Camp Ellis in Fulton County was a bustling hub of activity during World War II. Around 6,000 enemy prisoners of war were housed at the facility, which also served as a training center for U.S. troops.

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — Mary Haney, 93, never enlisted in the military, but she could have with her background.

Throughout her career, Haney worked as a personnel manager with enlisted soldiers and officers.

“In all my career, I worked with the military,” she said.

Haney worked among soldiers who had been fighting in World War II, but not all of them were Americans. Nearly 500 prisoner of war camps were located in the United States, according to a 2009 report from the Smithsonian Institution. One of those camps was Camp Ellis, an area between Bernadotte and Ipava in Fulton County.

“There were over 6,000 (POWs) there at one time,” Haney said of the Illinois camp.

In 2017, Haney wrote a book about her experience titled “Camp Ellis: Once a City, Not Forgotten.”

Katelyn Smith, Sales director for Primrose Retirement Community of Decatur, where Haney now resides, said Haney has been an ambassador for the facility.

“She’s involved with everything, she attends all the activities, she takes new residents under her wing and makes sure they know what’s going on,” Smith said. “She is a blessing.”

Although the experience was 75 years ago, Haney remembers the stories well.

Right after graduating from Lewistown High School in 1943, Haney joined the workforce at Camp Ellis.

“I was in charge of the officers’ files and the personnel,” she said.

According to the Macomb Convention and Visitors Bureau website, Camp Ellis was constructed in a few months during WWII as an Army Service Forces Unit Training Center and prisoner-of-war camp. Construction began in September 1942, and it officially opened in January 1943.

Haney did not have much one-on-one communication with the prisoners but does remember the few interactions she had. Polish, German and Austrian prisoners from the Axis Powers fighting the Allies were housed in the camp. Guards were stationed throughout.

Because her parents were from Yugoslavia, Haney understood Croatian, one of the country’s languages. “One of the words a Polish prisoner said was familiar to me,” she said. “Polish language is about the same as Croatian.”

In his native language, Haney asked the prisoner if he knew how to make apple strudel.

“The next morning here comes a big strudel into my office and everyday thereafter,” she said. “Until the commander said he had to stop that.”

According to Haney, the prisoners had freedom to work and do activities. Their time at the camp was not difficult, she said.

“They didn’t want to leave Camp Ellis, because they had more freedom then they did at home,” she said of their native countries.

The prisoners had many occupations, she said, including doctors and lawyers. “They had the freedom of the camp during certain times,” Haney said. “And they got paid 10 cents an hour. On the farm, they were paid more.”

The prison-of-war camp was activated for only three years. It was a city in itself with a library, chapels and a baseball diamond. “But it was swampy,” Haney said. “We had to walk on planks.”

The conditions had other difficulties, including a flea infestation.

Although Haney said her parents were not concerned about the safety of their daughter, the people living among Camp Ellis did voice their worries.

“My parents knew I could take care of myself,” she said. “But the residents were concerned when they learned we would have prisoners there.”

After the war ended in 1945, returning soldiers were hired to dismantle the camp. Haney’s future husband, Everett, was one of the men working to take Camp Ellis down when its service was no longer needed.

Few remnants remain of the camp, except a couple of water towers and a rifle range wall.

Haney moved on as well.

After the war, she worked with the Selective Service and eventually the ROTC with Western Illinois University in Macomb. After 38 years, Haney was able to retire.

“I was working with the military all the time,” she said.

In recognition of her work, Haney received a Kentucky Colonel honorary award in 1979. Camp Ellis headquarters was in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

“The commission of Kentucky Colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Governor of Kentucky,” the organization’s website says. “It is recognition of an individual’s noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to our community, state, and nation.”

Before the Kentucky Derby races each May, Kentucky Colonels are invited to a party with music and food. “I still belong,” Haney said. “We had gone ever since I was issued the award.”

Haney’s husband passed away 10 years ago, limiting her trips to the Kentucky Derby.

At 93 years old, she has many stories to tell, including her experience as an author.

Smith and other Primrose staff were unaware of Haney’s book until recently.

“She is very modest about it, so we are proud to share the book with others,” Smith said.

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the (Decatur) Herald & Review. 

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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