The Mural Mystery

Paintings, thought to have been the legacy of a captive German, adorned walls at POW camp in Kentucky. The question is: Which German? New research has rekindled an old mystery.
Our appreciation to Ruth Heffington of the Union County Historical Society for sharing this article. She states, "There is still speculation as to which POW painted these murals during this time era at Camp Breckinridge." One of these murals has been donated to the Historical Society and is proudly displayed in one of their military rooms.

July 6, 1980

Morganfield, Ky.

The Courier Journal by Bill Powell
West Kentucky Bureau
Robert Steinau - Photographer

Time and redevelopment have overtaken most of old Camp Breckinridge in Union County. Remains of a few sagging barracks and service buildings are almost hidden in weeds and bushes. Farm crops, coal mines and homes cover thousands of acres where 40,000 soldiers trained for World War II and Korea.

The heart of the camp, which had approximately 3,600 buildings, is the nation's largest Job Corps Center. Although many of its 200 structures were part of the original camp, new structures and remodeled ones are making it look more like a college campus than a military installation.

The place where 3,000 prisoners or war, mostly German, were housed is a farm field. Occasionally, plows turn up a button or a rusted tin cup. Otherwise, the site has rejoined what it was in the first place--some of the county's best farmland.

From the compound came the most fascinating and memorable Breckinridge leftover from the days of war. A POW - it has been held -- decorated the walls of the officers club with some 40 oil paintings and murals. The pictures have survived despite normally destructive weather, vandalism, intermittent abandonment of the camp and newness that seemed, at times, to threaten everything old with destruction.

And now, more than 36 years after the first painting was done both the past and the future of the paintings have taken unexpected turns. It appears that the identity of the major painter has been established and preservation of the paintings assured.

Ron Wormald, 52, a former newspaperman who is manager of community affairs at the Job Corps Center, offers evidence that the wrong man was credited with the work for more than 25 years.

As for the preservation, H.E. "Bud" Ervin, 44 , a Morganfield businessman, has bought the old club and 15acres around it to use as headquarters for a cable-television business he is starting in Union County. Ervin, who remembers peeping into the club and seeing the paintings when he was a boy, says he will "do everything possible to preserve and protect the art because it deserves to be."

Ervin has replaced broken windows and cleaned up the hall containing the paintings. He says that the hall will be open to the public and will not be used for cable television operations.

Until the 1970s. POW Peter Heinz was credited with the paintings The displace along the walls of the club ballroom, both above and below a balcony, was called Heinz Gallery.

After joining the Job Corps staff, Wormald fretted occasionally because so little was known about Heinz.

The name by the way is listed as Heinz Peter on his tombstone and in some records and letters later received from former prisoners at Breckinridge.

In the early 1970's Wormald confirmed through the American Legation in Switzerland Department of German Affairs, that Heinz was captured in France on Jun 7, 1944, the day after the invasion of Normandy. He was a paratrooper. The legation said Heinz died at Camp Breckinridge at 1540 hours on March 21, 1945, of natural causes.

The tales that are told hereabouts about the 21 year old POW differ from the official account. Many continue to credit him with the art work but questions are asked about Heinz's death.

There is speculation that he was murdered in his bunk by fellow POWs jealous of privileges he received for his paintings in the club, which was being used by non-commissioned officers when the paintings started. It eventually became a club for commissioned officers.

Wormald tried to get in touch with Heinz's relatives both to learn more about him and tell them of his work.

"Letters to relatives, mostly in East Germany, drew a blank," Wormald says. Wormald had doubts that in just over seven months between his confinement and his death at Breckinridge. Heinz could have painted many, if any, of the pictures.

He wrote to German soldiers who had been in the POW camp.

A convincing number said the art work was done by a prisoner named Daniel Mayer, not by Peter Heinz or Heinz Peter.

Wormald pushed on. He learned that Mayer was in Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps, that he was captured by the British Third Army at Mejez el Bab, Tunisia, on April 23, 1943.

Records show that Mayer died at 7:05 p.m. September 21, 1945, at Breckinridge. He was 36, and he was buried at Breckinridge, next to Peter Heinz.

Wormald learned that Mayer had a wife, Hermine, and a daughter in East Germany. He wrote to them but received no answers.

Albert Mueller, who was confined with Mayer at Breckinridge, wrote that he had conferred with six other men who had been in the camp with Mayer and that "All these people are in agreement that the pictures you were talking about were not from Peter Heinz but from Daniel Meyer."

Heiner Traeger, another prisoner, said Mayer, as his name was spelled by some, "worried about his family in the Sudetenland."

The Sudetenland was formed by Adolph Hitler out of 9,000 square miles of border areas of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia in 1938. It was returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945. In 1930, the area had a population of million Germans and 800,000 Czechs.

"Even our understanding and compassion, which we all gave him, and our reassurances that everything would be all right, could not tear him away from his thoughts. Not his body but his mind broke and one day he didn't want to do anything else and didn't," Traeger wrote.

Traeger said they missed Mayer from the compound one day and learned that he had died. "His heart was broken He was a simple person, quiet and polite and probably from a small" not too well off family," Traeger said. Traeger, who was at Breckinridge from May 1943 to April 1946, said he admired Mayer's oil paintings.

View Landscape Mural

Horst Tille, another prisoner, wrote that he saw Mayer painting a large mural at the NCO club. "It was not Peter who made the pictures. It was Daniel Maier," Tille wrote.

View Officers Club

But the Germans and records accumulated by Wormald are ambiguous about whether either man was a professional artist. Occupations of both were listed simply as "painter," which may or may not have meant "artist."

One German said Mayer was not guarded when he went to the club to paint.

Another one said Mayer was "not always like us young soldiers" --- satisfied with the Nazi regime. He said Mayer "had his own opinions and came in conflict with himself."

Mayer's death certificate showed that he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1909 and that his family lived in the town of Barring. It gave his cause of death as pneumonia. Wormald obtained the death certificate information from the International Red Cross.

Ruth Ellen Espy, of Morganfield, used to work at Breckinridge, sometimes in the officers club. She recalled seeing a German painting there.

"He was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall. I was never close to him, and he was always on a stepladder," she said.

Red Cross statistics show Mayer was about 5 feet 9 and weighing 163 pounds. He had dark blond hair. Heinz was described as a tall young man with light blond hair.

Mrs. espy said she was under the impression that Heinz did the art work but said she could have seen someone painting pictures around the walls of the ballroom as early as 1943 -- before Heinz was captured.

She said she didn't believe all the paintings were by the same man; others disagree. Critics disagree on the quality of the work. Some say it is excellent, others say good work for an amateur and some say it isn't outstanding at all.

A castle in the larges mural over the main entrance to the ballroom, has been identified.

View Castle Mural

In 1970, Wormald asked Ray White Jr., of the American consul in Munich to try to determine if the castle was painted from memory by the artist.

White said an expert easily identified it Asrnech Castle in the Franconia area of West Germany.

The castle mural on a wood wall is 30 feet 40 inches wide and high The castle is reflected in a shining lake.

View Bierstube Mural

Oil paintings that line the ballroom walls from one edge of the entrance to the other have no people in them.

The paintings which Wormald is convinced were done by Mayer, all have water, brooks and lakes, but no oceans. However, one of a fishing village on a large body of water. Trees in most of them are similar and so are the houses and barns.

But mountains range from sheer and towering to gently sloping. And one shows what appears to be a section of a large city, with tall buildings.

March, 1997 one of these murals hangs proudly in the Union County Historical Society, preserved with care and the story of the POW's told for the eager listener. A special thank you to the society for sharing this information.