POWs, prison riot, suicide plan: A forgotten New Jersey war story

By JOSEPH A. GAMBARDELLO | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: September 5, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — Finn's Point National Cemetery, on the banks of the Delaware River in Salem County, is a monument to tragedies.

It was established as the final resting place for Confederate prisoners of war who died of disease and malnutrition while held at Fort Delaware on an island in the river. About 2,500 are buried there in common graves, along with about 125 Union soldiers who had been their guards.

In 1997, the cemetery made its way into the headlines when serial killer Andrew Cunanan shot and killed the caretaker, William Reese, 45, and stole his red pickup truck on his way to claim his last victim, the fashion designer Gianni Versace, in Miami Beach.

In an unshaded corner of the cemetery, down a dirt road from Fort Mott State Park, is a reminder of another tragedy.

There, in two lines made up of simple white tombstones, are the graves of 13 German prisoners of war who died while being held at Fort Dix during World War II. Ten of the POWs died of various causes, but the three other gravestones all bear the same date: June 29, 1945 – 52 days after the fighting in Europe ended.

Lt. Feokist Kalinin, Second Lt. Ignatz Nasaremko, and Pvt. Felip Spotow hanged themselves during a riot at Fort Dix staged by inmates who, while captured in German uniforms, were Soviet turncoats facing repatriation to the country they had betrayed. Guards found 15 other nooses hanging, unused, from the rafters.

The rioters had been members of a German battalion made up of deserters and prisoners of war from the Red Army who switched sides.

The Nazis, not trusting the turncoats and failing to realize they would fight hardest against the Red Army, posted thousands of them to Normandy in time for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Not as well-equipped as their German counterparts, hundreds of Russians quickly surrendered to U.S. forces. About 4,000 were sent to the United States, and when the war ended, 154 of them were at Fort Dix.

When the fighting stopped, the Red Army controlled a number of German prisoner of war camps holding captured American and British combatants, pawns in any possible attempt by Joseph Stalin to get his traitors back.

While the Geneva Convention called for the repatriation of prisoners of war to the country whose uniform they wore, the United States and Britain agreed – before the war ended, at the February 1945 Yalta conference – to repatriate all Soviet citizens, whether they were prisoners of war or slave laborers in German custody or POWs who surrendered while fighting for the Nazis.

"While the attorney general had serious legal reservations about this, since the [German army POW] repatriates faced execution, the Department of State had grown 'extremely anxious' that Soviet officials might link the return of Americans found in German POW camps to the repatriation of their citizens," according to Jason Kendall Moore, writing in the scholarly journal Diplomatic History.

There was debate within the Truman administration, but the policy when the war ended called for POWs who admitted Soviet citizenship to be repatriated.

According to a story in the Inquirer, the 154 Soviet citizens held at Fort Dix barricaded themselves in their barracks and set small fires about 9 a.m. on June 29 after learning they were to be sent home "in accordance with an agreement reached at the Yalta conference for the reciprocal exchange of Soviet and United States citizens."

Army soldiers fired tear gas into the barracks, prompting the POWs to charge, armed with mess kit knives and clubs made from broken furniture, wounding two American officers and a private.

Guards opened fire, wounding seven rioters. Two other POWs were injured trying to climb over a barbed wire fence.

Entering the barracks, the guards found the three dead prisoners and 15 unused nooses.

The surviving POWs were loaded on trucks and ambulances to New York to be put on a ship to Europe. But their repatriation was delayed after President Harry S. Truman ordered further investigation.

Under questioning, many said they had hoped to be killed during the riot.

One Army captain, Richard Riewarts, told investigators the rioters "did not appear to care for their lives at all."

"They pointed to their hearts and said, shoot at it," he said, according to the New York Times.

Seven POWs were determined to not be Soviet citizens and were removed from the group facing repatriation.

The Times said the remaining prisoners were quietly loaded on a ship on Sept. 6 and eventually handed over to the Soviets in Hof, Germany.

Of the three POWs who committed suicide at Fort Dix and are buried at Finn's Point, research has provided a thumbnail portrait of one of them. Little is known about the two others.

Feoktist Kalinin was born Jan. 25, 1919, in Zalessovo in Altai, a mountainous region bordering Kazakhstan in central Asia.

According to Russian records, he graduated from Vrubel College of Art, became a lieutenant in the Red Army, and was reported missing in 1942.

German military records say he was assigned to the 439th Ost-Battalion, 914th Regiment, and was captured June 10, 1944, in Isigny, France, six days after D-Day.

Some Russian records, including a history of his hometown school, indicated only that he was reported missing or died during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War and make no mention of his actual fate.

Altogether, the U.S. sent back two million of the five million Soviet citizens, mostly from within Europe, who were repatriated after the war.

Stalin could not abide anyone who escaped his influence, and many of those returned were executed, even Red Army soldiers who had been captured by the Nazis and held in camps in deplorable conditions. They had violated the dictator's order to fight to the death.


Andreas Gambardello contributed research for this article.
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