The inmates of the `Fritz Ritz'

SUN JOURNAL

POWs: Life at Camp Hearne, Texas, for German soldiers during World War II was a far cry from what al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are experiencing in Cuba.

February 03, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HEARNE, Texas - They were prisoners of war, but they played in a soccer league, performed in an orchestra and put out a camp newsletter. They planted flower gardens and built elaborate fountains to embellish their otherwise drab surroundings. Some of the local residents took such a liking to them that they would bake treats and deliver them to the camp gates.

Today, as Taliban and al-Qaida detainees are held in decidedly more Spartan conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the POW camp that housed German soldiers here during World War II seems even more deserving of the nickname local citizens gave it in the parlance of the day - the Fritz Ritz.

"One former prisoner told me it was the best time he ever had," says Michael Waters, an anthropology professor at Texas A&M University who has excavated the former camp site. "A lot of them came back after the war and became citizens."

Camp Hearne was among the largest of about 650 POW camps across the country that housed more than 400,000 enemy soldiers - mostly German - captured during the war. As prisoners of a declared war, their status was clearer than the current detainees from the conflict in Afghanistan, and there was no question that they would be accorded the rights guaranteed by the Geneva Convention.

Most of Camp Hearne's inmates - about 5,000 - were noncommissioned officers who, by convention rules, were not required to work. Instead, they whiled away the days painting, taking classes, playing soccer and enjoying music and theater. Among the captured was an entire military orchestra.

After the deprivations of the front, it's no wonder many found life as a prisoner an improvement over life as a soldier.

"My first memories of Camp Hearne were great," says Heino Erichsen, who was captured in 1943 while serving in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps. "In Africa, I was in a tent, and there was very little water. The first thing I saw at Camp Hearne was a water tower, and I thought, `Oh, good, a shower.'"

That water tower, now rusted, is the most visible remnant of the camp. The site, part of an industrial park, is overgrown with weeds. But city officials hope to develop it as an attraction, creating a walking tour through the former camp grounds and displaying artifacts unearthed by Waters and his students during the past several years. They found some of the foundation of the camp's theater, as well as canteens, mess kits, belt buckles, coins and hand-carved Luftwaffe insignias.

Waters, a World War II buff, became interested in Camp Hearne after reading a book about POWs in America by a fellow Texas A&M professor, historian Arnold Krammer. Camp Hearne was less than a half-hour drive from campus, and he visited the site and began excavating it in 1996. As word spread of his work, former prisoners and guards contacted him, and Waters has recorded their oral histories and organized Camp Hearne reunions.

"There was quite a bit of interaction between the camp and the town, and the guards and the prisoners got to know one another," Waters says. "They came to even trust one another - the guards would sometimes take a snooze while guarding the prisoners, and the prisoners would sometimes wake them up so they wouldn't get in trouble. A kind of camaraderie developed."

The benign relationship seems remarkable today, particularly considering how during this same time, Americans of Japanese ancestry were being herded into camps simply for fear that they would be disloyal. But the German soldiers must have seemed familiar, particularly here in central Texas, where many residents were descendants of the German and other European immigrants who settled here in the 19th century.

"We looked like them," says Erichsen, now 77 years old. "Some hated us - they said we were killing Americans. All this is totally understandable. But a lot of them felt sorry for us. We were so young."

The sympathy only went so far - when a group of Camp Hearne prisoners escaped and thought they'd be welcomed in New Braunfels, a town about 140 miles away that they picked for its German name, they were beaten by locals and sent packing back to the POW camp.

Erichsen was 19 years old when he was captured in Tunisia, a soldier who had been drafted only a year before to fight for Nazi Germany. And although much has been made of Camp Hearne's amenities, for a private like Erichsen, the camp was not about plays or arts and crafts projects.

"I did not have a country club life," says Erichsen, who because of his rank was among those who were required to work, in his case on one of the farms in the area. "I was planting onions. After that kind of work, you don't feel like carving statues."

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