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The German POWs Who Lived, Worked, and Loved in Texas

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.  

National Archives

Re-education

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.

Homeward Bound?

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?”

Additional Sources:
“Camp Huntsville: The First World War II POW Camp in Texas [PDF].”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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