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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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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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