Relive a forgotten part of World War II POW history at Camp Hearne

12:00 a.m. Saturday, April 9, 2016 Travel

Driving through Hearne, a small town northwest of College Station, you see the common rural Texas sites: historic train depots, a Main Street dotted with 19th-century buildings and perhaps a few antique stores. But as you venture the back streets of Hearne, the first thing that catches your eye is a barbed-wire fence from the 1940s. Then, a small barrack comes into view, followed by a watchtower.

It might look like an old prison or a Japanese internment camp, but Japanese-American citizens weren’t the only ones imprisoned in the U.S. during WWII. Almost half a million prisoners of war — mostly from Germany and Italy – were held in camps all over the country.

It started with the surrender of the Afrika Korps in spring 1943, when more than 150,000 soldiers were sent to camps in the U.S. According to the Geneva Convention of 1929, which set international wartime standards for prisoners, POWs had to be moved to a climate similar to where they were captured. The American South was deemed as the most appropriate location.

Because of the availability of space, Texas had more than twice as many camps as any other state, with roughly 78,000 POWs living here by the end of the war. The prisoners, however, didn’t get back home until 1947, two years after the war ended. Camp Hearne was among the biggest camps in Texas, and today, its museum provides the most comprehensive and well-documented display of this part of Texas history.

“Our passion is to share these stories,” says Cathy Lazarus, executive director of the nonprofit group Roll Call: Friends of Camp Hearne. She opened the museum in 2010 with the help of a federal grant. “We’re trying to make this highlight some of the American homefront contributions, and our primary focus is the contribution of rural America. We try to find new and unique ways of telling the story.”

Now, 73 years after the first prisoners arrived, what’s left of Camp Hearne is its foundations and some broken fountains. The barrack and watchtower found today are re-creations of the originals. When the camp was decommissioned, its buildings were sold back to the community — just hooked off its foundations and taken away to their new locations.

But in June 1943, when the first wave of prisoners arrived, Camp Hearne was a bustling place. The 720-acre lot was home to about 4,800 prisoners housed in barracks with about 50 men each. The town itself only had 3,100 inhabitants at the time; the influx of POWs and American military police guarding the camp was a big change.

German soldier Heino Erichsen was a 19-year-old private when he was captured in North Africa. Today, he’s 91, and he still remembers his first impression of Camp Hearne.

“After the primitive experience (in Africa), it was like a new life. We had regular meals, regular bunks,” he says. “And no one was shooting at me.”

Like many other prisoners of war, he was sent to do agricultural work in nearby fields, which needed the labor because most of the local young men were off at war. POWs were paid 80 cents a day in “scripts” that could be used inside the camp to buy things like beer and cigarettes.

Not every prisoner was put to work. Most of the POWs at Camp Hearne were noncommissioned officers, who, according to the Geneva Convention, were not required to work. Instead, they passed the time with recreational and educational programs.

“It was a really nice time for them,” says Michael Waters, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University. “Some say they spent the best years of their lives there.”

For the NCOs especially, daily life at Camp Hearne was anything but dire. They built garden fountains made of stone, a stadium-seating theater complete with an orchestra pit, and all kinds of wooden furniture. They took classes by visiting Baylor and Texas A&M professors, as well as fellow prisoners who were teachers before the war. They formed orchestras, played soccer and wrote their own theater skits. They had an abundance of food because the military and its prisoners did not experience rationing.

“When the German POWs would play soccer, they didn’t have anything to mark their goal lines with, so they would use leftover sugar from their daily supply,” says Melissa Freeman, program director at Friends of Camp Hearne. “At the same time, there were rations for the general public, and bakeries couldn’t operate because of the small amount of sugar they got. If people from the city had found out, they probably would’ve burned the place down.”

POW camps around the country garnered the nickname the “Fritz Ritz” among some civilians, and it was all a result of the Geneva Convention, which required that military personnel treat their prisoners the same way they treat their own troops.

“It’s difficult for anybody to think that war has a set of rules,” says Lazarus. “We went way above and beyond treating our German prisoners humanely, with a lot of decency. It was in every military handbook that every soldier was given that said, ‘This is the way you treat a POW and this is the reason why.’”

The townspeople were curious about the prisoners when they first arrived. The young men marching in were blond and blue-eyed — much like the villagers themselves — and weren’t seen as a threat. Not many POWs interacted with the world outside the camp, but those who worked for ranchers and farmers got to know some of the families.

“A lot of friendships were developed and a lot of trust,” says Waters. “After the war, some of the former POWs would continue to correspond with people they worked with.”

Many of these POWs, although fighting for the Axis powers, were not themselves Nazi sympathizers. They were people from all walks of life drafted into the army. A small group of prisoners at Camp Hearne were true believers of the Third Reich — and they ruled the camp through fear and intimidation.

“It was basically one big bully camp,” says Lazarus. “The Nazis controlled the camp while the others were just trying to survive.”

The clash peaked in December 1943, when a group of Nazi sympathizers murdered a fellow prisoner for being an outspoken anti-Nazi. It happened in the middle of the night, so the guards couldn’t find the culprits — and no one was fessing up. Waters says this murder assured the camp would be controlled by the Nazi element, who had their own underground newspaper and a secret short-wave radio.

“The Americans knew that the Nazis were in control, but they liked that because it kept order in the camp,” he says.

The guards didn’t interfere, and the Nazis didn’t commit any other murders. But they would did try other forms of disobedience whenever possible. They climbed the water tower and hung a big Nazi flag, which flew over the camp for an entire day. They marched and sang Nazi songs and engraved swastikas wherever possible. These actions intimidated other prisoners, including Erichsen. If they didn’t join in on the enthusiastic chanting, they could be considered anti-Nazi.

“They had to be afraid of two different things: the guards and the Nazis,” says Jean Erichsen, his wife. “They were careful about what they said because they could be beaten up or killed. Today it looks calm and peaceful, but then it wasn’t.”

Waters began research into Camp Hearne in the 1990s, excavating the area, talking to former POWs and military police members, and delving into a deep historical analysis. But before Waters came into the scene, this part of Texas history had been largely forgotten. The camp was an overgrown field with artifacts just waiting to be uncovered.

“I thought it’d be an interesting archaeological project. I never expected it to take a life of its own,” says Waters. “Cathy took the bulls by the horn and wanted to create the museum to tell the story of the POW experience and what it was like in other rural communities.”

Waters’ project eventually turned into a book, “The Lone Stalag: German Prisoners of War at Camp Hearne.” The dozens of artifacts he collected from his archaeological digs and from former POWs are now at display at the Camp Hearne Museum.

“Most people are surprised when they leave the museum,” says Lazarus. “Our mission is to preserve as much as we can of these stories, these artifacts.”

Since it opened in 2010, the museum has continued to grow. It plans to open a second barrack, expand its exhibit, develop educational programs and purchase the rest of the camp’s land from the city. But Lazarus says it all takes time and money.

“Every little town in Texas has a railroad depot, or some sort of Victorian house,” she says. “And I’m thinking, how many places are there in Texas that really have this very early history of WWII?”

View full experience