Camp Ashby in Virginia Beach home to 6,000 P.O.W's during World War II

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by Mike Gooding, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on November 7, 2013 at 2:25 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 8 at 10:44 AM

VIRGINIA BEACH--Everyone knows the stories of Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima and D-day, but very few know about Camp Ashby.

The U.S. government opened Camp Ashby in March,1944.

"Not a big place," said Virginia Beach historian Fielding Tyler. "It's virtually unknown." 

Between 1944 and May, 1946, more than 6,000 P.O.W.'s were incarcerated on the 200 acre farm in old Princess Anne County.

88-year-old Marion Blair's father owned the farmland. Seven decades later, she can still remember the sound of the prisoners singing at night.

"They were in full voice, it was frightening," Blair said. "It sounded like a marching song. It's like fences were going to come down, like all the Nazis in the world were going to triumph and walk right over top of us. It was frightening."

The camp's headquarters were housed in what is now the main customer showroom for Willis Wayside Furniture Company on present-day Virginia Beach Boulevard. 93-year old Ben Willis Jr.'s  father, Ben Sr. and his partners were the ones who made the deal to move their furniture business from Norfolk to the old P.O.W. camp after the war ended.

Willis Jr. was in the Navy at the time. When he came back in 1950 he was surprised to learn what his father and friends had done. "Our friends thought it was a crazy idea," Willis Jr. recalls.

Tyler says that although Camp Ashby wasn't  necessarily a significant chapter in the overall World War II narrative, it is an important slice of history for Hampton Roads.

"The whole business of prisoners being kept in the United States has virtually never been written, I don't think," Tyler said.  

Many of the POW's filled jobs left vacant by young Tidewater men who were shipped overseas. The prisoners worked on Princess Anne County farms and in several fertilizer plants in the area. They also worked at lumber mills and on military work projects.

"The Germans were kept pretty much on the farms.  They picked potatoes, they picked corn," said Tyler.  "It's a great story to be told."

Camp Ashby is one of many stories that will be told at the Sandler Center tonight at 7:30 p.m. during the Virginia Beach Forum: World War II Heroes and the Home Front. The gathering will honor veterans of World War II while recalling the incredible impact the conflict had here in Hampton Roads. WVEC-TV is a sponsor of the event.
 

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