Some went to work as hospital orderlies. Others picked cotton, baled hay, or tilled soil, living in accommodations near farmland. They ate dinner with families and caught the eyes of single women, running off with them whenever and however they could.
The only thing separating the visitors from the locals of Hearne, Texas was the “PW” insignia stitched into their clothing—that, and the fact many couldn't speak English.
The men were Germans who had been captured by Allied forces, and from 1943 through 1945, more than 400,000 of them were sent to the United States for detention in barracks. Between 500 and 600 centers were set up across the country, but many of the prisoners wound up in Texas because of the available space and warm climate.
Almost overnight, the people of Huntsville, Hearne, Mexia, and other towns experienced a kind of cruel magic trick. Their loved ones had disappeared, sent overseas to contest World War II; captured Germans materialized in their place, taking on the role of laborer. Those that refused work peered from behind 10-foot tall fencing capped with barbed wire as teenagers drove by to stare at the faces of the enemy.
Whatever their imaginations had conjured up, it didn’t match the reality: The men behind the fence looked less evil than bored. And by the time the U.S. government was done with them, many would reconsider what they were fighting for.
Inside "the Fritz Ritz"
The German march into small-town America was a result of Great Britain's plight, which was experiencing a surplus of captured or surrendering enemy soldiers but had no room to place them or food to feed them. Back in the States, towns that had experienced labor shortages saw an opportunity to fill their fields with working bodies. Bizarre as it may have been, enemy prisoners seemed like the answer to a sagging economy on the home front.
Camp Huntsville was the first to be set up in Texas. Construction across 837 acres took place for nearly a year, and its 400 buildings were ready for occupancy by the spring of 1943. Texas would eventually see twice as many camps (with a total of 78,000 occupants) as any other state, and for a simple reason: the Geneva Convention of 1929 specified that POWs must be placed in a similar climate as the one they were captured in. Because so many Germans surrendered in North Africa and lacked clothing or supplies for colder weather, many were sent to Texas.
The curiosity of locals quickly gave way to resentment. Even though these men had orders to kill brothers, fathers, and friends, accommodations in Huntsville and other camps were surprisingly comfortable. Prisoners were allowed to sunbathe, play soccer, and stretch out in 40 square feet of personal space with sheets and blankets. (Officers got 120 square feet.) Food was fresh and showers were warm. College credits earned would count at universities back in Germany. They even got bottles of beer.
For Americans rationing food from their own table, the civility of the German accommodations stung. Despite the complaints—locals took to calling camps “the Fritz Ritz”—the U.S. government was simply abiding by Geneva mandates, which required that POWs share the same living conditions as the soldiers guarding them.
Not that they needed a whole lot of supervision. Ranking officers were responsible for keeping subordinates in line, and treatment was so generous that relatively few tried to escape. Those that did appeared to move with no sense of urgency, strolling along highways or drifting along in makeshift rafts. Punishment for attempts were equally lax: most got 30 days of confinement to the barracks.
The POWs were not required to work: that, too, would not be tolerated under wartime provisions. But boredom and the potential for money or coupons for the canteen motivated many of the prisoners to head for agricultural jobs tending to crops. Cotton was a popular harvest in Texas, but peanuts, potatoes, and corn were in dire need of attention in other states. One farmer in Oklahoma took on 40 prisoners, paying the government $1.50 a head, to salvage the 3,000 acres that were neglected when his laborers left for factory work. It was not unheard of for some Germans to put on aprons and head to kosher businesses. The 80 cents they earned in a day went a long way in the general stores back at the barracks.
While many soldiers were content to ride out the war well-fed and treated with respect, a different faction was growing restless. Officers committed to Nazi ideals found themselves separating from their apathetic bunkmates who began to see the American way of life as something to be envied, not extinguished.
The so-called “Anti-Nazi” POWs of Huntsville were given latitude to organize what the War Department referred to as re-education courses. Prisoners were grouped into classes and given lessons in American history and democracy; the works of famous Jewish musicians and writers were studied; newspapers were written and printed that called into doubt the ideology that had been drilled into the heads of Germans from the time they were children. Some sat and watched film reels depicting Nazi butchery. The hope was that they’d eventually return to Germany re-wired and spreading a message of peace.
Unless they asked to be sent to sympathetic camps, however, Germans who expressed a willingness to lower their swords could find themselves the target of Hitler’s loyalists. Hugo Krauss, a prisoner who was frequently seen talking to guards and was believed to have given up the location of a smuggled shortwave radio, was sent to the hospital after being beaten with lead pipes and wooden boards. He died three days later.
By 1945, as many as 60,000 prisoners were being sent to America every month. When V-E Day was declared, the government began immediate drainage of the imported workers. Like a rewound tape, the Germans found themselves leaving branch camps near farms to head back to base camps or military installations. From there, some made stops in France or Great Britain to help repair the damage caused by the war before returning to Germany.
Most of the camps rolled over into something useful, if not always practical: Camp Huntsville is now a golf course. Camp Hearne, however, stands as a piece of living history, with partially rebuilt quarters and guided tours available weekly.
Heino Erichsen, who had gotten a head full of Nazi propaganda as a youth, had found himself in Hearne. Just 19 at the time of capture, he had heard the thudding sounds of Krauss being beaten to death nearby. After being shipped back to Germany, he applied for and received his American citizenship.
Hans-Jochem Sembach held a similar desire. After being shuttled to Fair Park, New York, Sembach tried sneaking back to his camp in Dallas. Caught, he found himself in Germany, where he wrote a letter to the Dallas Morning News in 1951. It read, in part: “I am a German former war prisoner and was a reader of your newspaper….Texas became my first tranquil home after harsh years of war….I want back in old Texas and I can work. Who can help me?”
“Camp Huntsville: The First World War II POW Camp in Texas [PDF].”