Combat operations during World War II occurred far away from the United States, mostly on distant Pacific isles or in European villages. However, a piece of World War II history did happen right here in East Texas. The United States held nearly half a million Axis prisoners of war (POWs) in 650 camps throughout the country. Texas housed roughly 50,000 of these POWs in 70 camps throughout the state.
Camp Huntsville served as one the first and largest POW camps in Texas. Completed in 1942, the camp opened the following April, when German prisoners captured in North Africa arrived In East Texas. By the end of 1943, Camp Huntsville housed roughly 4,800 prisoners, most from Germany's famed Afrika Korps. American military personnel at Camp Huntsville offered fair and humane treatment of prisoners who received ample food, fair working conditions, and a wide array of recreational activities.
Although German prisoners were captured while fighting for the Third Reich, not all the prisoners supported the Nazi government or its war aims. In fact, there were harsh disagreements between the Nazi and anti-Nazi elements at Camp Huntsville. In November 1943, these tensions exploded in a riot at the camp that sparked national news coverage and contributed to a call for reform at POW sites around the country.
As a result of tensions between Nazis and anti-Nazis, American officials created a program designed to re-educate POWs in American democratic traditions and history. Many Germans at Camp Huntsville listened to lectures, watched movies, and read materials that celebrated the virtues of the U.S. Constitution and American Bill of Rights. The Geneva Conventions banned political indoctrination, however, so the United States packaged the re-education program as voluntary “intellectual diversion.”
In 1944, as part of re-education, camp officials started showing newsreels that demonstrated the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Many German POWs thought that Americans had faked these films as propaganda. Nevertheless, after the introduction of the re-education programs, Nazi solidarity, control, and violence decreased at Camp Huntsville.
During the early days of the war, federal officials had largely ignored educational programming for the small number of Japanese POWs. The Japanese prisoners had not caused problems as the German Nazis had. However, on July 18, 1945, the Secretary of War secretly authorized a re-education program for some pre-screened “cooperative” Japanese POWs. Camp Huntsville was selected as the lone site to carry out the program due to its location and experience re-educating POWs.
In September of 1945, Camp Huntsville sent its remaining German POWs to Camp Hearne to make room for the incoming Japanese prisoners. The United States hoped to create some pro-American, pro-democracy sentiment before repatriation; 200 Japanese moved to Huntsville for a crash course on October 5, 1945. These POWs translated U.S. documents and lectures into Japanese. Professors from nearby Sam Houston State Teachers College gave lectures with titles like, “The Need for Opportunity in Japan for Building a Liberal Democratic Nation,” and “Contrasts: Pseudo-Freedom in Japan and Real Freedom in U.S.” The Japanese re-education program ended on December 15, 1945 and the POWs returned home.
Today an official Texas Historical Marker marks the spot of the entrance to the former Camp Huntsville, a small reminder that this spot was witness to a piece of World War II. It was here that thousands of soldiers spent their war.