When I think of Texas, I think of barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle . . . Bluebonnets, Hill Country and Western Swing, with a healthy dose of J.R. Ewing tossed in for good measure. One thing that has never come to mind when I think of Texas, is German prisoners of war. So, imagine my surprise when I learned Texas was home to more World War II POW camps than any other state in the country. Folks, you just know this was way too good a story for me to pass by. So. . .set down, squat down or lie down, kick off your boots and and make yourselves t’home. We’ve got us a story here that is just begging to be told.
Everything’s Bigger in Texas
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, few people were thinking about what we would do with foreign prisoners of war, but the reality soon hit. Following the surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in April 1943, the U.S. found itself in possession of more than 150,000 enemy soldiers, with an average of 20,000 new POWs arriving every month thereafter. There were German and Italian prisoners of war flooding into detention camps at an alarming rate, and we had to find permanent camps for them someplace. But where? By the war’s end, there were more than 500 prisoner camps scattered throughout the United States, with around 70 of those being in Texas. Texas had twice as many POW camps as any other state.
Why were there so many camps in the Lone Star State? The main reason was the heat! The Geneva Convention of 1929 requires prisoners of war to be moved to a climate similar to the one in which they were captured. Do you remember those German troops stationed in Northern Africa? They would have been unprepared to survive harsh winters, so sending them to shovel snow in Vermont was out of the question. Texas also had the advantage of sheer size. There was plenty of vacant land on which to build camps. And the flat terrain made it easier to spot any attempted escapes. Larger camps tended to be near more sizable towns, while smaller camps dotted the rural landscapes like oil wells.
Farming Them Out
In 1941 there was a labor shortage in America due to the large number of enlisted men, so the War Department authorized a program to allow farmers to utilize labor from the camps. This was the main reason there were so many rural camps. Some of the smaller camps had as few as thirty-five prisoners. Texas A&M agriculture agents were paid to put the POWs to work pickling peaches and other fruit, chopping wood, baling hay, picking pecans, harvesting rice, and chopping cotton.
The Fritz Ritz
Hearne, Texas was home to one of the larger camps, housing 4,800 prisoners. Shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the citizens of Hearn lobbied their congressman to have a camp. The Army Corp of Engineers scoped out the town and liked what they saw. They were a small town, but they wanted to make a significant contribution to the war effort. It took under a year to complete the whole shebang. The land was acquired. The facilities were built. By the summer of 1943, Camp Hearne was open for business. The prisoners arrived in style—via Pullman trains.
The Geneva Convention doesn’t only care about the climate of POW camps. It also states that any POW must be provided ample food, shelter and clothing. The living conditions for our captive enemies were as good as they were for American GIs. In Hearn, wooden barracks were filled with cots covered with clean sheets. There were showers with hot and cold running water. And the food was plentiful. The accommodations were so accommodating that civilians nicknamed the Hearne Camp the “Fritz Ritz”.
Camp Hearne, like other camps, was divided into sections. There was the American compound, with the camp headquarters, the hospital area, and three separate POW compounds. There was a double fence around the entire camp. Each compound was separated from the adjacent compound with a fence. Watch towers with machine gun wielding guards were placed throughout the camp to discourage any prisoner from attempting a great escape. Guards also patrolled the camp on foot and by vehicle.
Sieg Heil, Y’all!
The strict security was a necessity because, just like in most prison settings, there was a struggle for power within the community. In the German POW camps, there was fighting among the anti-Nazi prisoners and the pro-Nazi prisoners. One evening, in late 1943, a group of anti-Nazi men at Camp Hearn attacked the Nazi supporters. It was a bloody brawl, which ended in the groups being separated. The ultimate result of the camp segregation was that the pro-Nazi prisoners joined together to take control of the camp population. Ah, the best laid plans…
At least one anti-Nazi prisoner was killed for crossing the wrong people. Hugo Kraus had developed friendships with the many of the guards. He was believed to have informed them of the location of a smuggled shortwave radio. The radio was confiscated and Kraus found himself on the painful end of a lead pipe. He died from his injuries three days after the attack.
Reaping What You Sow
Daily life for prisoners began with reveille at 5:45 each morning. Lights out was promptly at 10:00PM. During the hours in between, the POWs spent their time working or participating in POW education courses. Course activities included things such as English language study, a camp newspaper, theater, orchestra, and soccer. Some prisoners took correspondence courses through local colleges. POWs were required to work daily, and the was $0.10 an hour, or $0.80 per day, which went a long way at the POW camp stores. And most important, prisoner attendance was mandatory for newsreel film screenings documenting the Nazi atrocities of World War II and the American liberation of the Death Camps.
Off to Greener Pastures
Escape attempts weren’t common, but they did occur. Most of the “prison breaks” were actually just POWs in need of a “day pass”. They would wander off for a day of freedom and then flag down a guard at the end of the day, looking for transport back to the camp. One fellow was picked up while walking down the side of the main road back to camp loudly singing German marching songs. Another escapee was treed by a Brahman bull and was quite relieved to be rescued and returned to his life as a POW.
A few escape attempts were more serious in nature, with prisoners making their way toward the Mexican boarder. Three prisoners were caught floating down the Brazos River on a crude raft. They had been hoping to float back to Germany. (Hey, say what you will. If the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” had shown that much gumption, they might have gotten off that island much sooner!) All total, records indicate that twenty-one POWs escaped. Each was caught within three weeks. There is no indication that any escapee committed an act of sabotage while on the lam.
After the War
At war’s end the prisoners were moved from the smaller branch camps to the base camps. From there they went to military installations at Fort Bliss, Fort Sam Houston and Fort Hood. In November 1945, the former POWs began returning to Europe at the rate of 50,000 per month, but they were not sent directly back to Germany. The majority of the men were first sent to Britain or France to assist the Allied Forces in rebuilding the damaged infrastructure of major cities.
What became of the POW camps in Texas? Well, in Huntsville, a POW camp became part of what is now Sam Houston State University. The university has since closed that portion of the campus and, while a few of the original buildings remain, the land is now mostly used for cattle ranching. Camp Mexia became home to the Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded. In Bastrop, Camp Swift was turned into housing developments, a University of Texas cancer research center, and a medium security prison.
Most of the other camps have been quietly absorbed into their communities and rarely get a mention. But in Hearne, the “Fritz Ritz” went up for public auction following the war. It has since been restored and opened to tourists who want to see this little piece of obscure American history for themselves. It’s a place where you can learn that Texas isn’t all barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle.
Here is an interesting video about the Princeton, Texas POW camp. . .I think that you will enjoy it!