As he was clearing away brush on a hillside in Cotuit last week, landscaper Shane Adams caught a glimpse of a round piece of glass slightly protruding from the ground. It was probably just a mason jar, maybe a piece of porcelain. But it was worth a closer look.
He moved toward the water and pulled the sandy bottle from the ground, it’s cap disintegrating on touch. Inside, were several letters, timeworn but remarkably well-preserved.
“I can’t even pronounce these names. These are names I’ve never heard before,” such as Lothar Gernert, Andreas Wollny, and Johann Huppertz, said Adams, 36. “All of a sudden I see, ‘Prisoner of war 1944.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. Is this thing really from 1944? That’s impossible.’”
The bottled messages appear to have been written by prisoners of World War II held at the military training facility Camp Edwards and put to work at a satellite facility in Cotuit called Camp Candoit, recalling an often-overlooked chapter in Cape Cod history.
About three or four notes were in the bottle, Adams said. One appeared to be written on a piece of aged paper from Quaker Rice, which had Gernert’s name on it and a message that read, “I’m okay. I am working.”
As a history buff, the Marstons Mills resident was brimming with excitement at the find and soon brought it to the Historical Society of Santuit & Cotuit to learn more. How was it in such pristine condition? Could it really be authentic? Who wrote the notes?
“We were just like kids on Christmas. It’s such an exciting find,” said Amy Johnson, an administrator and archivist at the society. “Kind of has a mystery attached to it because we’re not quite sure whether it was intended to be a message in a bottle thrown to sea or if it’s more of a time capsule.”
The society has been calling local museums to learn more about the bottle, and the consensus is that it originated from Camp Candoit, which war prisoners helped dismantle.
Located on Joint Base Cape Cod, Camp Edwards was one of the first large training facilities built during wartime, with the area’s tranquil bays and harbors a perfect setting to “practice attacking hostile shores,” according to the Historical Society of Santuit & Cotuit. It opened in June 1942, and troops were trained there on the tactics and techniques of amphibious warfare.
That July, the military leased an area on Cotuit Bay to be used as a boat yard, naming it Camp Candoit.
Not long after the Allies’ North African landings, the military built a prisoner of war camp for captured German soldiers at Camp Edwards, according to the Massachusetts National Guard. It held as many as 2,000 prisoners at any given time. They performed labor at the camp and were also sent to work at farms in the area or nearby cranberry fields. Up to 5,000 prisoners were “received, processed, and repatriated,” at the camp by the end of the war, the national guard said.
When a severe hurricane hit Cotuit in September 1944, many of those German prisoners “helped clear away the fallen trees,” according to “The History of Camp Candoit,” by historian Sean Kelly. The camp quietly shut down when the war drew to a close, leaving only one structure on the waterfront. As for the rest of Camp Candoit, Kelly wrote that “one would be hard put to find any sign at all of what took place there.”
Joe Yukna, cofounder of the Cape Cod Military Museum, said he believes the messages were meant as a time capsule, since the bottle was buried “nose down in the sand.”
“It made perfect sense to me,” Yukna said. “Camp Candoit was torn down by the German POWs at the end of the war, and returned to its natural state. They actually planted trees and tried to make it go back to its natural condition. The way they got rid of stuff back in the day wasn’t to recycle it, they buried it.”
Over time, these stories have “passed away with the generations,” Yukna said. “So this is eye-opening.”
Adams donated the bottle to the Historical Society of Santuit & Cotuit, which said it may feature the artifact in an exhibit after more research is done. To her knowledge, Johnson said the society does not have any similar artifacts “but we have heard from others that grew up in the area that the prisoners of war buried their trash there, so that it’s not necessarily unusual to find old bottles and trash.”
“But to find an intact bottle with messages inside? That I think is rare for sure,” she said. “There’s lots of different facets of Cape Cod history, and they all sometimes intertwine together.”
With his love of ancient wars (he previously took part in historical Viking reenactments), Adams said he feels “like it was destiny” that he was the one to find the bottle.
“It gives me chills because in 1944, I wasn’t even a thought,” he said. “To find something that happened — so significant — because that’s when we stormed Normandy. It’s the coolest thing on Earth.”
Shannon Larson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.