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Nazi POWs in Texas: Five Facts, Including the Most Inept Escapes Ever

Texas used to be dotted with prisoner-of-war camps in World War II, a temporary home to thousands of Germans and Italians.

Texas had far more prisoners than any other state, mainly because the first batch came from the North Africa campaign, and the Geneva Convention said prisoners should be housed in a climate similar to where they came from. Eventually camps were set up in more German-esque climates like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

5. Not-So-Great Escapes Most Axis POWs, especially after things started going badly for their side, were content to be a long, long way from the fighting, being treated tolerably well. Others tried to escape. Arnold Krammer, who wrote a book on Texas POW camps, notes that the escapees weren't exactly Steve McQueen and crew:

Motivated by boredom, the need for privacy, or a desire to meet girls, the prisoners often simply wandered away from their work parties and were picked up within a few hours, confused and helpless. Most escapes were comical affairs: a prisoner from Mexia calling for help after having been chased up a tree by an angry Brahman bull; three from Hearne who were found on the Brazos River in a crude raft hoping somehow to sail back to Germany; and another from Hearne who was picked up along U.S. Highway 79, near Franklin, heartily singing German army marching songs.

Of the raft escape, a Web site dedicated to U-Boats is more admiring:

Six German prisoners spent part of every day constructing a makeshift boat in a hidden area along the nearby Brazos River; it was a remarkable craft made of waterproof GI ponchos with umbrellas for sails. One night they escaped and sailed their improvisation down the Brazos, hoping to reach the Gulf Coast.

"It was an ambitious project, but they were apprehended less than five miles downriver from the camp," the site says.

4. They're all but gone

Foundation supports for Camp Howze near Gainesville.
Foundation supports for Camp Howze near Gainesville.

Once the war ended, there was little use for the camps. Some survived by becoming state health facilities or parts of schools, but most just faded away. The PBS show History Detectives tried to track a few.

 

3. Friendships Many prisoners earned canteen "money" by doing farmwork for Americans trying to overcome the manpower shortage caused by the war. In many cases, the two sides became friendly with each other, to the point that in the decades after WWII, reunions were occasionally held. Many prisoners wanted to stay in the U.S. and petitioned to do so -- some no doubt having lost their families, and all facing privations back in ruined Germany that America was blissfully free from -- but all were sent back.

2. The "Fritz Ritz" Krammer says that camp life for the prisoners was hardly strenuous, and the facilities were built well enough that some locals would occasionally complain about the luxuries at the "Fritz Ritz."

Discipline was handled by the German officers, and diversions were plenty:

Reveille was at 5:45 A.M., and lights were turned off at 10:00 P.M. Between those times, the prisoners worked, took care of their own needs, and entertained themselves with a large variety of handicraft and educational programs. Every camp had an impressive selection of POW-taught courses, ranging from English to engineering, a POW orchestra, a theater group, a camp newspaper, and a soccer team. Some prisoners even took correspondence courses through local colleges and universities, and their academic credits were accepted by the Germans upon their return. Apparently the majority of German prisoners who spent the war years in Texas remembered their experience as one of the greatest adventures of their lives.

1. Texas was the end of the line for one almost-successful escapee Oberleutnant Peter Krug escaped from a POW camp in Canada in 1942 with names of contacts who would help him reach Mexico and the German Embassy there. He got as far as San Antonio.

A hotel clerk recognized him from an FBI alert and called authorities. Krug helpfully had all the contact info for his helpers on him.

"Krug became a bit arrogant after this encounter with US authorities," one author writes. "He caused a stir when he appeared in court dressed in his Luftwaffe uniform and belittling American authorities for not catching him after he had passed forged documents to different levels of authority on no fewer than seven occasions without suspicion."

Arrogant Nazis. Ya gotta love `em.


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