Prisoners of War

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There had been several escapes from the prisoner of war camp, but this one was with a different intent. There was no ill treatment to force the former soldier to flee from his captors to some unknown sanctuary. In fact, this camp had no real inhumanity documented at all. His destination was here among a patch of woods with a length of rope in hand.

The camp he escaped from was mammoth: composed of hundreds of buildings. There were many people looking for him. But they couldn’t take him back. He was not disappearing within distant waters: he intended to disappear from the face of the earth. It was only recent that his fears found him: his hometown had just been destroyed in the war. He came to a concrete conclusion.

He couldn’t continue living without his family.

The rope turned to a noose, the noose over a limb and soon his captors would discover only a bit of history. Their trek home was short: maybe only a mile and a half. Guard duty was not over in their prison camp in Huntsville.

About 10 miles out of Huntsville and three miles west of the Trinity River town of Riverside, there is a prison that is not documented on any map today. Over 60 years ago, it detained captured troops led once by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa along with other Germans and 182 Japanese soldiers. The POW camp was composed of over 400 buildings and was referred to many as a small city. But Huntsville, according to resident Norman Davidson, was not affected negatively by its new neighboring community.

“There was curiosity primarily,” Davidson explained, who was 15-years-old at the time. “It wasn’t like we threw rocks at them or anything,” he joked.

He went on to say that he personally did not work at the camp but had a buddy that was a timekeeper that kept track of how long the prisoners were working.

The location of Huntsville was its primary reason for the camp’s installation. The railroad crossed through nearby Riverside and from there the prisoners could march to the camp, located at Country Campus. But Huntsville residents were accustomed to prisons within constant eyesight. This made for another reason why Hunts-Vegas got the gold.

Rumors would escalate throughout the community when surrendering and captured troops would make the march from the trains to the barracks. It was not uncommon for townspeople to line the roads to witness the still-proud German fighting machine.

After all, the Germans believed the tide of war was still in Nazi favor. The German’s bellowing hymns could only be muffled by the sounds of hundreds of boots marching in time.

There were only 33 camps in Texas and Huntsville received its first residents in May of 1942. There, they were harbored in an area including a seven-wing hospital, gyms, dorms, wells, a clothing shop, barbers and bakeries. Watchtowers littered the gates and armed guards patrolled the areas.

There were some escapees but most instances were considered comical. While Huntsville had its share of jailbreaks, a similiar POW camp in Mexia confined an escapee that began screaming for help after taking refuge in a tree from an angry Brahman bull. In the camp in Hearne, three escapees were found in an architecturally unsafe raft attempting to sail back to the Fatherland down the Brazos River. Another in Hearne was picked up while joyously singing German army marching songs along U.S. Highway 79. Despite these rare few, apparently most prisoners found their custody to be nearly enjoyable.

There were POW orchestras, theater groups, camp newspapers and sports. Educational programs were included and some detainees even took correspondence courses through local colleges and universities. Others worked nearby farms, which were stripped of their workers due to the war. These prisoners were paid 80 cents in canteen coupons each day.

When the war was over, there were 425,000 enemy prisoners throughout the United States. Beginning in November of 1945, 50,000 prisoners a month returned back to Europe, first to rebuild war-ravaged France and Britain, and then back to their home in Germany. Huntsville’s part in war-prisoner confinement was finally over. The facility, however, soon traded hands from the federal government to Sam Houston State Teacher’s College.

On June 21, 1946, S.H.S.T.C. was endowed the 837-acre P.O.W. facility to share with its students and staff. On the front page of the July 4,1946 issue of The Houstonian, an old truck sits before the camp’s gymnasium. Climbing into the vehicle is Dr. Harmon Lowman, who accepted the deed from the government and would later be the namesake for the Lowman Student Center.

Among the areas acquired by the school were four baseball fields clustered together within the camp. There, former S.H.S.T.C. baseball player Bob Blazek practiced pitching and occasionally played in the minor league Pittsburgh Pirates farm club.

“They were there for spring training for the minor league,” said Blazek. “We played a number of exhibition games against the minor league teams.”

The spotlights and fences disappeared in the days when baseball was still a large part of his career, between 1953 until he left in 1957. Buildings began vanishing one by one, and soon, the school’s presence at the site diminished entirely. Across an open field on the Highway 19 today, all that remains is roughly six buildings and numerous foundations covered in layers of vegetation. Golfers work their way across the adjacent Country Campus’s nine-hole course with little knowledge of the hospital building and two barracks that still stand just yards away.

But for Erwin Rother, a former POW interviewed by The Huntsville Item in 1996, the location brought back tearful memories. His 20 month stay during the second World War was not marked by abuse as it was for many. He entered the hospital and became emotional instantly. He was proud to admit that his captivity couldn’t have been better than in the land of the free.