weekday to get Oeller, who did "everything" on the 350-acre dairy and crop farm.
Chestnut Hill is still owned by the Collins family and proprietor Therese Collins was on hand to greet Oeller.
"This building is completely unchanged," Oeller tells her through a translator. He is standing inside the same barn where he helped tend horses and pigs as a worker in World War II.
"Freddy's house was there," he manages in English, pointing to the two-story structure a hundred yards away.
Fred Smith, an African American man who helped run the farm, was in his 50s when Oeller worked there, but, despite the age and cultural differences, including Oeller's lack of English skills, they got along swimmingly.
In order to communicate with farm manager Schelhouse, Oeller says he used a little bit of German (which Schelhouse was familiar with), a little bit of English.
When that failed, he says, they resorted to "hands and feet."
Oeller traveled 10 hours and took his first plane ride ever in order to visit. His family hatched the idea for the trip only a few weeks ago in honor of his 80th birthday.
The Oellers contacted the towns of Church Hill and Centreville as well as the county commissioners, asking for information. Queen Anne's County Historical Society helped organize the tour, which included the farm, the site of Church Hill camp and the towns of Church Hill and Centreville.
Oeller and Schneider stayed with the McCluskey family in Centreville and Kellan McCluskey translated for the tour.
County Commissioner Paul Gunther and the director of the Fort Meade Museum, Robert Johnson, both welcomed Oeller and presented gifts.
Centreville Town Manager Bob McGrory and Church Hill Commissioner Charles Rhodes offered tours of their respective towns.
It was clear that the nine months that Oeller spent in the area had made an indelible impression.
On the farm, he was shown the spot where the windmill once stood and the pond that he asked about, still stocked with fish, and then enjoyed refreshments provided by Collins. "He has fond memories of sitting on the front porch," says Collins.
Afterwards, the group traveled north up Route 213 to the site of the former Church Hill camp, where the Queen Anne's County Soil Conservation Annex now sits.
"There were no trees; no buildings," Oellers says, through McCluskey.
He described where the POWs slept, four to a tent and without heat or fire.
At the time, a two-meter fence surrounded the compound.
About 350 men were kept at the facility and, according to Johnson, there were many such small camps around the country. "They didn't want them congregating," he says, noting the fear that a concentration of Germans aroused at the time.
Despite these concerns, treatment of the enemy doesn't appear to have been overly harsh. And though the gates leading out onto what is now 213 were usually open, Oeller said he never thought about escaping.
Although it may have lacked variety, Oeller say meals were consistent at the camp peanut butter and toast, with milk added in the evenings.
On the weekends, the prisoners played soccer next to the tents, in whatever open spaces they could find.
By saving the dollar a day that he earned on the farm, Oeller was able to purchase an atlas at the cantina, which he still possesses.
Beer and cigarettes were also available, he says, at least until the war ended.
When the camp was decommissioned, Oeller returned to Germany, where he once again took up his trade as a sculptor and stonemason.
"He wanted to come back all his life," says Schneider, "but in the past it was not possible."
Despite his limited language skills, Oeller took pains to thank everyone in English.
As he recalled his time as a POW, he only had good things to say about how he was treated. He did, however, admit that he hasn't touched peanut butter in over half a century.