Historical Information

General Introduction

During the second world war, large numbers of Axis soldiers were captured by the Allies. The first combatants captured by the American army belonged to Rommel’s Afrika Korps; captured in Tunisia in May 1943. These prisoners were brought across the Atlantic and interred at camps throughout the United States. By June 1945, over 425,000 Axis prisoners of war (ca. 371,000 Germans, 50,000 Italians, and 4000 Japanese) were housed in over 650 POW camps across the United States. While there is literature on the general POW program, most notably that of historian Arnold Krammer, none of these POW camps have ever been intensively investigated. These camps, which are a part of American history, are disappearing along with an entire generation of people who experienced these POW camps firsthand. Over the past several years, my students and I have been investigating Camp Hearne in an attempt to record its history before it is lost forever. We have conducted archaeological excavations at the camp, interviewed former guards and POWs, and searched through archives. Based on this research a comprehensive view of this camp is emerging.

 

Historical Background on Camp Hearne

In 1942, the U.S. Army Provost Marshal General’s Office was searching for sites to locate POW camps.  The civic leaders of Hearne, Texas felt that a POW camp would bring economic prosperity to their city and began lobbying for a camp. Chamber of Commerce President Roy Henry sent a letter to Congressman Luther Johnson on March 10, 1942 suggesting Hearne as a possible site. Congressman Johnson in turn contacted Colonel B. M. Bryan of the Provost Marshal General’s Office with this proposal. By the end of the month, Colonel Bryan dispatched engineers to Hearne to conduct a preliminary survey of the area. By mid-April, the inspection was completed and Hearne was selected for a camp. By the end of June 1942, Colonel Bryan approved the plan for Camp Hearne.

The Army acquired the land and planning began in July 1942. Construction of the camp started in September 1942 and the camp was completed in February 1943. Camp Hearne was considered a main camp. It was originally designed to accommodate 3000 prisoners, but the plans were modified to house almost 5000 POWs. The first POWs arrived in June 1943. For the most part, the prisoners at Hearne were members of the German Afrika Korps that were captured in Tunisia. The population at Camp Hearne eventually grew to nearly 4800 prisoners in 1945.

Camp Hearne followed the standard camp layout approved by the Provost Marshal General’s Office. The camp was divided into three compounds with each compound subdivided into four companies with 400 prisoners. Each company area had a mess hall, lavatory, company office, and 8 barracks. Barbed wire fences isolated the camp and each compound was enclosed with fencing.

Most of the prisoners at Camp Hearne were non-commissioned officers in the army or air force. Because they were non-commissioned officers, they were not required to work according to the Geneva Convention. As a result, the prisoners at Camp Hearne had much leisure time. The largely-unemployed population of the camp devoted their time to recreational and educational programs. The inmates organized classes on various topics, such as history, accounting, and foreign languages. They played soccer and other games on the sports field, made crafts, painted, and read books. There were weekly movies, musical concerts, and theatrical performances at the camp. Hearne had an excellent orchestra because a German military orchestra was captured in Tunisia and transferred as a group to Hearne with all its instruments.

The enlisted men at the camp had a different life. According to the Geneva Convention, they could be required to work. At Camp Hearne, the enlisted prisoners (about 20% of the POW population) worked at a shop that repaired blankets and rain coats, and the rest worked for local farmers harvesting cotton, onions, and pecans.

There were many problems at the camp. A small group of Nazi sympathizers controlled the camp through fear and intimidation. This was most clearly demonstrated in the murder of Corporal Hugo Krauss in 1943 for being too friendly towards the Americans. The prisoners had secret short-wave radios hidden beneath barracks that received the news from Germany every day. Several prisoner tried to escape, but all were caught. Some prisoners, no longer able to cope with their situated committed suicide.

Camp Hearne was also notable, in that the camp became the Central POW Post Office responsible for the distribution of all censored mail coming from Germany to the prisoners in the United States in March 1944. This unit was very successful in moving the mail; however, the operation was poorly supervised by the Americans and abuses occurred. Prisoners would often insert messages to their friends in other camps and write greetings on the outside of envelopes. While this was harmless, a more sinister use of the postal system emerged. The Nazi element within the camp infiltrated the post office and developed a secret system of inter-camp correspondence. The Nazis had access to the names of all POWs in the United States and they compiled a list of Anti-Nazi prisoners that would be dealt with after the war. This situation continued until numerous investigations revealed the problems and the postal unit was transferred to another camp in July 1945.

Japanese prisoners were held at Camp Hearne for a short period near the end of the war. A few hundred Japanese prisoners of war arrived in the summer of 1945 and were repatriated to Japan in October 1945. Compound 3 was cleared of German POWs and the Japanese were isolated there. The Japanese prisoners sent to Hearne were to be part of a reeducation program. However, the war ended before the program could be implemented and the Japanese prisoners were returned to Japan.

All the German POWs at Hearne and other camps in the United States were repatriated to Europe by January 1946. Almost all of the prisoners were first sent to England, Scotland, France, or Belgium. There they worked on farms, in mines, and repaired war damage. After serving a year to two years in these countries, they returned home to Germany.

The Army closed Camp Hearne in January 1946. The buildings and property were sold as surplus property. Eventually most of the land was purchased by the City of Hearne.

 

What is there to see today?

The site of Camp Hearne, for the most part, belongs to the City of Hearne. It is largely overgrown with vegetation and little can be seen of the camp. The vegetation has grown and covered our excavation areas, and the features and foundations we studied. Thus, there is little to see at the camp today.

A detailed model of Camp Hearne, as it appeared during the war, is on display at the Hearne Chamber of Commerce in downtown Hearne. The model can be viewed from 8 am to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

 

For Additional Information See

                    Carlson, Lewis H., 1997, We Were Each Other’s Prisoners. Basic Books, New York.

                    Choate, Mark, 1989, Nazis in the Pineywoods. Best of East Texas Publishers, Lufkin, Texas.

Geiger, Jeffrey E., 1996, German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California: Personal Accounts, 1944-1946. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.

Hoza, Steve, 1995, PW: First-Person Accounts of German Prisoners of War in Arizona. Self-published, Phoenix, Arizona.

                    Krammer, Arnold, 1979, Nazi Prisoners of War in America. Stein and Day, New York.

May, Lowell A., 1995, Camp Concordia: German POWs in the Midwest. Sunflower University Press, Manhattan, Kansas.

Powell, Allan K., 1989, Splinters of a Nation: German Prisoners of War in Utah. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Thompson, Glenn, 1993, Prisoners on the Plains: German POWs in America. Phelps County Historical Society, Holdrege, Nebraska.

 

For Further Information or Comments

For further information or comments on this website, please contact Dr. Michael Waters at the Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station. TX 77843. He can be reached mwaters@tamu.edu.