My Return After 60 Years to a POW Camp in Texas
In 1943 I was captured in Africa and became a prisoner of war. After being held for a time in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, I embarked from the Algerian port city of Oran, with many other prisoners, on a Liberty ship bound for New York. We were 21 days at sea, eating only K-rations and living below deck on the iron planks in the freight compartment, before we reached New York harbor in September. Part of our reception in New York was a delousing, because it had been a long time since we had had a hot shower with real bar soap.
From New York we traveled 6 days by train to Hearne, Texas. It was a very comfortable trip. Whereas in Germany the military forces were mostly transported in crowded, almost unheated boxcars, now in the US we rode on cushioned bench seats, two men facing one other person, so we could all put our feet up. These train cars had lots of windows, although they had been bolted so we could not open them, and two bathrooms, and ice water for drinking. I have since learned from American soldiers that they traveled in the same fashion.
It was late at night when we got to Hearne. They let us off the train outside of town, in a field, and marched us about a mile to the camp. There might have been about 600 POWs, and we marched six abreast, row after row of us, singing. People said we goose-stepped, but that was not true. Guards with strong searchlights and rifles walked at both ends of every other row of prisoners. On some street corners we could see soldiers with machine guns watching us from behind sandbag fortifications. I do not know whether they were afraid of us or were protecting us-probably both. When we got inside the camp we were placed in the sport field and searched. We were required to leave our few possessions there until the next day. Guards divided us into groups of 25 or 30 and sent us to barracks, where each POW found a bed with a real mattress and good thick blankets. It was the first time I had had such comfortable sleeping since I finished my boot camp training, after being drafted, in 1942. In Africa we had bedded down on the ground, usually without blankets because we were always on the move.
Hearne was a large prison camp divided in three sections, each accommodating four companies with 150 men in each company. Our trainload of men took up an entire section of the camp. One of my first surprises was, after the first morning's roll call, the wonderful smell of real coffee from the kitchen. For several years I had not had anything but "Muckefuck Kaffee," also called Ersatzkaffee, a wartime coffee substitute made out of roasted grain. We found the tables all set for us, so that we had only to sit down and eat. I still remember the corn flakes, whole milk, grapefruit, toast, butter, jam, the coffee, and the rest of it. To a young man of 20 years who had been through a lot of recent hardship, it all tasted so good. I was at Hearne only about four weeks. My main activities were making friends, talking about the war and the people back home, relaxing, eating, and sleeping. In addition we spent a lot of our time with sports, mostly soccer, handball, and volleyball. Each of the 12 companies had its own teams, and we played endless tournaments.
From Hearne I was transferred to Huntsville, Texas. We were transported in open Army trucks, a guard standing at the front of the truck with his gun pointed toward us. I remember how large and wide the countryside seemed to me as we rode. It was November and the farms were unplanted and open, not at all like the smaller fields always grouped around numerous little farm villages back home. The Huntsville camp was divided in three sections, just like Hearne. The living quarters were barracks that held, as nearly as I can remember, about 25 bunk beds. The food was good, and it was plentiful. In both Hearne and Huntsville, the POWs had the same food as the GIs. I know this is true, because later on I worked in the GI kitchen. In the part of the camp where I was, we built a theater stage in a recreation barrack and rounded up a very good group of actors. They created all kinds of entertainment, including the then-popular operetta "Maske in Blau" and lots of other musical shows. Every POW received a small wage: I think it was three dollars a month, but I don't remember for sure. We were allowed to use the camp store (Post Exchange, or PX). Cigarettes cost 13 cents a pack, I think, cigars about a nickel, Coke was 4 cents, and the New York Times cost 2 cents. On a limited availability basis we could even buy beer for about 5 cents. Work was optional, and most of us were not interested in working. I volunteered to work in the kitchen because I was always hungry, and was assigned as a dishwasher and floor cleaner. We could also work outside the camp and earn extra pay for it. But anyone who did not follow the rules right would be punished by losing his job. In recent years I have read, (at the POW website www.kriegsgefangen.de), an interesting write-up ("Siebenbrot's Adventures") about the Huntsville camp, by a man named Martin Schenkel. He had been a POW at Huntsville, among other places, but I did not know him.
In the spring of 1944 I was transferred to another camp, at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio. This was a labor camp for only about 200 prisoners, and our living quarters were six-man tents. We all had jobs, because they told us we were "getting too fat." The work settings varied widely, including the army kitchens, hospital, motor pool, laundry, golf course, and many more besides. Here is a story about an episode that happened on the golf course. One day one of the POWs was asleep when the rest of the work crew left the golf course to return to the camp. No one missed him, not even the guard. It was late when he woke up to find that nobody else was there. He then walked the mile and a half down the highway to get back to camp. Even though his clothing clearly identified him as a POW, no one along the road seemed to notice. But when he arrived at the camp gate, the guard refused to let him in. An interpreter and the camp commander were called in. The alarm siren went off, and we all had to appear immediately for a recount, quickly leaving our beds or even coming naked from the showers. The guards were shouting "Mach schnell! Mach schnell!" which they pronounced "mock snell." It was a very big deal. During the regular evening head count nobody had even realized that fellow wasn't there.At Fort Sam Houston we again had a special theater building. This one even had a sunken orchestra pit. I went "on stage" in a number of different variety shows. Once I played a waitress, once I was a floozy, and in the operetta "Das Weisse Rössel am Wolfgangsee" I took the role of an old-fashioned mother whose teenage daughter was falling in love with an old bald man. One time I even performed on a trapeze by holding another fellow with my teeth.
About 50 miles north of Fort Sam Houston was the sharp-shooter training center, Camp Bullis. After a small POW camp for 50 to 80 men was built at Camp Bullis, I was sent there to work in one of the kitchens. With the little English I had learned in school, I soon made friends with the mess sergeant, Charlie. He was maybe 10 years older than me. I used to say to him, "I've been in the United States for two years and I still haven't seen anything but these camps and these lousy kitchens." So one day in 1945, just as the war was over, he told me: "Here, put this khaki uniform on, and don't talk." He put me in his car with him and we left the army base. I was amazed that there was no guard at the exit-we simply drove away. Charlie took me into San Antonio to show me the town. We were gone about two hours, just driving around town, not stopping anywhere. It was a thrilling experience, but I was scared the whole time, scared that I would be caught as an "escapee," and scared for Charlie too. He took a really big risk by taking me out. Right after the end of the war, many GIs were sent back home and so most of the Camp Bullis kitchens were closed. (The food ration in our POW camp was also cut a little short at that same time, but not for long.) I wasn't needed in the kitchen any longer, but with Charlie's help I was able to go to the motor pool. I became a licensed US Army truck driver. Each morning I reported to the motor pool and got my work assignment for the day. One time I was told to pick up a load of dirt. When I got to the site, a bunch of GIs with shovels started loading my truck. They asked me to help them. I grinned and said, "No speak English," and climbed back up behind my steering wheel. Actually, I had been instructed always to stay with my truck and not to leave the cab unoccupied, but the usual situation was that the work crew was POWs, not GIs. Most days I finished my driving assignment before noon. Then, after refilling the gas tank, I drove freely around the camp compound or found a shady place to sleep.
Going Back to Texas
My first trip back to San Antonio was in 1972. I found it was no longer the town I had in my memory. All the old houses were gone. The San Antonio River, which at the end of the war looked to me like a muddy, slow stream of waste water, had been developed into a fabulous River Walk about the time of the 1968 World's Fair ("Hemisfair"). The River Walk winds between super-modern hotels and parks, or a boat trip will take you around the downtown area in 40 minutes.
In 1986 the German POWs had a reunion in Mexia, Texas, at the invitation of city officials who were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city's founding. The World War II prison camp was a part of Mexia's history and held important memories for many people in the area. Some of those who attended had been our guards, and many more remembered knowing about us or seeing us go through town in trucks when they were children. I attended this reunion, with my wife. She had spent the war years in Europe, in the full turmoil of the bombing, scarcity, and anguish. At one point in the reunion a news reporter mentioned that the POWs had been fenced in. My wife spoke out: "They were much better off here than being at home during the daily air raids or fighting somewhere." The Dallas Morning News from Wednesday, May 28, 1986, carried a full article on the POWs as part of Mexia's sesquicentennial, as did the Mexia Daily News of that same date.
My most recent journey back to the Texas POW area was in May, 2003. A little earlier, on the website www.kriegsgefangen.de, I had read email dated January 17, 2003, from someone in Germany looking for information about his uncle, a POW named Erich Jagusch who had passed away in Fort Sam Houston and was buried there. This email message gave me the idea of going back to Texas again, to find and photograph that man's grave marker and send the picture to his relative. I had previously seen the Fort Sam Houston cemetery and had been quite touched to find a white flower on one of the POW graves. So I made up my mind to be there on Memorial Day, when all the war dead are honored, to visit the military cemetery where the POWs were interred. That was how it came about that 60 years after that very first trip to Texas I returned to visit some of my old POW camps.
Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery
I remembered that in Fort Sam Houston we had two deaths during the time I was there. One man died from a ruptured appendix, and I do not remember the reason for the other death. All deceased POWs were put to rest with a full military ceremony inside the camps where they died. Then, after the war, the remains of those who died in Texas were relocated to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, as I learned in a 1978 interview with the late professor and historic writer Dr. Ida Blanchette of Alvin College in Texas. Dr. Blanchette also mentioned that some POWs committed suicide. One of the men ended his life in a deep depression on Christmas Eve. One other could not go on anymore after learning that all his family had perished when they had to flee from their home in East Prussia.
Our camp near San Antonio was on the so-called Dots Field, right next to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, where in section Z 4 are the gravesites of 141 POWs, all Germans except for five Italians and one Japanese. The graves are marked with the same kind of white stone as is used for the American soldiers also buried there. The stones are engraved with the name of the deceased and the date of death; a few also show the birth date and military rank. Only grave number 109 is missing. According to Dr. Blanchette, that man's family asked after the war to have the remains relocated to a family gravesite in Germany.
On Memorial Day of this spring, then, I was in fact able to locate the grave of Erich Jagusch in the national cemetery at Fort Sam Houston, and to take a clear photo of his grave marker. I have forwarded that photo to the nephew who had put out the email inquiry, and he has received it with gratitude.
I Return to Camp Bullis
Part of my May, 2003, trip was a visit to Camp Bullis. Upon my arrival at the gate I was stopped by the guard and asked where I was coming from and where I wanted to go. I told him that 60 years ago I had come here as a guest of the United States, against my will, and that I wanted to go to the headquarters. The guard let me pass. When I reached headquarters the camp commander immediately came and greeted me warmly: "Welcome home, sir!" He was most cordial and respectful, and seemed sincerely interested in my earlier experiences there. The commander is a history buff and has studied everything he could find about Camp Bullis, which goes back even to the American Civil War. He gave me permission to walk and drive freely around the grounds, and to take pictures. The commander spent quite some time with my wife and me, and said he regretted that another commitment would prevent him from touring with us. He told us there were numerous historical markers to supplement my own memories and guide us around the camp.
Our camp had been right behind the headquarters building.
The first thing that got my attention outside the HQ was a 2- by 3-foot marker showing a photo of some POWs and the layout of our "Tent City," together with a short write-up that on this location in 1944-1946 there had been a German prisoner of war camp. I recognized all of the men in that photograph, and remembered all their names. Nearby I found to my amazement that the foundations of the kitchen, showers, and toilets were all still there. After that it was easy for me to reconstruct the old camp in my mind. Strolling around, I even found (although it was overgrown with grass) most of the walkway we had built out of small fieldstones-what a troublesome lot of hard work that had been! I actually saw again the faces of my comrades from that time. My wife said later that, as she watched me there, I was 20 years old again, walking and moving like a young man she used to know. Maybe one thing that made my memories of 60 years ago come straight back was that the temperature was still 104 degrees!
While driving around the grounds in my motor home I recognized some of the live oak trees and cedar groves and mesquite patches where, in the old days, I had parked my motor pool truck and napped in the shade on hot afternoons. Along some of those old roads there are still trees where POWs carved their names into the bark. I asked about the swimming pool the POWs built and was told it is still there but is now just a mud hole; I wasn't able to find it. Our sport field is still in use today by the soldiers stationed at Camp Bullis. I tried to find out what has happened to my old friend Charlie the cook who drove me to San Antonio that night at the end of the war, but when I asked about him the commander said, "Sure, that's easy-every cook we ever had was a Charlie."
Foundations of the kitchen
A Word of Thanks
One of the high points of my entire trip was the wonderful conversation of Mr. John Monguso and his colleagues at the Fort Sam Houston Military Museum. I am grateful to them for the generous welcome they gave to me, and for their work to keep alive the stories of those times and people.
Thanks also to Jeanne Howe for her assistance with writing this narrative in American English.