David Ensminger is a Humanities, Folklore, and English Instructor at Lee College in Baytown, TX. As a writer covering music, art, and contemporary issues, he has authored four books. Please visit the About section for more details, biography, and abstract. Remember, this is a work in progress, a rough draft. As such, it will be revised, often, and additional text, photography, and archival material will be added on a continuous basis as research uncovers new material and corrections are made as well.
This page was updated on 1 June 2017
World Of War Craft, Axis Art in Exile: The Cultural Practices of Internees in American-based Prisoner of War Camps During World War II
“We were put into Pullman cars were everyone got a seat, and an upholstered seat one at that. I thought of the way troops were transported in Germany were fifty men were put into a baggage car of boxcar. Now we were better off as prisoners of war than we had been as soldiers. We were in a new world.” – Heinze Richter, 1983
“POW time … changed my life and the outlook of my life and how to see people and judge people. I am glad that I had this experience, which has transformed me.” – Hans Krueger, 2009 (qtd. in Allington)
“… the artistic output of the physically and spiritually confined, achieved almost entirely against the grain of circumstance, forms both a substantial corpus and an admirable proof of the tenacity of the human urge to expression.” – Roger Cardinal, 1997 (Kornfield xiii)
This blog details my special folkloric interest in surveying the cultural life of the internment camps in North America during World War II, when over 400,000 Italians, Germans, and Japanese (the smallest portion, numbering only in the low thousands), along with nationalities forcibly subsumed into Axis military units, like Koreans, Yugoslavs, Poles, even as many as 4,300 Soviets, were kept in exile. The Germans internees, as documented, embodied “a volatile political, religious, national, and ethnic mix that reflected the polyglot nature of the German army. There were common criminals and political dissidents” too (Bailey). These somewhat volatile mixes dotted the wartime, ration-prone American countryside, often in rural areas where internees could mingle with populations during work assignments meant to boost dire local economies short on much-needed labor.
For instance, in the case of the Princeton, TX region, Congressman Sam Rayburn and the Farm Security Administration secured German POWs to work on onion and cotton farms nearby a town numbering no more than a few hundred people in the 1940s (Sturdevant 2). Currently, a few of these same sites are valued for local “heritage tourism” potential, such as Camp Hearne, TX (extensively researched by Prof. Mike Waters, anthropologist at Texas A&M) and Camp Algona, IA, documented by the TRACES project. Thus, the story of the POWs now becomes part of sustainable economic efforts long after most camps fully disappeared from U.S. soil.
This blog is a work-in-progress and will attempt to outline, categorize, and describe the cultural practices of the camps, ranging from rather fine art productions, like classical musical performances, to the unique styles of hand-made, vernacular folk art. Such creation of art during imprisonment should surprise no one; as Henry Glassie tells, “people always have found and always will find ways to create things that simultaneously enfold themselves, present their social affinities, and mutter about the enormity of the universe” (qtd. in Brunvand 563). The POW camps do mutter much, indeed, as first evidenced in the groundbreaking full-length work Nazi Prisoners of War in America by the historian Prof. Arnold Krammer, also at Texas A&M.
At Camp Hearne, TX, in Brazos County, where 15% of the population still traces family lineage back to German ancestry, visitors at the small but well-stocked visitor center may marvel at POW-made furniture, period photos of POW-made stone fountains mimicking German manmade landscapes, as well as furniture, toys, clothing, toothpaste tubes, and more. These items simply hint at the former camp’s cultural bloom, which included: gardens full of irises and lilies (which survive); homegrown foodstuffs such as peanuts and beans; chapel murals painted by POWs saturated with a Calvary scene juxtaposed next to hand-made, hand-painted flower pots; the revelry of a bowling alley and theater; and a recreation room where visions of Native
Americans carved from re-purposed crate wood, a stately wooden carving of a ship, and “castles, landscapes, and villages,” as well as a still life of a vase and various portraiture, made the boredom bearable (Waters 47-49). Behind the walls of this room, where wood carving was taught to eager men in shorts and crisp white T-shirts as the broiling Texas sun could be kept in check by floral curtains, POWs maintained a fecund Germany mined from the storehouse of their imagination interwoven with deep pockets of memories, sometimes shared with locals. Up north, Robert Weber, at the Lake Keesus Hotel, WI, swimming area, witnessed POWs swimming with local boys and holding sing-alongs during campfires (Cowley 178); another lad, Philipp Schweke, “learned to tie proper knots, put the cork on and to use old beef for fishing turtles” on the Baraboo River by a gaggle of local POWs (Cowley 215). These episodes, rather bucolic and idyllic, speak of internment in different hues and moods than stock War Department language.
At Fort Dix, NJ, and Fort McAlester, OK, similar to many POW camps dotting the American landscape, German POWs organized theater troupes and plays, including the work “Froh Und Heiter,” which featured men dressed in drag, considered both common and necessary. Industrious, thriving, and inventive, the men fashioned elegant, well-trimmed costumes, even scenery, “from waste material during their spare time,” according to an ACME New York Bureau release from 1944. In doing so, their desires melded the universal need for artful expression, especially during periods of incarceration, with the pragmatic practices of self-sufficiency: resilient as ever, they re-purposed easily found materials. Hence, in these moments, the folkloric nature of DIY material making melded with a desire to see expressions of shared “official culture” and popular arts.
Camp Grant (once a very extensive camp located in the former industrial powerhouse Rockford, IL) POWS sold, bartered, traded, and exhibited items to locals. At Camp Hampshire, in a rural flatland pea farm stretch of northern Illinois not far away from industrialized Rockford, the point man who helped support such crafts was actually a 12 year-old “paper boy smuggler” named John Fenzel, who delivered newspapers (the Chicago Tribune, Herald-American, and Chicago Daily News) to the camp twice a day. On behalf of local local military orders, he also cut alarming stories out of those same that texts, like stories of killings, that did not showcase a “rosy view of America”(Gathman 23).
He became close to a German POW named Hans Finkel, who spoke highly articulate English, due to a Master’s Degree earned from the University of Berlin in the subject, as well as an aircraft mechanic named Ludwig Kafka. In fact, the rather precise, well-spoken Finkel became an active tutor of Fenzel and helped improve the boy’s sometimes challenged, faulty, low grade grammar, eventually boosting himfrom C’s to A’s, and not without the suspicion on his Catholic nun teacher at St. Charles Borromeo. She believed something was afoul, like cheating, rather than believe a POW was aiding the clear composition and overall effectiveness of his sentence structure.
At the request of Finkel, Fenzel began an informal trade agreement with his mentor: to offset the boredom of POWs, he smuggled supplies such as “Exacto knives, watercolor paints, and varnish” (Schory). In return, the thankful and spirited Germans, known to march and sing “Lili Marlene,” “Edelweiss,” and “Stille Nacht” in the brick streets on their way to Catholic and Protestant services on Sunday (Gathman 22), would hand him cigarettes and tobacco, as well as chocolate, some of which ended up in the foyer display case of his father’s car dealership, sold for cash to locals tired of rations. In turn, the soldiers would sell their handmade wares to locals at the canning factories, as well as others. Fenzel still remains attached to two particular pieces: “a picture frame POW Ludwig Kafka carved from an orange crate and a watercolor portrait of Peggy Bean – now Peggy Gross – a young blond woman wearing a sky-blue sweater and white pearls” (Schory).
Moreover, one such souvenir might have helped facilitate a rare successful prison escape. A special case includes the POWs housed near Lordsburg, NM that exhibited “their crafts and their diaries of daily activities” in the town’s art and craft fair. Additionally, groups of internees visited locals schools: Japanese “explained bonsai tree cultivation, Germans “explained their art,” and Italians sung opera, according to Petra Estrada, a local youth at the time. POWs Poethig and Schmid also assert “the Catholic church sponsored the library at Camp Orchard, and also arranged for the POWs to obtain musical instruments that the POWs purchased with money earned from the sale of handcrafted cuckoo clocks, chessboards, and other souvenirs.”
Thus, POW art and practices openly circulated in some localities and blurred the lines between sanctioned, and on the other hand, folk, informal, or shadow economies, especially notable in an era when the 1945 Handbook for Work Supervisors of Prisoner of War Labor quite tersely commanded supervisors, “Do not fraternize,” with POWs; hence civilians commiserating with the POWs would likely be considered equally deleterious.
In other camps too, prisoners held their own exhibitions of artwork, such as Camp Algona, Iowa, which once witnessed nearly 200 such visual works displayed (and a few literary texts as well), reports the POW paper Drahtpost #7, January 1945. This seems to reflect an era over a century earlier, when Britain interned thousands of French and American troops in prisons like Dartmoor. As Cardinal notes:
The majority were conscripts, and many were skilled artisans who soon saw a means of obtaining food and clothing through selling handmade artifacts to jailers, who then sold them to visitors. There arose a singularly elegant and uniform mode of Folk Art in the shape of small objects carved out of meat bones: cribbage boards, domino boxes, and miniature sailing ships, as well as mechanical toys, such as women spinning or churning butter, or military drummers beating a tattoo. Other pieces were done in patterned straw or paper.” These “escaped” to the outside. (Kornfeld xvi) At Defense Depot Ogden, the Officer Club held an exhibit of fifty POW works on the 22nd of April 1945. Featuring portraits of Jesus and other secular figures; pastoral landscapes of mountain life; a still life of fruit and vase, another of a violin, and one of flowers; wood engravings, bowls, and decorative containers; and other items local visitors could relish amid upholstered chairs, thriving plants, and solid wood walls.
Even though World War II POW prisoners endured some sense of isolation, distancing from home territory traditions, and the duress of imprisonment, the very act of fastidious folk art creation, sometimes very elaborate and detail-oriented, honed and shaped with dutiful care, fits within culturally sanctioned artistic practices, dictated both by the regimes and rules of camp life and by the imperatives, mores, and motifs of their country of origin environments as well; thus, the productions are not themselves isolated. As John Michael Vlaack argues about folk art in general, they are mentally connected to outside practices. In fact, I argue each piece forms a discourse with history, heritage, and upbringing, thus each piece becomes a trans-local object of shared interest speaking across time and region.
Even more intriguing, the camp rules often forbid such shadow economy offerings: for instance, Major Merle Hollick, commanding PW Branch Camp No. 11, Lawrence, Kansas, ordered in a written document, “Instructions To All Users of POW,” that “No prisoner will accept, buy, trade or deal in or for any article made or owned by a prisoner, except as authorized by military authority and in the manner so authorized.” This, as much published and first-hand research attests, did not deter the exchange of goods. Camp Houlton, ME, guard John D. Willard receiving a bucolic painting of flowers in vase on Aug. 31, 1945, provided by internees Walton Haase, Gunther Magdeburg and Gerhard Nowitsky as a wedding gift now stored at the Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum. In Utah, both German and Italian POWS gifted paintings to the family of local Mrs. Lynn O. Pitcher, who formerly helped with camp entertainment efforts (Busco).
Myriad examples can be added. At Camp Las Cruces, guard James Doil received a “beautiful wooden cabinet,” constructed by hand by a POW, for his radio. Clarence Krause, foreman at the Grand River Canning Company, which utilized POW labor, received “an elephant and a rose plaque, both carved from the white pine crates used in the factories” while a coworker received a “beautiful detailed Indian head plaque” (Cowley 192). Local lore from McAlester, OK, tells of two POWs working in Chadick Park being surprised by the appearance of a Native American, “the sort of which they had never seen. They gazed and conversed before being marched to camp” (“Few Signs”). For some such prisoners, indigenous peoples must have seemed rather exotic.
Above: Award plaque, MPEG Company (guards) Prisoner of War Camp, Weingarten, MO, 1943-1944, provided by Gary in Texas
Others remained steadfastly nostalgic for their home territory. At Camp Howze, located on the far edge of northwest Texas, one prisoners used the cabinetry shop to make a supervisor a “Bavarian-style bed … with storybook characters in a Black Forest setting on the headboard” as well as a “beautiful little Bavarian house” meant for the American’s newborn child, which now sits in the Smithsonian. In addition, the same prisoner spent nights hunched behind his bed carving a “scale model of his home in Germany. The tiny window shutters, fluted roof edge and bricks in the chimney were recreated” (qtd. in Stephenson).
For this prisoner, making such objects did not signal simple modes of reverential nostalgia during displacement but also as a way to build bridges with supervisors who might loosen or relax the rules of camp, such as allowing the use of cabinetry shop materials clandestinely shifted to dorms. Such attention and commitment both to detail and work ethic illustrates the multiple, immersive, and tactile power and purpose of folk practices in the camps — an otherwise wartime bureaucratic institution governed on a massive scale by the U.S government.
I am interested in the work and marching songs chanted by prisoners, the syncretic, recycled, retrofitted, and re-purposed goods produced by POWS, such as scrap wood clocks, jewelry made from old coins, and other items that symbolize a resilient self-reliance and do-it-yourself craftsmanship. At Camp Hearne, squat in the train-crossed former ‘king cotton’ fields (which reached their zenith in 1930, in terms of sheer production, according to the Texas State Historical Association) of central Texas, young Doris Emshoff received both a wooden doll and an articulated paper doll that she kept for a lifetime; meanwhile, Fritz Pferdekamper-Giessel “made furniture and carved little wooden boxes that he sold to guards” (Waters 48). These transactions bolster one central theory I have begun to foster.
Internment actually often reinforces, reinvigorates, and refocuses inherited and learned cultural practices, whether tangible or intangible. Each camp became a de facto Germany in exile, an in-between space, neither German nor American, time out of time, slightly liminal, in which the cultural life could encode the POWs with a firm sense of identity, nostalgia, and heritage. As the POW-published paper Drahtpost says most succinctly after a night of POW performances of classical music and poetry on May 1945 in Algona, IA: “In times past, such things may have been concerts, art and literature. For us now, they are a piece of home, the purest, perhaps, that we have.” In fact when new prisoners arrived from the Ruhr and Westphalia, the writers of Drahtpost tried to assuage their anxiety of a war entering its last brutal phases by presenting key inspiring lines from Goethe: “Activity is what makes people happy/ Who, first creating good things, / then turns even an evil / Through divine force into something good.”
This notion, rather like an uplifting, potent sense of a shared Protestant work ethic, was in fact a kind of reality in the productive camps. The everyday patterns — the folk life of the camps — contrasts with the popular, slanted, and perhaps even jingoistic notion of the camps being no more than a casual series of “Fritz Ritz” style retreats strewn across the land where foreign prisoners spent idle, lackadaisical, and listless time in the sun as Americans fought hard to conquer European terrain or suffered at the hands of detention camps abroad. Though officers were not required to work in American-based POW camps, rank and file soldiers quickly become ingrained into local work crews and customs, often with little friction and coercion. Often, they were quite willing to do so. Yet, even the officers spent much time creating a wide variety of goods that showcased their skill sets, which reflected traditions and prowess well beyond mere military matters. So, when the YMCA sponsored War Prisoners’ Aid printed a POW comic card illustrating the POW lifestyle as a form of relaxation and sun-bathing, the irony is inherent.
To find the sense of previously mentioned “good,” POWs turned to arts and crafts by purchasing supplies typically available at base canteens, including wooden modeling kits, popular sheet music, and diaries or practiced the art of ‘making do’ with materials on-hand, re-purposed and re-imagined. In addition, even the smaller branch camps, such as Camp Deseret, located in arid central Utah, hosted a performance by a nine-piece POW orchestra, compared to the 28-piece POW orchestra at Defense Depot Ogden (noted in collection of Weber State University), which performed to locals in Salt Lake City and Bingham City, drawn from it ranks every weekend, while Camp Clearfield featured lectures and discussions five nights a week (Brusco and Alder 61). The Liberty-Chambers County camp in Texas featured a POW orchestra performance, replete with 15 smartly dressed internees “… in blue shirts, white trousers, and white ties-music was on piano, violin, guitar, accordion and drum; and the entire group of prisoners seated on the grandstand, joined in singing some snappy songs” in front of 150 mostly local rice farmer family members (Schaadt). At Camp McAlester, OK, the POW orchestra performed for visiting Americans, including newspapermen for the Daily Oklahoman, who captured the event in a camp overview replete with photographs of the players, including a guitarist and accordion players.
Upon first seeing the POWs, the visitors witnessed columns of men marching into the American area to visit a large theater. On the way, they huskily sang “a great many American songs with German words …” like “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Pack Up Your Troubles,” which stirred the curiosity of those watching (Moore). Nearby, in Haskell, OK, where a branch unit of 275-300 prisoners was established, the men also sang as they marched through town en route to a soccer field. Townsfolk thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle, admits resident Tony Beshara Haney. Yet, that same practice, a “Sunday afternoon ritual,” soon became discontinued after “a local boy was killed in the war …” (Kauble 13).
Meanwhile, some GIs actively supported POW cultural practices, from folk to popular, such as guard Robert E. Randall Sr., who played “checkers with the prisoners [and] took them to a talc rock near Rincon to get pieces of rock so they could make figurines … they also made a concrete monument with their insignia on it. He took them to a Catholic church in Rodey and to the movies in Hatch.” Even the musical mix at the camps was an ever-changing mosaic; in Camp Roswell, the camp POW orchestra readily offered “everything from Mozart to ‘Pistol-Packin’ Mama’” (Fleming). The camps, indeed, did not embody a single homogenous monoculture, they embodied shifting heterogeneity and pluralism: they could hear Lena Horne in person at Fort Riley in Kansas, or listen to polka music on Wisconsin branch camp radios, or read volumes of Shakespeare and Ibsen, as well as Zane Grey and Honore Morrow, at Camp Grant in IL.
Hence, even disparate, sometimes remote POW outposts stirred a sense of cultural pride, civic essence, educational outreach, and sustained heritage activities that often resonated with locals. At a sugar beet farm in Trinidad, CO: “Luftwaffe lieutenant Guenther Oswald … volunteered for work. He remembered harvesting … for a farmer who promised to take the POWs to his home if they would sing for his German-born grandmother. ‘We sang,’ Oswald recalled, ‘the old lady cried, and we got lots of food and cigarettes’” (qtd. in Bailey). Hence, those practices garnished them attention, special treatment, and leisure time. In fact, many farmers supplemented POW rations: at the Orchard Park camp in NM, Dwight L. Sharp’s mother “would make a pot of stew or chili or beans to feed the POWs and would buy sacks of apples and oranges for them, [which Sharp] could throw … to them. The prisoners would cheer him…” For POWs, life in America might have been fraught with some bitterness, but it also percolated with previously unimaginable opportunities to reach deep into the American interior.
Others farmers made similar foodway choices, such as Birdie Dee Eccles, who realized the raw ham and a chunk of bread for supplied to POWs for lunch during the summer and fall of 1945 under the so-called ‘revenge’ program of Eleanor Roosevelt, who maintained that the prisoners in America were treated too well, was not enough calories to keep the workers productive. So, “each day, Mrs. Eccles collected the ham from the Germans on her farm and cooked it in a pressure cooker, then added onions, carrots and cabbage. One of the men was sent to the truck farm for fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. Mrs. Eccles put the food in a big bowl and gave each man a tin cup and spoon. They liked to pick out the chunks of food with their fingers, and then dip their bread in the broth. Sometimes a watermelon would be cut up for the men” (Fleming). Still others like the Malones, hardscrabble farmers along the Chavez and Eddy county lines, offered mutton soup, coffee, and sugar. At the Edgerly camp in the rice region of Texas and Louisiana, “One prisoner’s wife, who often baked gingerbread and spicy bread for the prisoners, kept a list of 15 of the ones she became friends with” (Chick 48). Fifty years later, Las Sabinas published this list.
Others clandestinely slipped POWs tobacco, cold drinks, tortillas, burritos, or salt, or in the case of farmer’s daughter Katy Hofacket, whose father trucked in POWs from Deming Army Airbase, her brother (himself a former POW in the Philippines who endured intense privation and suffering under the Japanese) “would go hunting for rabbits in the morning, and … mother made rabbit stew so the POWs could have a good, hot lunch … a very compassionate gesture coming from one who had been treated so badly in his prisoner of war experience.” In some cases, the POWs actually gifted local Americans food, as in Defense Depot Ogden. As Gary Larson told the Weber State University oral history project:
“A lot of times, they would slip under the fence,down the irrigation ditch and come across to my folks home. They would bring them big sacks of vegetables [from the POW maintained prison garden] and garden goods over there. They would shoot the breeze with my dad, a lot. In fact, they would stay even until the evening hours. Then they would hurry and run across the street…” Photographs of the POW food lot, labeled “Artistic Garden ” in POW Camp Garden 4 housed at the university, do depict at least two homes across the street from the POW tomato vines, separated from the camp by a relatively short wire fence beneath power lines.
As Gary Larson told the Weber State University oral history project: “A lot of times, they would slip under the fence, down the irrigation ditch and come across to my folks home. They would bring them big sacks of vegetables [from the POW maintained prison garden] and garden goods over there. They would shoot the breeze with my dad, a lot. In fact, they would stay even until the evening hours. Then they would hurry and run across the street…”
At the Watson farm in N.M., Farrell Watson’s father would provide German POWs cold milk, melons, and tomatoes, but at this farm the Italian POWs sang instead of completing their workload. Thus, sometimes the music amounted to a form of resistance to imposed routines. If resistance to work happened en masse, officials at locales such as Camp San Augustine devised a simple solution: an “entire group was marched out on the soccer field, stripped to their underwear, and made to stand at rigid attention under the hot sun without water or food. After a few hours of hot Texas sun, the protesters every time decided to return to work” and return to camp pastimes such as soccer, weightlifting, and handball, not to mention soothing the sores caused by chigger attacks during their work duties in the piney woods (Noble 3).
POW material culture productions can reveal ethnic identity traits as swell: for instance, the use of sake vessels in U.S. camps, purports Slaughter (who studied Japanese internment camps), not only reveals a maintenance of values, customs, and identities but perhaps acts as a conscious de facto rebellion (301). The book Artifacts of Loss shared this perspective as well, for Dusselier posits the changes to both the exterior and interior spaces of camps, from flower gardens and swimming pools to decoration and crafts, became a means of “re-territorialization” of physical space and “recuperation” of identity — a way to become “anchored in unfamiliar, harsh, and antagonistic environments” while also stimulating ideas, which ensures not just survival but a vibrant sense of ethnicity during a time of dislocation, loss, and economic exploitation. Place, in essence, became portable (51-52, 54). I argue that that POW sites were liminal in some aspects too, including existing as in-between spaces that embodied neither fully foreign nor native routines; of signaling temporary status, in which internees often became shuttled to other locales; and suspended out of time as war raged on.
Such dislocation can often be felt quite intensely when examining items like canteens that have been etched and inscribed by POWs, detailing their personal geographies. In some cases, such crude graffiti pays witness to their movement through space and time — their posts, stations, theaters of conflict, internment zones, all the disparate locales that form their history. The objects become ‘totems of memory,’ as I like to describe them, since they tend to indicate a storyline — a chronology of identity and place. When they lacked cameras or similar devices, or means to convey their narrative in a tactile, visual framework, they improvised: they painted the sides of furniture, evoking their previous whereabouts, carved wooden panels, scratched the sides of metal cigarette lighters, or took their workaday military flasks and penned and plotted their past as only they knew. Sometimes this meant picturing the North African landscape, or illustrating the American lifestyle they confronted in places like vibrant Nebraska and Texas, where the local heritage embodied rustic Western lore.
Sometimes such acts meant no more than men listing a roll of city names, as if accounting for months and years of non-stop momentum, the rhythm and cycles of war. Thus, even minimal self-made documentation, a vernacular service record made atop mass produced items, provides context and meaning to their movements. All such craftwork, even when created in a hodgepodge manner, still unveils vessels of deep meaning, for the construction — which were imbued with rituals of fabrication and kinesis — mitigated the everyday routines and life of internment. The razor wire or fences, at least temporarily, might have felt porous as the old country’s folkloric knowledge and skill skills, plus the realities of their forced migrations, were given form and expression.
To this day, the objects help humanize the men and reveal layers of identity and character. They were not mere innumerable Panzers that now dwell in the long shadow of history, easily discounted. The objects reveal human interplay, toil, and quest for autonomy in a compartmentalized, military-based system meant to allocate a sense of sameness, not stimulate individual storylines. In the face of German, Italian, Japanese, and American military mores, the objects form a democratic art league of their own.
Similarly, Gilly Carr argues Channel Islanders prisoners of war used material culture to express counter-narratives that transformed:
“spaces of internment … creating bonds of solidarity [via objects that] were critical to the mental health of individuals and the camp as a whole, and they empowered the camp community to face, endure, and survive the system of oppression enacted through the enemy-controlled civilian internment camp. … the world of the POW/civilian and internee was not divided simplistically into guards and inmates, but rather included several layers … there was a diversity of experiences, political stances, motivations, and reactions … All of these inevitably coloured the forms of creativity … and dictated the subject of their inventiveness. This was then influenced by what could be enacted in public and private, in front of the guards or in front of trusted friends” (182).
Additionally, I believe the cultural life of the camps acted in a two-fold manner: whereas the elite cultural productions obviously bolstered POW sentiments for their homeland(s), the more vernacular and folk practices, linked to a shadow economy entwined with locals populaces of sympathetic Americans (often Germans too, in many states), also created long-lasting, even para-familial feelings for America, democracy, and local citizenry.
Such traits can be evidenced in letters sent back to America from a post-war Germany, POW readily immigrating back to America (perhaps 5,000) sponsored by American citizens, or small waves of internees visiting their former sites of captivity later in life, such as returnees Gerhardt Kleindt, Rudi Richter and Hans-Georg Augustin, who visited Houlton Army Airbase, Maine, in Oct. 2009 as well as U-boat commander Jurgen Wattenberg and seven other POWs visiting Papago Park, AZ, in 1985, which they tried to escape from in 1944. An eighth, Rolf Koenigs, joined them. He had been to the camp several times already; as a POW-turned-immigrant, he worked for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department and a lifelong friend of his former internment era branch camp boss at Horace Hale farm at Blackfoot, AZ (Clark 128-129).
POW Georg Stanglmaier returned to visit Fort Riley and Lake Wabaunsee in Kansas in 1980. After seeing the former farm he worked on reduced to a single aging bachelor, he wept openly, describing the visit as “like old times, family times” (“German Prisoners”). Heino Erichsen, once held at Camp Hearne near Bryan, TX, immigrated to the United States in 1953 and eventually settled in The Woodlands, TX , and became the executive director of the Los Ninos International Adoption Center, which he founded.
A few hours away in Wharton, TX, Hans Elschke, who fought in Rommel’s Afrika Korps until captured at the Battle of Alamein, returned in 1988 to widespread local media coverage, especially after he was able to locate a secret hole from his days of internment in the wall of the auto shop used by the community college. As the former barracks of 250 prisoners, the building still provided evidence of the community’s shadow economy — the nook was a space to hide the internee’s wine and fruit. Eschke catalyzed a rich and thoughtful correspondence with Wharton County Historical Museum, especially curator Eve Bartlett, for five years, which culminated in his donations of a snake skin lined scrapbook and snake skin belt fabricated during his forced tenure in the region.
First, though, he had contacted the local sheriff, Rudy Machala, in a letter now archived by the museum:
“I have been a prisoner of war and lived in the camps of Wharton and El Campo — Texas. Always I wanted to see the place again, I was working at. Now, I quitted my job [in the Federal Bureau of Insurance] and get a pension. For many years I saved the money to make my dream come true.” In fact, as early as 1948, Eschke had written to the El Campo Rice Milling Company inquiring about Mr. Hancock, who owned the local rice mill where he worked as a POW, so his attachment to America was long-term .
His dream did materialize: Eschke, whose Basic Personnel Record describes him as a “chemist/druggist” taken prisoner at age 20 in Alexandria, returned to southeast Texas via a Trailways bus to some fanfare, including: several video-taped interviews, one including Wharton County Junior College President Elbert Hutchins; a stop at the El Campo Leader-News, plus the El Campo hospital and jail; a visit to Wade Roberts Farm, where POWs had labored, and other local industries such as Texasgulf, Inc.; and a round of dinners, including steak, cook outs, Chinese, Mexican, shrimp gumbo, and green grape pie with local families.
Moreover, Mayor Paul Soechting, a high school instructor of German, issued a resolution declaring Eschke be made a “Ehrenbuergerschaft von El Campo,” a honorary citizen of the tiny town; in turn, Wharton Mayor Garland S. Novosad repeated the honor in 1992. Not only did Eschke bridge the new and old world by making not one but three visits (1988, 1990, 1992) to America, he also witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall after visiting a sister-in-law in East Berlin. These memories became part of second video-tape installment for local history collections.
Such men embodied a common sentiment: America still beckoned them. Or, as 90 year old former POW Franz “Frank” May from Camp Gruber (and five other camps) told a newspaper in 2012, “It was always what I wanted to do — to come to Oklahoma, my second home” (qtd. in Wofford). Other German POWs from camps in Oklahoma returned to their “second home[s]” as well, including Heinrich Vahlbruch (also spelled Vahlbruck), a former officer within General Erwin Rommell’s force, who was captured in 1943 by British units, who brought his wife Christina back to the area of Camp McAlester (which held approx. 1,200 captives and was commanded by Lieut. Col. Leroy B. Miller, a newspaper publisher from North Dakota), where the incarcerated men built two Old World replica castles, made from pebbles and concrete, which still stand, “A good remembrance,” he told James Beatty of the News-Capital & Democrat as they gazed upon the work roughly two feet tall.
Originally, he penned a letter to the mayor of McAlester, asking for pictures of the city, then unexpectedly arrived at the mayor’s office in person fifty years after serving time there. Luckily, city employee Ursula Clark spoke German fluidly enough to host an excursion to camp-related sites (“He Was Prisoner…”), including the graves of German soldiers. A German-born citizen in the city, Ottilie Delana, a bride of American G.I. Mark Delana, had tended the graves for several years, until unable to do so. At that point, Col. Chester Franklin, of the U.S. Army Reserves, took up the duty, and eventually was able to move the graves from a lot behind an administrative building to a local cemetery, where members of the local VFW Chapter 1098 and local guardsmen and reservists paid tribute to the men, who were later exhumed and shipped back to Germany (Edwards).
Even the rice fields were dearly missed, especially when former POWs like Baldi Gultner experienced “slavery” — becoming a prisoner of the French government. In a letter dated 2 May 1947 letter to farmer Flurry Peveto, he describes (in somewhat “broken” English) how his “thoughts goes often back to beauteful south region of America and especially to the States of Texas and Lusiana … chiefly to our good human farmer … I don’t forget joy and jour son” and the big hot lunches.” Peveto was also known to take POWs fishing, against the rules (Reid 16). The POW sentiments towards his ilk should not be under-valued, since hundreds of thousands of men brought their experiences to bear on a new Germany emerging from the tatters, long shadow of Nazism, and bleak post-war life. POWs felt the pangs of disillusionment, fear, and anxiousness so freely and fiercely, they hugged and begged rice farmers like Bob Longron, who worked the Bridge City, TX region, “to keep them in America,” which he simply could not do (Dyer 5).
Since POWs seemed rather “surprised at the standard of living they had seen in the home of average American families,” as well as their abundant food and home electric devices (Chick 47), along with their democratic values and worldview, their longing to return should register as clearly understandable. Many POW immigrants returned to America to start small businesses, such as Smettan’s Bakery, run by Rudy Smettan in South Elgin, IL, and Pechmann Memorials in Madison, WI, founded by stonecutter Kurt Pechmann, who returned to the Lodi area, as did POW George Hall (Cowley 185). Camp Algona Museum Narratives highlights others as well, such as Werner Mabel, who escaped East Germany in 1963 and resettled in Plymouth, MA, while the New York Times ran a lengthy article about German paratrooper Frederick Albert falling in love with black camp nurse Elinor Elizabeth Powell in Arizona: they first lived together in Gottingen, Germany, but eventually found a new life in Morton, PA, first, then Norwalk, Conn., where Albert eventually became a vice president at Pepperidge Farms (Clark).
The newest full-length work to examine the immigration wave back to America is From German Prisoner of War to American Citizen, by Barbara Schmitter Heisler, herself a German-American. Her richly informed ethnographic approach includes the input of 35 former POWs turned American immigrants. An article by Sunderland about the Southland/Inland Empire area of California recounts the mini-stories of five returnees in the area, including grape company owners, an owner of an electrical contracting firm, and a shoe repairman.
Most of the informants concur: their experiences in America, although occasionally marred by the memory of a unkind farmer or the distant hunger-tinged flashbacks of temporary food shortages, remain positive until this day. Other notable cases include Dr. Michele de Maio, a former doctor in the Italian Air Force, captured and sent to a camp in Hereford, TX, who later immigrated to California, then New Mexico, where he pursued medicine in Clovis, TX by 1949 and joined the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Another POW, Hans Rudolph Poethig, after immigrating to the U.S. in 1954, settled nearby in Roswell, NM, while Italian Emilio Pascolati chose Huntington Beach, CA, not far removed from his place of detainment, Camp Ono, set in citrus groves surrounded by mountains, which still retains remnants from the camp, including a cactus garden.
Even upon arrival in 1944, Pascolati felt at home, of sorts. When POWS “arrived at a railroad siding in Guasti – a largely Italian community” that “immigrated to the United States just a few years earlier, turned out to greet them. Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy. Pascolati met a man from the same province as he. By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs” (Sunderland). The openly shared folk traditions helped immediately bond locals and captives, who would join local farmers in the field and be fed lunch by local woman as well. Pascolati actually fell in love with one, since locals did not shun such fraternizing. Later, post-war time, he married her.
Other journalists have discovered similar caches of experiences. As Midwest writer Gena Kittner wrote 2010, “Kurt Pechmann’s time as a German prisoner of war working in Wisconsin farm fields and canning factories during 1943 was something he remembered fondly. He ‘ended up spending 18 months here and gained 60-some pounds,’ said his son Gerhard Pechmann of Cottage Grove. ‘He fell in love with America.’” Other former POWs that labored in Eau Claire, WI on the site of farmer William Teichmann sent him no less than 53 letters, in German, after the war, confiding to him their complaints about repatriation and the ongoing post-war scarcity and misery in their homeland (Hahn 170).
As one, known as Ralph K, even wrote, “Don’t think I have forgotten you. I think fondly of you all the time” (Hahn 171); meanwhile, Herbert R. praises “the richly adorned table” of food often prepared for the POWs by Mrs. Teichmann on the farm where they were encouraged to eat plenty of ripe fruit, listening to POW Alfons S. play recitals on the family piano as others might play track and field in the yard, and earning socks and long underwear after a completed harvest (Hahn 173). Needless to say, such humanitarian, or perhaps even lavish considerations, considering their enemy status, earned the family, and likely America by some extension, a net gain of truly deep affection from the Germans. If any historian doubts this, a letter from Werner M. bolsters the evidence:
“I think of you as a son would think of a home, since you were then like a father to his children, who were helpless and alone in the world … When we sat at the table eating, I could almost believe that I was at home eating with my mother. With you there was the certainty that we were valued as human beings by you and your family” (Hahn 176). In 1947, iconic Fort Bend, TX, rancher Albert George received a letter from a POW, now stored in the George Ranch Historical Park Archives, suffering both from the privations of post-war life (“hunger and misery”) but a split country as well: half of his family lived in the Russian zone, half in the American zone.
Looking back at his time in America, he recalls: “I will never forget when you on Saturdays noon came with that cold bottle of beer and after our work day we had a big dinner in your wonderful garden and we noticed that you had a heart for us prisoners of war. This was one reason we loved to work for you and we were glad every day to go to your big and clean farm.” Cynics may suggest this is a sentimental ploy to gain favors, such as gifts of foodstuffs, but such letters were received multiple times.
One Sycamore, IL newspaper printed an open letter from one such POW, who worked at a cannery, to the entire community. Hence, those staffers did not seem to question the sincerity. Such folk histories provide a glimpse into the habits and practices (such as foodways, work routines, and leisure pastimes) of the POWs’ extended camp lives absent in most official chronicles. On Oct. 26th 1946, the Desert News also ran one, titled, “Former German POW Tells Of Idaho Mormons,” in which Friedrich Nitsche declared “Now is the living in our country very bad and unhappy — hungry and cold — without clothing and dwelling — so live very much people … sometimes I’d like working and living only in a little cabin, in your country. America you have it better.” The extensive loss, like a gray pall, is palpable. A former POW that served time at Lake Wabaunsee in Kansas, Werner Burow, continuously asked for help after his return. American Arnold Ringel’s family responded wholeheartedly over an extended period of time, supplying the returnee with toothpaste, razor blades, tobacco papers, cocoa, cloves, nutmeg, shoes, soap, pocket knife, used baby clothes, bicycle tires, and even a set of new wedding outfits for both Burow and his fiancee. Two other POWs, Fritz Ott and Josef Vese, also interned in Kansas, kept up correspondence with Lake Wabaunsee locals for at least forty years, while Ernst Kunzel invited Americans from the camp era to his home (“Farm Work”).
No doubt, some Germans returned to a life in Germany mired in bouts of semi-deprivation. Former POW interpreter Martin “Shorty” Mueller recounted a 1,250 calorie post-war German diet to one of his former captors, guard Mr. Walter Williams, from San Augustine: “It’s that way—you eat a heap of potatoes and a few
spoonfuls of vegetables just to get your belly filled up. That’s all and the same thing day after day. A small piece of meat means a holiday dinner. You neither drink any real coffee or tea, nor smell it around here.” In the end, though looking forward to school in his home county and possibilities in life, he longed “to see America again in peace-time and as a free man.” America endured in his memory not as a mere site of travesty but as a site of bounty and allurement. For example, at the war camp in Remer, MN, situated on the grounds of a former CCC camp, Irving S. Anderson (rural industries supervisor) verified “the storage room had an abundant supply of pork loins and rounds of beef”; in addition, he observed the POW’s foreign food traditions, such as “a way of their own of rolling the mixture of boiled and raw potatoes together into a sort of dumpling — not too bad if eaten with plenty of strong gravy” (War Manpower Commission Records, National Archives Group 211). At Camp McAlester, according to guard Art Quadracci, the Germans used potatoes “for making schnapps — a …. liquor” by culling potato scraps from the camp kitchen (qtd. in Beaty). This seems a far cry from the foodstuffs and survival mode of post-war Germany, where scarcity was a norm.
In the case of one POW, Anton Schuler, he actually attempted to flee a post-war French prison camp and return stateside by hopping a freighter to Texas, where he hoped to be detained near Amarillo again, where he was held for four months after being captured in 1944, “because he liked being a prisoner of war in TX better than being a prisoner of war in France.” An Aug. 30 1946 photo disseminated by APW wirephoto, reporting for the Houston office, shows him “handcuffed to the binnacle of the [freighter] U.S.S Thompson Lykes … after the boat’s arrival from Bordeaux.” That photo and caption soon ran in the Sept. 3rd edition of the Corsicana Daily Sun.
Furthermore, former POW Willy O. Jaeger penned a letter to the Lawrence Journal, published in 1991, outlining the positive effects of fair, tolerant, and liberal Americans and soldiers, which allowed for a range of shared cultural practices in camps, “With this letter I want to express my thanks to all the Americans who were kind to us, who didn’t treat us as enemies or Nazi-criminals but as humans. In the long run this was a much better way to make us friends of the Americans, working better than any re-education.” The re-education program likely refers to camps such as Fort Kearney (“The Factory”), Rhode Island, an ideological center for education that produced the periodical “Der Ruf” and Camp Opelika in Alabama, which was “designed to root out the influence of National Socialism among the prisoners,” including members of the Wehrmacht. Administered by the Special Projects Division, it later became a model for other camps, such as Fort Benning, which set up an “University of Democracy.” Those methods eventually spread to thirteen camps in the South (Billinger 287, 312, 315).
Fort Eustus in Virgina was yet another major depot for anti-Nazi training where the Special Projects Division intended to “select and specially train leaders to return to defeated Germany, pick up the shreds, and guide their nation towards democracy,” according to executive officer Capt. Robert Lowe Kunzig, who followed-up by visiting 1,000 returned POW “students” in Europe starting in the summer 1945 (32). Granted, the men at this site had been intensely screened and previously held in limbo in special sections of detention camps, safe from the violence and kangaroo courts of militant hard-liner POWs that held sway at many locales, except in cases such as the naval POW site Camp Blanding in Florida containing 216 strident anti-Nazis vs. 24 strident defenders of the Reich (Thompson 39). As one POW confessed to Kunzig, “Eustis restored my faith in God and man. It is not only what was taught at Eustis, but the fact that the school existed, in the first place. Only the United States could have created such a place.” The veracity of this conversation is unknown.
Throughout subsequent decades, scholars have questioned the validity, usefulness, and even legality, given Geneva Convention tenets from 1929, of the democratization schooling, which in hindsight seems no more than a well-intended, but highly top-down delivery system of propaganda. On the other hand, I believe the interactive, immersive, project-oriented, and often relaxed environments of POW labor efforts in American small towns actually helped change and modify the gestalt and worldviews of many rank and file German soldiers freed from both the German state’s all-encompassing mechanisms of war and severely slanted media, which focused on “incidents of strikes, murder, and other unpleasant aspects of American life … which make Americans seem like barbarians” (“Fuchs Makes”) but also from their own military hierarchies, including patterns of Nazi ideology and control that existed in the POW camps too. These groups likely disseminated particularly erroneous German propaganda, such as the notion that Americans of German ancestry would rise up in sedition and join the German army (Cowley 187).
The History of Prisoner of War Utilization acknowledges, “most of these offenders were noncommissioned officers thoroughly indoctrinated with the Nazi ideology and its theory of discipline” that threatened, harangued, and intimidated POWs. Hence, distancing POWs from camp life could afford the POWs relative freedom where experiential, immersive, and hands-on learning became a paramount form of countering the normative, even curated, regimes inherent in camp life. As Bailey concisely attests, “… the most effective and popular policy put the POWs to work, far outdoing classroom efforts as an introduction to the American way of life.” As one POW, embittered by Der Ruff’s perspective, attested, “It was a very disturbing paper … the Americans should have realized they would have gained more by introducing us to normal, everyday life” (qtd. in Hudnall). POW work routines, sometimes amounting to an informal litmus test of homegrown democracy and both ma and pa and corporate industry, built bridges between people (the “folk/volk”) that re-education pedagogy, indoctrination, and “Intellectual Diversion Programs” might have failed to deliver.
In fact, some of the most potent education might have come directly from folk such as Mrs. Eccles, mentioned earlier, who became a mentor to the men around her, even risking the attention of the FBI: “They asked her a lot of questions about the U.S.A. and the Constitution. She gave them little books with the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. They were curious about the right to keep and bear arms, separation of church and state, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War over slavery.” Men accustomed to strict education routines likely received this relaxed, personalized folk education, which also later included a discussion about Thanksgiving over “greasy bear meat” during hunting season, with a spirit not offered in classroom atmospheres. So great was her affection for the men that she visited POW Karl Dresser in Germany, though she was not alone. Nearby farmer Fred M. Nelson also visited the same POW, according to Morgan Nelson.
In a crucial, yet often overlooked manner, these firsthand relationships with America, together with fecund encounters and intermixing between POW and citizenry, likely paved the positive reception or more wholehearted embrace of democratic values (witnessed firsthand in America) in post-war Germany, especially during the lean, hunger-prone immediate aftermath when half the country was also under the domineering umbrella of the Soviet Union.
Lastly, the material culture objects forged in such camps, often vernacular in style, became a mainstay of the informal and shadow economy of the camps. This means that official books, articles, and documents that pay scant attention to such items and interplay, which document and pay witness to the all-important human cultural imprint of the camps, leave great historic gaps that need to be bridged so a fuller, more nuanced, and colorfully detailed critical assessment of the camps can be created. If we devalue the objects left behind, these vehicles of limitless meaning, then we also devalue the makers and users, together with their “ideas, feelings, needs, and desires,” (qtd. in Brunvand 563) if I may borrow from the precepts of Michael Owen Jones. To touch the object is to touch the story of internment, the human scale of war, removal, loss, and recuperation.
Cultural survey to follow…
Due to work plentiful shortages, including the unavailability of the traditional agricultural Hispanic work force due to “weather patterns” in the Texas (qtd. in Abitz), a shortage of willing students (including those from urban areas such as Chicago), the migration of African Americans from the South into wartime industries of northern urban centers; a shortage of gasoline and tires preventing workers from Arkansas and Alabama to reach fertile orchards in Michigan (mentioned in Hahn 171), and too few temporary workers from the Caribbean (as in the case of the Janesville, WI area), German and Italian (though not Japanese, it appears, in cases of ingrained racism or generalized fear due to attacks on Pearl Harbor and the mainland as well via balloons, etc.) were readily and extensively used by both industry and agriculture in non-war related (in almost every case) working environments. This relationship between business, government, and prisoners in general did not represent new circumstances. For instance, Cardinal points out:
… in France, a hard labor system originated by Napoleon evolved toward a more positive output, with some prisons rivaling factories and specializing in commodities such a shoes, furniture, baskets, gloves, buttons, costume jewelry and even umbrellas and accordions. It is thought this commodity economy was only partly controlled by the authorities, since it flourished in conjunction with a black market run by the prisoners (Kornfield xv).
More recently, during the Cold War at the Minkovie and Plzen-Bory prisons in Czechoslovakia, detainees made costume jewelry, leather gloves, children’s carriages, agricultural machinery parts, automobile parts, clothes pegs, tents, Christmas decorations, and glass products, even television sets (Shwartz and Schwartz 34).
The Japanese, on the other hand, faced a life confined to American camps or Priority I work – labor “directly connected with military installations,” the History of Prisoner of War Utilization explains. As one American military camp informant quoted by writer Robert C. Daniels tells, the Japanese “could not be trusted at all. One could not even turn one’s back to them without fear of being attacked” (191). In locales such as Camp Hearne in rural Texas, Japanese POWs were kept divided from their Axis partners on campgrounds, where they cooked ethnic food and played baseball.
As prisoners accumulated, the Joint Staff Planners originally conceived of 50,000 POW men working in a broad swath of labor opportunities:
2. Agricultural regions (mass farming)
3. Areas where roads were to be constructed, airfields built, and where other construction involving manual labor was planned.
By mid-August 1943, those numbers had already swelled beyond 130,000 POWs. The War Manpower Commission (and later the Army Service Forces as well, to further clarify directions) provided explicit instructions for the hiring process, and the POWs surged into labor sectors – known en-masse as the Zone of the Interior. The vast majority (439,163) fell into the work regimes of agriculture alongside Hispanic, African American, and Caribbean (Barbadians and Jamaicans) laborers, but the list below is meant to show a human scale – details and descriptions – rather than large aggregates, like “2,738 POWs were employed in mining and quarrying.” Note: For a close examination of the POW presence in the lumber efforts in and around the Piney Woods portion of central and east Texas, as well as portions of Louisiana, one should review the excellent “POWs in the Piney Woods: Prisoners of War in the Southern Lumber Industry, 1943-1945” by James E. Fickle and Donald Ellis, from the Journal of Southern History, 1990.
Normative work regimes included:
Working at the Indian School in Kansas and St. Edwards School in New Mexico; working at seed companies and fertilizer plants; harvesting cotton, wheat, figs, oats, soybeans, and peanuts; growing mushrooms, sorghum, alfalfa, and tomatoes; detassling corn; drilling at rock quarries; cleaning clothes; cutting grass, timber, and pulpwood (in Canada during winter featured POWs loading pulpwood onto sleighs); repairing soil, pastures, and
buildings on bases where they might work as electricians, painters, carpenters, “cooks, interpreters, company leaders, clerks, typists, stenographers, bookkeepers, accountants, warehouse supply clerks, warehousemen, plumbers… physicians, surgeons, dentists, and X-ray, pharmaceutical, or other laboratory technicians … barbers … postal workers,” hobby shop help (see History of Prisoner of War Utilization 157-161), shoemakers, firemen, medics, and orderlies; picking pecans, onions, lettuce, sugar beets, and cantaloupes; digging trenches for water and sewer lines; working at canaries ( cannery work could include “retort (distilling) operators and as operators of receiving, packing, and closing machine” according to the History of Prisoner of War Utilization).
Examples of camp networks and camp productivity: Camp Lodi, WI, provided POWs workers throughout small towns like Poynette, Arlington, Fall River, Reedsburg, North Freedom, Baraboo, Pardeeville, Sauk City, and Waunakee; meanwhile, the POWS helped one cannery in Sycamore, IL [Sycamore Preserve Works] produce 400,000 cases – over nine and a half million cans); working at shoe, brick, box, barrel, and tile factories; eviscerating chickens; clearing roads and sidewalks of ice; building erosion control embankments — rocks for rivers and bamboo for irrigation canals; packing meat at a kosher plant; working in pit mines; working on a Jeep assembly line; hauling frozen meat and fowl in cold storage plants; clearing up fire damage; working in hemp production; working in nurseries, meatpacking, or hide plants; digging post holes for electric poles; clearing drainage ditches, digging ditches, or performing mosquito control; building homes; working at mills; working on truck farms; working in citrus groves; working at dairies; building an ice plant; harvesting wheat and rice; working at fruit preserving plants; plucking and cleaning turkeys in a butcher shop; clearing railways; salvaging non-munitions; working at paper mills; digging holes for telephone poles; building silos,
fences, and bridges; quarrying limestone; working on cabbage farms; working on the Alcan Highway project (Canada); baking bread; helping on slop details at hog farms; giving massages; working in peach and apple orchards; working in orange groves; harvesting and drying apricots; running feed and alfalfa mills; picking asparagus, turnips, chile, carrots, watermelons, radishes, cantaloupe, cauliflower, peas, okra, lima beans, corn, and cucumber; helping with private lawns and gardens; hay and broom straw harvesting; fig processing; canning olives; raising sugar beets; thinning sugar beets; raising cattle, sheep, and pigs; raising alfalfa and Red McClure potatoes, and feed grain; laying pipeline; working at cheese factories; bagging and carrying customer goods purchased from grocery stores (as suggested by one message post concerning Fort Eustis) cleaning up a veteran’s cemetery; harvesting sugar cane; trimming heads of lettuce; shoveling coal to warm POW camps; hauling sheep manure; planting cottonwood trees; raking and cutting hay; butchering horses; cleaning fox pens; digging basements; packing rations in POW camps; laying electric and telephone lines; building dams and roads; coating cans to prevent rust; building corrals; flanking, roping, and dragging calves; cleaning up after tornadoes, working at foundries, including, according to the History of Prisoner of War Utilization, including shoveling sand; carrying, cleaning, and grinding castings; loading and unloading cars, and aiding the ladlepouring (140); even “manufacturing boxes for automatic weapons and medical equipment,” attests a letter to the editor in the Rockford Register Star, and restoring the very ships, like the paint job on the Eufaula, sending them back to Europe after hostilities ceased.
In Texas, they could be found assisting in the maintenance of Perrin Air Force base, working on the Denison Dam; clearing and cutting trees to help make Lake Texoma; gathering up debris after heavy storms; repairing areas of firebreaks; working during post-hurricane clean-ups; working at hotels (repurposed for convalescing soldiers) as gardeners, mechanics, electricians, painters, kitchen helpers, and other hospital laboring (see Billinger 33); at Camp Howze, building chairs and desks for the U.S. Army and clearing the roads by removing logs and cutting limbs after a severe ice storm; building a municipal swimming pool in Center, TX; and helping build the road around Lake Jackson.
For compelling chart of work utilization categories and descriptions, see page 166-167 of the History of Prisoner of War Utilization. Though much work took place in branch camp communities, some camps themselves were hubs of industry, such as Camp Sherbrooke, where “workshops … consisted of a woodworking department, a sewing department, a knitting department, a net-making department, and a shoe repair department … by Jan 1941 … producing camouflage nets, kit bags, tables, benches, and wooden ammunition boxes” (Auger 103) .
Companies, corporations, or large farms that actively used the POW labor force included no less than (this list is culled from detail-rich Stalag Wisconsin by Betty Cowley and other books and articles):
WB Place & Company
McKay Nursery Company
Dairyland Cooperative Association
The Borden Company
Utah Poultry Producers Cooperative Association Plant
Oconomowoc’s Carnation Company
Hustiford Canning CompanyGrand River Canning Company
Baker Canning Company
Libby, McNeil, and Libby
Atlas Hemp Mills
Pick Manufacturing Company
War Hemp Industry
Niemann Brothers Fox Farm
Elkhart Lake Canning Factory
Herbert A. Niemann Canning Company
Star Canning Company
Brownsville Canning Co.
Mammoth Springs Canning Co.
J. LeRoy Hemp Mills
Lodi Canning Company
Rogers Seed Company
Oxford Fibre Brush Company
Angelina County Lumber Company
Southern Pine Lumber Company
Angelina County Lumber Company of Keltys
Frost Lumber CompanyFox Valley Canning
Merton Canning factory
Quaker Oats (Ken-L Ration possibly)
Medalta Potteries (Canada)
William Zech Farm
Becker and Schur Farms
Swinger Hybrid Corn Company
American Rice Growers Cooperative Association
Cummer and Sons Cypress Company
Menominee Sugar Company
Faribault Canning Company
Northland Canning Co.
Columbus Foods Corporation
Hy-Dry Food Products
WJ Small Plant
Friday Canning Company
Stokely Brothers Canning
Lakeside Packing Company
Fall River Canning Company
Stokely Foods Inc.
Huths and James Shoe Factory
Columbus Food Corp.
Dry Milk Company (later known as the Borden Company)
W.J. Small Co. Inc.
Cerophy Laboratories Inc.
Marshfield Canning Company
Kaw Valley Potato Growers
Columbus Foods Corp.
Del Monte Corporation
Hampshire Manufacturing Co.
J.B. Inderrieden Canning Co.
W.J. Small Plant
Bert Offutt Company
Ochs Brick and Tile Company
California Packing Corporation
Pasco Packing Association
WOODWORKING, LEATHERWORKING, AND SCULPTURE (the gifting of such items will be mostly surveyed in another section).
Many POW camps featured woodworking shops on-site, or in the case of Angleton, TX, prisoners could use one located at the nearby high school, where the prisoners made furniture and benches for their quarters under the supervision of the industrial arts teacher (Blanchette 39). Meanwhile, Camp Opelika featured a ceramics studio replete with kilns and a carpentry shop too. Other camps equally supported such craftsmanship and trades, which quickly stirred a system of sales, exchanges, and gifting with guards and locals.
As one reader of richmond-dailynews.com, who was ten years old when 15,000 German and Italian soldiers arrived in Missouri, recalled after a 2012 article was posted concerning POWs in the Orrick area, “The [prisoners] would walk to the store owned by Bob Ralph to visit and purchase items. Many of the [prisoners] presented Mr Ralph items they had made in their idle time. i remember one item presented was a chess set hand carved with a pocket knife.”
As preservationist Steve Frevert tells, “My mother’s stepfather, David Lawrence, was
in the Army and was stationed at Camp Grant [IL] during WW2. One of his duties was to guard the German POWs. Apparently, he treated them well, even giving them a harmonica to play with. They were so grateful that they used the wood from packing crates to build a vanity and stool for my mom, who was maybe seven or eight at the time.” The dynamic of this conduct — essentially a mutually beneficial cooperation, earned respect, and open gifting — was often repeated across the camps even as such behavior was officially shunned.
Woodworking included a wide variety of products, from clocks and relief carvings to children’s toys, or even illicit wooden guns to be used as an escape aid. One such piece is currently featured in the collection of Canadian POW enthusiast Bruce Henderson. In some cases, the shops helped catalyze an unintended but fruitful sense of interdependence, even collusion between the POW laborers and their watchmen. Such dynamics offer a sense of “relating to others, discovering …. similarities, [and … ] rooting yourself into networks and traditions,” traits outlined by Stanford behavioral science professor Hazel Rose Markus as beneficial to certain social settings.
These useful traits seemed present in camp life, as Kay Hively, tells: “My father was superintendent of the cabinet shop at Camp Howze … He came in one day and said, ‘Oh I’ve got a brand-new baby girl and I’m going to make her a crib here in the shop. One of the POWs said in his limited English, I would like to help. I know how to do cabinetry work, as you well know. And he told the POW yes, you can help me. He said later on he realized that this man knew precisely what he was doing – he bowed out, and let him make the crib all by himself. He carved the headboard into an ornate Black Forest setting replete with story characters, the frame ever so smooth – it was a beautiful piece of art! Well, he took it home for the baby” (Stephenson 96). The trope and motifs found on the piece obviously link to homeland and heritage, evoked in a Germany in exile, plus bear witness to POW talent pools and their willingness to share skill sets with those monitoring and controlling their daily routines. In this case, the space seems co-intentional too — the cabinetry superintendent learns from the worker: power shifts slightly. Cooperation is favored over independence, while collaboration becomes a key to mutual admiration and bonding.
At other locales, the POWs literally reinvented camp space to mimic their homeland. Camp Carson POWs built a beer garden complete with chairs, tables, and decorations made in the camp shop (Krammer 65). Likewise, a similar beer garden, this time shaded by live oaks and palm trees, was also made by POWs in central Florida (Billinger 24). These vivid recreations form, as suggested earlier, a kind of counter-narrative to the architecture of confinement and the systems embodying the official, sanctioned, and administered camp life. More so, the beer gardens’ informal, high-context, folk culture environs provide much-treasured dynamics of leisure, solace, joy, and togetherness.
In addition, POWs recognized the prized assets or snakes that could readily attained at work caps Heinrich Bode attests that men in Princeton, TX killed snakes “while at work then using the skins to make various leather goods” (Sturdevant 7). Lawrence Winfree in Orange County, TX, a member of the Winfree community, put a dozen prisoners to work on approximately 200 acres of rice in 1944, where they could find plentiful snakes: “the prisoners would catch every snake they could find, put them in a paper bag and then would skin them for their hides. They could point their fingers at the snake and just keep pointing with one hand and then brag the snake behind the head with the other, just as quick and slick as that” (Dyer 5). In Florida, this was the case too. One guard recalled German workers-cum-snake hunters wanting the hides for souvenir belts and mementos from Florida, so POWs would stand on the edges of fields on fire in harvest preparation to catch them as they escaped (Billinger 22).
Sometimes their fearlessness stunned even hardened locals. As Bob Longron recalls: “They were climbing into my truck with snakes tied to their belts … with binder twine and fastened them to their belts. One of the men got up behind me in the truck. The snakes were all wiggling all the way home. … The German told me that every night in camp they would skin the snakes and put the skins out to dry. They planned to take the skins back home in their packs. They could make good money” (15). The snakes became an integral part of homegrown cottage industry economic aspirations and material aesthetics as well.
In addition to some wily and aspiring POWs skinning these abundant snakes and gathering the skins in Angleton, TX, “Others created artifacts from discarded nails, scrap cord, wire, or wood,” including “a dormitory clock manufactured from such scrap items … twelve to fourteen feet high and three to four feet across the face. Whatever the size, it kept good time” (Creighton 371). Such re-purposed sundry materials on-hand, used with precision by POWs that chose readily available goods and rather stunning briccolage born out of necessity and a stubborn refusal to remain inert and passive in camp life, proved to be sadly short-lived. If lore holds true, townspeople smashed the uncanny device not long after POWs left the facility.
Erecting Sacred Architecture in Enemy Territory
At Camp Hearne, TX, surrounded by the clang of railroads and immersed in sometimes dizzying heat, the Germans carefully constructed, bit by bit, concrete replicas of old German castles a few feet high, as if forging a tiny romantic replica of Germany they could safely inhabit (Krammer 65). Meanwhile, across the enormous state at a church in Umbarger, settled by Swiss and German immigrants, the St. Mary’s church art lovingly constructed by Italian POWs “… boasted murals, trompe l’oleil, an elaborate carving of the Last Supper and stained glass windows rising splendidly to filter the Texas sunlight and cast a soft glow on the interior alls. Frescoes of angels, gentle Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the style of Michelangelo had been painted in larger-than-life size, using local farm children for models” (Keefer 135). Some critics, though, suggest the artwork was merely a way for prisoners to escape the daily grind of camp life, a diversion that kept them near fresh food as well, which they could smuggle back into camp. This arguments seems a bit slanted and de-contextualized, divorcing the meaningful act of making art from the humdrum realpolitik of camp life.
No doubt, the art, still preserved by the local community, featured striking florid characteristics: “On both sides of the ‘Assumption of Mary’ painting, more vertical bas-relief carvings feature grapes, olives and crosses. Christian symbols – including crosses, anchors, olives, grapes and lions – ring the walls” (Berzanskis). The POWs even installed stained glass windows imported from Holland. This work is not simply a testament to obvious skill sets and craftsmanship, or merely exist as a homage to the art of the sacred and bucolic.
Such art reminds viewers that POWs impacted local communities in longstanding forms. Long after the men left “hostile” (or as often was the case, not-so-hostile) territory, their works embodied a glimpse of their identities, daily purpose and work ethic, and indelible craft sensibilities that navigated secular and sacred jobs. The article “German Prisoners of War at Lake Wabaunsee,” located in Kansas, makes such assumptions clear:
“Much of the work of POWs lasted a long time. A POW installed wiring in a barn for the Stratton family of Eskridge that was being used 40 years later. POWs proficient at masonry also built the local light plant in Eskridge that was being used in 1984. A POW constructed a shed at the Imthurn home that was a different style than those in America, but it proved durable. POWs helped remodel the J.O. Warren home. POWs put in a cement floor and steps underneath the house and ran a drain … American plans failed because the drain was off a foot or two. The POWs took over, made measurements, and got it right…
Artistic POWs used their talents on behalf of Americans. A POW named Ernie painted murals on the farmhouse walls of Howard Lietz’s partents’ home. The murals covered two or three walls in the living room. Ernie used the palms of his hands to make designs at the bottom of the wall that looked like wallpaper. Then he put a border above that, and finally added the mountain scenes to the work of art. Another POW who worked near Paxico sold some of his paintings to Americans. Steve Hund recalled that at least some of the paintings had religious themes and were sold to churches.”
In the case of St. Marty’s, seven to nine “noncollaborationists,” men who refused to sever their loyalty to Mussolini or the politics of a defeated system, created the artwork, commanded by a fluent English speaker Second Lieutenant officer in his mid-twenties, Franco Di Bello, who also painted a portrait for Father Achilles Ferreri. As Dominic Moreo infers in Riot at Fort Lawton, the officers in this particular camp were learned, articulate, and “POWs out of principle,” enduring soaring temperatures in arid Texas for the sake of conscience (104). They suffered severely reduced rations from May to Oct 1945 (either due to punishment or reduced availability of canned goods, meat and butter throughout the prisoner of war camp infrastructure), perhaps no more than a few grains and a herring a day according to one source, so the opportunity to visit the church, where they could receive a hearty, rural, easygoing (perhaps even “lavish,” as Moreo describes) American meal during lunch, was met with some enthusiasm by POWs. Plus, the local priest procured their abundant aesthetic skills with very little monetary costs. Though the GIs often considered these same men “obstructionist, destructive, and obnoxious” (Williams), they did develop close bonds with some locals (Moreo 104).
Other POWs stationed around America also created finely-wrought religious art, sometimes from re-purposed goods. At Raritan Arsenal, located not far from Metuchen, New Jersey, prisoners “built a fine alter from salvaged wood which, with great skill, they painted to simulate Carrara Marble. A dedicatory service was conducted by U.S. Army First Lt. Dominic P Dohanyos, the post chaplain, and attended by hundreds of the proud prisoners (Keefer 150).
In far-flung Hawaii, Italian prisoners constructed the Mother Cabrini Chapel near Wheeler Field: “Beautifully designed by POW Astori Rebate of Venice, the structure was built of surplus materials collected by the prisoners around the Honolulu docks where they worked. Even the cement used to construct the chapel was mostly brushed up from spillage on the pier” (Keefer 150)
In addition, Camp Hereford’s cemetery chapel, restored in 1988, consists of “three graceful arches and French doors … An altar with a simple wooden cross overhead. A bas-relief sculpture (duplicated of an original by Luce della Robbia) and inscribed marbles with the phrase, ‘The Italian prisoners to the comrades who will not return…’” (Keefer 151). Such memorialization blurs the lines between sacred worship, funereal traditions, and the painful facts of loss during internment.
On the East Coast, ISU (Italian Service Unit) stoneworker artisans-cum-internees at Camp Myles Standish, in the deep woods of Massachusetts, “erected an eight-foot high outdoor grotto from smooth, rounded boulders cemented together in graceful curves. A carefully carved, hand-painted statue of the Virgin Mary stood protected from rain and snow in a small niche at the top of the grotto. During the mass, the priest faced hundreds of worshipers sitting on long wooden benches scattered under the pine trees” (Keefer 151). Again, as evidenced in a previous section, the collective emphasis on religion, landscape, and nature seem apparent.
Such solace – resulting from the meeting ground of disciplined work, hand-forged meaningful art, and religious epiphanies — might have been an effective mechanism to offset the sense of dislocation felt daily. In other words, their gestalt resulting from detainment, as well as their physical well-being, was tempered, and even made bearable, through the procreative nature of labor, sometimes scant idyllic time of leisure, and the spirit-comfort of worship.
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