Prisoners of War
Handbook of Texas Online
When the United States went to war in 1941,
what to do with enemy prisoners of war was among the last
considerations of a country reeling from a Japanese
attack and preparing for war in Europe. The nation had
never held large numbers of foreign prisoners and was
unprepared for the many tasks involved, which included
registration, food, clothing, housing, entertainment, and
But prepared or not, the country suddenly found itself on
the receiving end of massive waves of German and Italian
prisoners of war. More than 150,000 men arrived after the
surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in April
1943, followed by an average of 20,000 new POWs a month.
From the Normandy invasion in June 1944 through December
30,000 prisoners a month arrived; for the last few months
of the war 60,000 were arriving each month. When the war
was over, there were 425,000 enemy prisoners in 511 main
and branch camps throughout the United States.
Texas had approximately twice as many POW camps as any
other state, first because of the available space, and
second, curiously, because of the climate. The Geneva
Convention of 1929 requires that prisoners of war be
moved to a climate similar to that where they are
captured; apparently it was thought that the climate of
Texas is similar to that of North Africa. In August 1943
there were already twelve main camps in Texas, and by
June 1, 1944, there were thirty-three.
At the end of the war Texas held 78,982 enemy prisoners,
mainly Germans, at fourteen military installations: Camp
Barkeley (Taylor County), Camp Bowie (Brown County), Camp
Fannin (Smith County), Camp Hood (Bell County), Camp
Howze (Cooke County), Camp Hulen (Matagorda County), Camp
Maxey (Lamar County), Camp Swift (Bastrop County), Camp
Wolters (Palo Pinto County), Fort Bliss (El Paso County),
Fort Brown (Cameron County), Fort Crockett (Galveston
County), Fort D. A. Russell (Presidio County), and Fort
Sam Houston (Bexar County).
In addition, seven base camps were set up especially for
POWs: Brady (McCulloch County), Hearne (Robertson
County), Hereford (Deaf Smith County), Huntsville (Walker
County), McLean (Gray County), Mexia (Limestone County),
and Wallace (Galveston County). The Hereford camp alone
contained Italian POWs (2,580 men), and a few Japanese
POWs were kept in Hearne (323), Huntsville (182), and
The main camps were generally built to standard
specifications: they were military barracks covered by
tar paper or corrugated sheet iron; inside were rows of
cots and footlockers. A potbellied stove sat in the
center aisle. Each camp held an average of 3,000 to 4,000
In fact, the only real differences between these POW
camps and any normal army training installation were the
watchtowers located along a double barbed-wire fence,
floodlights, and, at some camps, dog patrols. Guards were
kept to a minimum number and were usually GIs who, for
reasons of health, lack of training, or psychological
makeup, were not needed overseas.
The actual discipline among the prisoners was rigidly
enforced by German officers and sergeants themselves.
However uncomfortable, the POW camps were sometimes
considered too good for the captive Germans, and many a
Texas community called its local camp the "Fritz
Since the war had drawn most of the nation's young men
overseas, the War Department authorized a major program
to allow labor-starved farmers to utilize the POWs.
Consequently, in addition to the base camps, Texas had
twenty-two branch camps, some containing as few as
thirty-five or forty prisoners, to provide labor to farms
and factories located too far from the main POW camps.
The branch camps, like the labor program, were temporary
and often housed in school buildings, old Civilian
Conservation Corps facilities, fairgrounds, even circus
tents like those erected for the Navasota branch camp.
Grateful farmers paid the government the prevailing wage
of $1.50 per day, and the prisoner was paid eighty cents
in canteen coupons.
The difference went to the federal treasury to pay for
the POW program. German officers, like their American
counterparts in enemy hands, were not required to work,
and few volunteered. German POWs worked on such projects
as the Denison Dam reservoir and the construction of
state roads; they also served as orderlies at Harmon
General Hospital (now LeTourneau College in Longview).
Their greatest contribution, however, was to agriculture.
From 1943, when the POWs arrived in large numbers, until
the end of the war in 1945, the POWs in Texas picked
peaches and citrus fruits, harvested rice, cut wood,
baled hay, threshed grain, gathered pecans, and chopped
records amounts of cotton.
Many Texas farmers recalled their POW laborers with
admiration and even affection; indeed, many farmers
maintained warm friendships with them, and periodic
reunions often saw entire communities turn out to renew
Daily life for the prisoners was basically the same at
all base camps. Reveille was at 5:45 A.M., and lights
were turned off at 10:00 P.M. Between those times, the
prisoners worked, took care of their own needs, and
entertained themselves with a large variety of handicraft
and educational programs.
Every camp had an impressive selection of POW-taught
courses, ranging from English to engineering, a POW
orchestra, a theater group, a camp newspaper, and a
soccer team. Some prisoners even took correspondence
courses through local colleges and universities, and
their academic credits were accepted by the Germans upon
their return. Apparently the majority of German prisoners
who spent the war years in Texas remembered their
experience as one of the greatest adventures of their
A few prisoners wanted to escape despite the
insurmountable odds against success-the vast countryside,
the language difference, and the absence of an
underground railroad or safe haven. The records indicate
that only twenty-one POWs escaped, the majority from
Hearne and Mexia, and that every escapee was caught
within three weeks, most of them much sooner.
Motivated by boredom, the need for privacy, or a desire
to meet girls, the prisoners often simply wandered away
from their work parties and were picked up within a few
hours, confused and helpless. Most escapes were comical
affairs: a prisoner from Mexia calling for help after
having been chased up a tree by an angry Brahman bull;
three from Hearne who were found on the Brazos River in a
crude raft hoping somehow to sail back to Germany; and
another from Hearne who was picked up along U.S. Highway
79, near Franklin, heartily singing German army marching
songs. There is no evidence that any of the escapees
committed any act of sabotage while on the loose.
After World War II ended, the prisoners were readied for
repatriation. They were moved from the smaller branch
camps to the base camps, and from there to the military
installations at forts Bliss, Sam Houston, and Hood.
Beginning in November 1945 the former POWs were returned
to Europe at the rate of 50,000 a month, though most were
used to help rebuild war-damaged France and Britain
before their ultimate return to Germany.
As the POWs left Texas by the trainload, the camps began
to close. In Hearne the campsite and its 200 buildings
were put up for public auction; in the 1980s the space
comprised a small municipal airport and a proposed
The camp in Huntsville became part of Sam Houston State
Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University); in
April 1946 Camp Mexia became the site of Mexia State
School for the Mentally Retarded; and Camp Swift in
Bastrop later comprised scattered housing developments, a
University of Texas cancer research center, a unit of the
Texas National Guard, and an $11 million medium-security
prison for first offenders.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Arnold Krammer, Nazi Prisoners of War in
America (New York: Stein and Day, 1979). Arnold P.
Krammer, "When the Afrika Korps Came to Texas,"
Southwestern Historical Quarterly 80 (January 1977).
Robert Tissing, "Stalag Texas, 1943-1945,"
Military History of Texas and the Southwest 13 (Fall
1976). Richard Paul Walker, Prisoners of War in Texas
during World War II (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas
State University, 1980). Richard P. Walker, "The
Swastika and the Lone Star: Nazi Activity in Texas POW
Camps," Military History of the Southwest 19 (Spring
1989). Weekly and Semi-Monthly Reports on Prisoners of
War, June 1942-30 June 1946, Office of the Provost
Marshall General (U.S. National Archives, Washington).
Arnold P. Krammer
(information from The Handbook of
Texas Online --
a multidisciplinary encyclopedia of Texas history,
geography, and culture.)