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 even reeducation. 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 Kenedy (560).
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 prisoners. 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 Ritz."
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 those memories.
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 lives.
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 industrial park. 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. See also PRISONERS OF WAR.