Of Nazis in the North Woods, journalism and stories that reemerge

Cover of the novel Wolf's Mouth by John Smolens.

Cover of the novel Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens.

By Eric Freedman

As journalists, stories from our distant past sometimes reemerge in the context of a new story.

Most often it involves a person we’d covered who pops up again in the headlines.

That happened with me and Mario Cuomo, for example. The second story I wrote as a brand-new reporter for an Albany, N.Y., daily was about a 1976 Cuomo press conference on changes in lobbying regulations.  At the time he was the appointed New York secretary of state — a low-profile, unglamorous position that oversaw elections, lobbying and campaign finance.

I continued to cover Cuomo as he moved up the political ladder to become lieutenant governor — another low-profile, unglamorous position, and a job with even fewer responsibilities than secretary of state. I stayed on the Cuomo beat for the first part of his governorship until I moved to the Detroit News Lansing Bureau and a different set of politicians.

When he died last year, almost four decades after my initial Cuomo assignment, I had the opportunity to write again about him. It was a column for Domemagazine.com called “Remembering Mario” and it included a couple of anecdotes that shed a little light on a man who might have been president.

Here’s one of the anecdotes that didn’t appear in the obituaries. It was about Cuomo and cars:

“Because he suffered from back pain, he drove a Checker – the model used by taxis – because it provided good back support. Cuomo liked driving, so a state trooper on his protection squad rode shotgun in the front passenger seat rather than taking the wheel. And when Cuomo talked to a rear-seat passenger like me, he turned his head away from the road and faced backward – to the trooper’s dismay.”

So how does that relate to Nazis in the North Woods?

Well, sometimes stories that reemerge from our distant past involve places rather than people.

That’s what happened when I recently picked up a new novel by Marquette, Michigan, writer John Smolens. I planned to write about the book for Great Lakes Echo and Capital News Service.

Set in and after World War II, “Wolf’s Mouth” (Michigan State University Press, $26.95) is about an Italian army captain, Francesco Verdi, who was captured by American troops while fighting in North Africa, shipped across the Atlantic and sent by train and ferry in 1944 to Camp AuTrain, one of five POW camps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Verdi incurred the wrath of the camp’s highest-ranking Nazi officer and escaped to the Lower Peninsula to avoid being killed. The later parts of the book take place largely in postwar Detroit, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Berlin, Germany.

But why were POWs sent to the remote Upper Peninsula? Verdi explained in the book, “Our purpose was to cut down trees. Some camps provided farm labor, while others, like ours, produced lumber. Toiling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was healthy if tedious, but preferable to fighting in the African desert.”

It was a matter of economics and wartime productivity: POWs filled the labor gap left when so many American farm workers and loggers left the fields and woods to serve in the military.

According to Smolens, more than 425,000 POWS from the European theater — most German, Italian or Austrian — were sent to camps in the United States.

When I interviewed Smolens for my articles, he told me that he got the idea more than 15 years earlier when he read a series of articles in the Marquette Mining Journal about the POW camps in the Upper Peninsula.

“Most people didn’t even know they were there during the war,” he said, adding that such information is the kind of thing “you tuck in the back of your mind as a novelist.”

As part of his research for the book, Smolens made several visits to what remains of Camp AuTrain near Munising. It’s within the borders of what is now the Hiawatha National Forest along the North Country National Scenic Trail.

At the site, “there’s hardly any remaining evidence, just a few signs of stone foundations and fence lines,” Smolens said.

I knew first-hand what he meant because I’d visited the sites of Camp AuTrain and nearby Camp Evelyn in 1995 on assignment for the Detroit News. At that time, I wrote how the trees, brush and wildflowers had reclaimed the camps.

With me on that trip was John Franzen, the Hiawatha National Forest archaeologist whose duties included trying to find remaining evidence of the camps, such as fence posts, weathered sheet metal and caved-in cellar walls.

At AuTrain, we observed graffiti carved into a concrete platform that read: “Const. by J.B. Brown, June 12th, 1945, Sgt. Shows, Cpl. Kornoelje.” Also still visible were part of a stone-wall root cellar, a bathhouse trench and a below-ground stone building with rusty double-barred stoves.

As my article noted, “Time and the area’s harsh weather pose the greatest threats to the identification and preservation of cultural resources in the northern forests, ranging from the remains of Paleo-Indian sites to 1800s logging settlements to POW camps.

“Deterioration is inevitable, laments Franzen,” the article continued. “’It’s a dynamic thing, you can’t stop it. You can’t save and restore everything.’”

Yes, deterioration is inevitable, and I can imagine how much more of Camp AuTrain the North Woods swallowed up in the 31 years since my visit.