OCEAN CITY – A downtown apartment complex, many of the buildings of which once housed German POWs during World War II, was torn down this week and will soon be replaced to house foreign visitors of a different sort.
The Driftwood Apartments, a multi-building complex bordered by St. Louis Avenue and 2nd and 3rd streets, had been utilized for summer worker housing for decades before slipping into disrepair in recent years. It was leveled this week and plans are in place to replace it with dormitory-style housing for the resort’s growing foreign summer workforce.
It is somewhat ironic that the new summer worker dormitory being developed by Mariani Inc. will likely be the future summer home of foreign workers in the area. Many of the buildings that made up the old Driftwood Apartments were once barracks used to house German POWs during World War II at a work camp near Berlin before they were moved into Ocean City several decades ago.
During World War II, as many as 500 German prisoners of war called Berlin home and were put to work on local farms and in the famous Harrison canneries to help fuel the U.S. war effort by expediting the shipment of food to the fronts. It is believed the majority of the POWs working on farms and in canneries in and around the resort area were from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps, which surrendered early in the war.
The U.S. government built a POW work camp in Berlin on a site just behind the Harley-Davidson store on Route 50 across from Stephen Decatur High School, which, at the time, was occupied by vast farmland and local cannery operations. The prisoners were housed in long, guarded barracks when they weren’t working on the farms and in the canneries.
Those barracks outlived their usefulness after the war and were eventually moved to Ocean City decades ago by Anthony Purnell and later became the Driftwood Apartments. Those familiar long, one-story buildings along 2nd Street were the same buildings utilized as barracks for POWs.
As if there wasn’t enough irony attached to the buildings, for many years long after the war, the apartments were owned by a German woman who married an American GI during the war and moved to the states afterwards. The woman, remembered now only as Berta, worked as a waitress at Mario’s restaurant for years.
The old buildings were torn down this week to make room for dormitory-style housing for the resort’s summer workforce. Plans are in place to build a four-and-a-half story complex with as many as 86 units.
“It’s going to be dormitory-style housing for our summer foreign workers,” said Mariani Vice President Bob Heimrich. “It won’t be exclusively for foreign workers, but we believe that’s who will occupy it the most.”
Heimrich said the demolition this week signals the project is getting ready to move forward. “I’m getting ready to submit the final plans as soon as next week, or maybe the week after,” he said.
The Mariani representative said he did not anticipate too many stumbling blocks for the project once the final plans are submitted. The approval process can often be cumbersome, but Heimrich believes he has his ducks in a row.
“I think we’ve laid the groundwork for a great project,” he said. “We’ve met with the fire marshal and addressed his concerns. I think we got it right the first time.”
Nonetheless, the project will not likely be completed within the next several months, even if everything goes great with the planning approval process.
“There’s no way it will be ready for next year for a project this size,” he said. “We’re probably looking at spring 2009.”