1943 - Even Nazi prisoners of war in Texas were shocked at how black people were treated in the Sout
One morning in the spring of 1943, years before the end of World War II, Huntsville, Texas woke up to a startling sound: the clip-clapping boots of Nazi soldiers in formation, singing German marching songs as they made their way through the dusty streets of the small town.
Those soldiers were among the first prisoners of war sent to POW camps in the United States. The townspeople watched as barracks went up, surrounded by barbed wire and chain link fences, and wondered what, exactly, they were in for. Americans had only been in the war for a year when POW camps were being built, and residents of Huntsville had little time to prepare for the reality of thousands of Nazi prisoners taking up residence just eight miles from the town limits.
In fact, the United States entered the prisoner of war business very reluctantly in 1941, and then only at the insistence of the British. The Allies were winning the North African front of the war, and capturing soldiers they could not house. The British wore down the United States after months of efforts and a few frosty notes from Whitehall. “It is very hard to understand on this side why…it should prove so difficult even to get an agreement in principle,” complained one frustrated writer. The U.S. begrudgingly accepted their share of POWs in 1942, starting with 50,000 soldiers from the African front.
POW camps would spread out across the country in subsequent years, throughout the South, Southwest and Midwest, cropping up in California, New Jersey, West Virginia, and North Carolina. By the time the war ended, about 500,000 captured soldiers were housed in the United States, and 380,000 of those were German prisoners of war.
Huntsville was the first camp to open, built from scratch and fully outfitted to comply with Geneva Convention requirements for warm and hygienic living quarters, access to medical treatment, provisions for libraries and other intellectual activities, and open spaces that encouraged physical activities. Prisoners also had to be housed in a climate similar to where they were captured, which was why so many captured in North Africa ended up in Texas.
By the time they arrived at Camp Huntsville, the German POWs were thrilled. They’d already been dazzled by travelling to the prison in luxurious Pullman cars. Both the cityscapes and the rural beauty of the United States amazed them. “From New York to Texas, you saw the whole countryside. Cars driving. Buildings lit up….I came to wonder — how did we ever think we would beat the U.S. at this war?” former POW Heino Erichsen mused decades after the war ended.
Men like Rudolf Thill, who was transported to Huntsville in 1943, found sparkling facilities behind the chain link fences and rows of barbed wire. Enlisted men lived in bunk rooms. Officers had their own quarters. They ate food that the townspeople could only dream of during rationing, with items like milk, meat, and butter appearing on their daily menus. Angry local residents dubbed the camps “The Fritz Ritz.”
At first, locals weren’t just resentful, but also feared the prospect of Nazi prisoners of war in their towns. Former prisoners of war remember Americans searching their faces, “looking for horns,” expecting the moral menace of the German soldiers to even manifest physically. Americans who gathered to gawk at the prisoners as they were transported across the country also expected to see a race of superhero-like men, blonde, muscular, tanned, and fearsome examples of men Hitler described as a “master race.” They were disappointed. “To our curiosity and surprise, they looked no different than other young men in the neighborhood,” a 14-year-old boy observed at the time.
The resentment passed quickly when the federal government decided, in 1943, that it would be safe to put the Nazi soldiers to work. Farmers had been complaining they couldn’t find anyone to work their fields. Most men were expected to fight in the war and for those who were left behind, the war-related industries paid far better than farm work. Farmers were thrilled to hire the prisoners to hoe and pick cotton. For the most part, the walls between the locals and the prisoners dissolved as soon as the Germans picked up hoes. Grateful farmers invited POWs to lunch and showered them with small gifts of candy and cigarettes. “They were just the best bunch of boys,” one Texan recalled.
American officials were frustrated by their inability to stop their citizens from fraternizing with the enemy after the walls between the prisoners and the townspeople came down (albeit metaphorically). Women lined up against the chain link fences to watch the POWs play soccer. People piled into train stations when a transport was scheduled to arrive, hoping for a glimpse of the prisoners. Edouard Patte, a Swiss delegate of the International YMCA who worked as a Red Cross monitor, put it this way: “it’s difficult to imagine that these nice blond lads with rosy cheeks had been war baiters and murderers a short while ago.”
The POWs also found friends in the most unlikely of places, as they worked alongside African Americans hoeing and picking cotton, talking away long days in the hot sun. African American field hands were painfully aware that white Americans treated Nazi prisoners far better than they did people of color. African Americans waited on POWs when they were transported in Pullman cars to their camps, and prisoners were also allowed to eat in whites-only cafeterias. At the camp, they were dealt the most menial jobs, including spraying the prisoners with delousing foam. The slights hurt all the more because African-American soldiers fought diligently during WWII in all-black units such as the renowned Tuskegee airmen.
Yet, on an individual level, they got along with the Germans. And Germans were fond of them, in part because African American soldiers had protected them from the mobs of people who wanted to kill the POWs.
Surprisingly, given the blatant racism of the Nazi party, some of the German soldiers were also shocked by the shoddy treatment of their fellow farmworkers. “The blacks…didn’t do much better than us,” remarked one POW. “They were just in front of the wire, and we were behind the wire.” Another German soldier, who was a farmer in his civilian life, noted that African American were expected to pick two to three more times the cotton required of the POWs. “You have to see how they lived,” he said after the war. “These people were so exploited.”
At the time, Huntsville was conducting a re-education program for German prisoners, and the status of African Americans made Germans look askance at their classes on the land of the free. “They were being taught the meaning of ‘democracy,’” explained historian Matthias Reiss, “while outside the southern camps no black citizen dared to step on the sidewalk alongside white Americans.”
As part of their re-education, prisoners were also showed films of Allied soldiers liberating the concentration camps. “We saw the emaciated bodies and empty eyes of the survivors,” said POW Gerhard Hennes. “We saw the piles of naked bodies, starved to death. We saw the mass graves. We saw the ovens where tens of thousands had been cremated. We saw and stared in silence, struggling but unable to believe what we Germans had done to Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war and many others deemed inferior or expendable.”
They watched them in disbelief, and many refused to accept the truth of what they saw. “This just doesn’t happen,” former POW Herman Daumling recalled thinking as he watched the films. “Nobody does that.” The fact of concentration camps was an open secret, but German soldiers claimed that no one knew about the genocide that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews and 5 million others that the Nazis deemed undesirable.
Listening to American radio news reports eventually convinced Daumling that the films weren’t propaganda, but unvarnished truth, but he was the exception. Fewer than half believed that the Holocaust was real by the end of the war, according to a poll conducted by the U.S. government.
Accepting the fact of the death camps had profound consequences for German soldiers. Hennes was one of the believers. “I turned in one profound transformation from being a hero to being a villain,” he said.
Thousands of German POWs moved back to the United States after the war, including Hennes. Historian Arnold Krammerestimates that 8,000 POWs eventually returned to the U.S. Some married American women, but most were sponsored by a resident to be eligible for residency, including former farmers supporting their former farm hands. POWs who didn’t immigrate to the States still visited Texas regularly for reunions with the farmers they once worked for. “Without exception, they recall their years as POWs in Texas as ‘the greatest times of their lives,’” Krammer observed.Erichsen also moved to the United States after the war, eventually becoming a citizen and settling in Texas. He’s lived here most of his life. Yet he can’t shake what he learned as a young person. He still remembers the songs he had to memorize as a young man in Nazi Germany. He offered a few lines to a reporter reluctantly, at his wife’s urging: “Sharpen the long knives on the lantern post. See the Jewish blood flow.” He doesn’t want to think about what he learned as a child, but he has acknowledged it is a part of him, and he can never relax his vigilance against the hateful indoctrination of his youth.