Filed Under World War II

Huntsville Prisoner of War Camp

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.

Audio

Camp Huntsville Guard Nelson from San Antonio calls in to share some of his father’s memories as a guard at Camp Huntsville. In the complete broadcast, Nelson tells of the close relationship his father shared with some of the POWs; a handmade table, given as a gift from the POWs remains a family heirloom. Source: “Questioning U.S. Policy on America’s Captives,” NPR Talk of the Nation, Neal Conan, April 22, 2010, accessed June 22, 2015, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126194499.

Images

Camp Huntsville
Camp Huntsville In the spring of 1943, Walker County residents assembled to watch the first group of German POWs arrive at Camp Huntsville. The soldiers marched three miles from the train to Camp Huntsville singing German military songs in four-part harmony. Though the United States treated the POWs well, the armed guards in watchtowers and barbed wire fences served as reminders that they were still imprisoned. Source: Sam Houston State University Archives.
Marching to Work
Marching to Work In order to compensate for wartime labor shortages, the United States allowed POWs to work for local farms and businesses. The camp commander at Camp Huntsville found that the POW labor program kept prisoners too busy to cause problems and cultivated good will with Walker County residents. Here the prisoners are leaving, with shovels in hand, to go work in the local fields. Source: Associated Press.
Huntsville POWs Working in the Field
Huntsville POWs Working in the Field From 1943 to 1945, POWs at Camp Huntsville harvested fruit, nuts, rice and cotton. This POW labor helped save many local crops. Walker County farmers appreciated the manpower. The farmers paid $1.50 per day to Camp Huntsville and the individual POW earned $0.80 of that money in canteen coupons. Many locals maintained close relationships with the POWs who worked their farms, even after the war. Source: Associated Press.
Canteen Coupons
Canteen Coupons The Geneva Conventions required that POW camps provide a canteen for prisoners to purchase extra food, clothing, toiletries, and other necessities. The canteen officer at Huntsville even added expensive trinkets, alcohol, and candy to the canteen stock. POW labor ran the canteen. At Camp Huntsville, the POWs used the profits from canteen sales to buy luxuries from the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Source: Walker County Historical Commission.
Playing Hundt Ball
Playing Hundt Ball Camp Huntsville POWs played Hundt Ball, a sport like soccer except the players throw the ball. POWs spent much of their free time playing sports. According to the Houston Post, dated June 20, 1943, "Soccer is a favorite sport of the Huntsville Camp's internees. Most of the prisoners are athletic, and inter-compound track meets, held at night under floodlights, are hotly contested." Source: Associated Press.
German Re-education
German Re-education The re-education program or "The Idea Factory" began in 1944. Here a teacher lectures a group of German POWs. At Camp Huntsville, army officers and professors from the nearby Sam Houston State Teacher's College taught many of the courses, deigned to demonstrate the value of American democracy and the American way of life. Source: U.S. Army.
Wille und Weg
Wille und Weg Camp Huntsville offered classes in American history, politics, literature, art and more to the German POWs. Here is an example of German re-education material: "The Growth of Democracy in Early America," from Wille und Weg (Will and Way), a POW newspaper. Source: U.S. Army.
Holocaust Films
Holocaust Films Forced to watch newsreels about the horrors of the German concentration camps, many POWs hung their heads or covered their eyes. Not all German soldiers were Nazis and not all Germans knew of the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich. Some POWs believed the U.S. Army faked the films, while others smiled through the films, unfeeling about the genocide. Source: Associated Press.
Country Campus Entrance, circa 1950
Country Campus Entrance, circa 1950 Camp Huntsville officially closed on January 5, 1946. Sam Houston State Teacher's College bought the facility for $1.00 and utilized the area for its Country Campus and for student housing. Source: Sam Houston State University Archives.
Country Campus Map
Country Campus Map Through the years, the college has used the site as a spring training camp for the farm clubs of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, as a golf course, and an observatory. Today, Sam Dominey, a former alumnus, owns much of old Camp Huntsville and uses it for cattle ranching. Source: Sam Houston State University Archives.

Location

Metadata

Rachael Larkin, “Huntsville Prisoner of War Camp,” East Texas History, accessed July 17, 2024, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/161.