feature and photos by Rickey Robertson – Around The Town Contributor
By November 1943 the Allied Armies had broken the back of German General Erwin Rommel’s vaunted AFRIKA KORPS in the desert lands of North Africa, the island of Sicily had been wrestled from the Germans, and now American and other allied armies had landed in Italy and were beginning to advance up the Italian boot. The battles that had been won by the allies brought on something unexpected that had to be addressed . The problem was what to do with all the German Prisoners of War. They all could not be housed in England or in the captured territories. So the US Army began building 500 prisoner of war camps throughout the United States.
Few Americans know that from 1942 until 1946 over 400,00 German, 50,000 Italian, and 5,000 Japanese prisoners of war were housed in the continental United States. These German POW’s also would be able to help the war effort in America. How could they do that ? These POW had many trades and could be used to repair American uniforms and equipment, rebuild vehicles, work in the cotton fields of the south, cut sugar cane in Louisiana, be PX clerks at army camps, work in sawmills, factories, and other types of industries. With so many of America’s men off overseas in the military, there were always shortages of manpower. A new source was found.
Here in western Louisiana the US Army had established Camp Polk, La. in 1941. This large sprawling base in western Louisiana housed a large contingent of German Prisoners of War until 1946. According to information I have gathered through interviews, in 1943 German POW’s began to arrive in Leesville , La. by rail. The POW’s would embark at the rail depot and would march several miles to their new home at Camp Polk. These German POW’s were veterans of the AFRIKA KORPS and had been captured in North Africa. After being processed in North Africa, they were placed on ships and were transported to ports in the United States. Many POW’s were in tattered uniforms, many in blood stained uniforms, and many were confused at their new surroundings, and many hard core Nazi’s were outright hostile. But upon their arrival one thing began to change their minds. What was it ? Good high quality food ! Yes, under the Geneva Convention these POW’s were provided good food and decent barracks. Our POW’s taken by the Germans were not given such luxury and underwent many hardships.
These POW’s were a long way from Germany, but they were still soldiers. In every camp the POW’s still underwent military rituals such as lights out, reveille, formations, marching, and other soldierly details. Authority was established by rank. Each POW Camp had a ranking German officer in charge of the POW’s.
The German POW’s proved to be very good workers in Louisiana. Many were from farms and were good farm hands who knew how to milk cows, plant crops, harvest crops, and do odd jobs. They were eager to get out from behind the barbed wire. In Leesville, POW’s helped to paint many of the downtown buildings, with one German artist painting beautiful pictures of German topics. These still survive and are part of Leesville history. But did you know that German POW’s came into Peason, located in Sabine Parish.
In the Peason and Peason Ridge area, since 1941 the US Army had held large scale maneuvers and literally hundreds and hundreds of entrenchments had been dug everywhere. Here in Peason, Mr. Woodrow Herrington’s plow horse had gotten out of the field and was found dead with a broken neck in a deep entrenchment. A plow horse was a very important thing on a farm and now Mr. Woodrow would have to make do till he could find another horse. It was decided to put the German POW’s to good use in our area. The US Army brought a large convoy of German POW’s from Camp Polk in the summer and fall of 1944 to Peason and set up a bivouac site for them. These POW’s were issued shovels, picks, hoe’s, cant hooks, and other tools and were advised to find and cover up all the open entrenchments. There were supposedly several hundred Germans who fanned out throughout the area and began to cover up these foxholes, trenches, mortar and artillery pits, and bunkers. After a day or so, a local farmer happened to see a group of men in German Army uniforms going through the woods at Peason. Very shortly the news was out to every farm that the Germans had landed and were in Peason. Every farmer grabbed a shotgun and headed out to do battle with the German Army. It didn’t take long to see the Germans were not armed and the American guards quickly advised everyone that these were prisoners of war from Camp Polk. After settling this problem so the farmers knew who they were, the Germans worked for nearly 3 weeks. They were even given water and food by friendly farmers to help with their army field rations. None of the POW’s made any type of attempt to escape on this detail and from what I can find out, none escaped from Camp Polk during the War. Many Germans did escape from various camps, and the last German POW , Georg Gaertner, turned himself into authorities in 1985.
Throughout their stay at Camp Polk the Germans made many friends with local Americans that have lasted over the many years. By 1946 the POW’s were all on their way back to their homes in Germany. The POW camp was located just south of present day La. Hwy. 10. It was a large camp made up of tar paper wooden barracks for the POW’s. Today at this site is present day HONOR FIELD where Fort Polk conducts ceremonies of all types. Nothing is left of the old camp to make anyone think that during World War II there were German POW’s housed there. Hopefully in the future a historical marker can be placed at this site before it fades into history and is forgotten like so many other historical locations in our area. So now the folks in Sabine and Vernon Parishes know of another bit of rare military history for our area.
Categories: Special Feature