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German Prisoners of War Interned at Fort Bliss During World War II
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Leigh Smith
"Guten Tag, ich bin Deutsche soldat. Ich bin mit der Deutsche Luftwaffe hier stadsoniert. Ich bin froh ier zu sein."
Good day, I'm a German soldier stationed here with the German Air Force. I'm happy to be here."
Hearing German spoken in El Paso today does not sound that odd. With the German Air Force and German Air Defense School stationed at Fort Bliss, El Paso's German influence has grown over the past few decades.
But imagine for a minute German being spoken in El Paso during World War II. What would people have thought? Did it signal an invasion, or were these German speakers infiltrators or fifth columnists?
These ideas are not unbelievable. But the particular group of Germans who might have been overheard were prisoners of war interned in El Paso and the surrounding area during World War II.
After the United States declared war on December 8, 1941, the U.S. found itself fighting on both sides of the globe. In November 1942, allied forces invaded French North Africa. Shortly afterwards, large numbers of Italian and German prisoners were processed.
No one remained untouched by that second year of the war, but for many Texans, the first contact with the military reality of the conflict came with the appearance in their communities of large numbers of German and Italian prisoners of war. By the end of the war, the United States found itself holding more than 400,000 captives in 511 camps across the country.
Major considerations for the placement and location of camps included plenty of land away from important war industries. As a result, fully two-thirds of all camps in the United States, about 340 out of 511, were located in the South and Southwest, of which 120 camps containing 78,982 POWs were located in Texas.
El Paso was affected by the war in numerous ways. Fort Bliss was a major base that trained and shipped soldiers overseas. And in August 1943, approximately 1,000 Italian soldiers were interned in the El Paso County Coliseum for about six months, prior to being transferred to Fort Bliss, according to Leon C. Metz in Desert Army: Fort Bliss on the Texas Border.
When the first enemy prisoners started arriving in the States, they did not know what to expect. What they found amazed them: clean barracks, good health care, canteens full of consumer goods not seen in Europe in years and food so plentiful that they wrote their families to stop sending gift parcels. Such treatment soon stirred the American press and Congress to criticize the War Department for pampering the enemy, but the War Department defended its policy by pointing out the strategic reward of treating prisoners well: enemy troops were surrendering.
With regard to prisoners, the U.S. strictly followed the rules of the Geneva Convention. Buildings were made from supplies that were in great abundance in the States. The barracks and other buildings used by the prisoners were made of wood from pine trees. The largest of the prisoner of war camps located in Texas were known as base camps, built on property leased or purchased by the Army from citizens or other agencies of the Government.
During February and March of 1944, seven new base camps opened on existing military bases in Texas. Camp Bliss, located at Fort Bliss in El Paso, was one of the new base camps. It was originally constructed to hold suspected enemy aliens and continued in this capacity until early 1944, at which time the detention camp was phased out, and a prisoner of war camp took its place.
Camp Bliss was originally a tent camp, with room for 200 prisoners. In 1942, it was enlarged to accommodate 1,300. Camp Bliss was home for German and Italian prisoners for approximately 18 months and housed and average of 3,000 prisoners each month it was open. It closed on June 15, 1946, when the last prisoners were sent back to Europe.
Prison camps at Fort Bliss were located at Logan Heights off Dyer Street and on the main post in back of the current military police, adjutant general's office and other offices that are in the red brick buildings. An old night brown water tower now stands in the corner of what use to be stockade which housed the Italians. Some of the hangar buildings on Biggs Army Airfield also housed German prisoners, but the majority of the Germans were interned at Logan Heights.
Able-bodied prisoners worked at jobs that did not hurt the war effort of the U.S. The work could be done either at military bases or contracted out to small business, such as farms. Under international law, enlisted prisoners were to work and paid accordingly. Their pay was 80 cents a day if they worked for the Federal Government and an agreed price was reached between farmer and the U.S. camp commander for prisoners who worked on the farms.
Four branch camps were established solely for the cotton interests of the area. Late in 1942, a labor shortage developed around El Paso, and the area's cotton farmers feared that labor would not be adequate to harvest the 1943 crop. W. S. Foster, a local county agent, said that without the POWs labor, the crop would have been lost.
Italian prisoners were first interned at Camp Bliss for the specific purpose of working in the cotton fields around El Paso. After some time the Italians were moved out, replaced by German prisoners. Area cotton farmers complained that the Italian prisoners made poor farm workers, and they believed that the Germans would perform better.
Even though the prisoners worked hard, they had a great deal of free time. Generally they had many activities to occupy that spare time. Sports, painting and gardening were some of the more popular activities. Some of the prisoners showed more of an interest in academics, and they attended classes in the barracks and recreation rooms of the camps. Prisoners took classes in everything from chemistry and physics to American government, English language and journalism. These classes were taught by German prisoners who had been school teachers and professors before the war.
Some prisoners detained at Fort Bliss were able to attend classes, under guard, at the Texas College of Mines, now the University of Texas at El Paso. On May 19, 1944, the Reich Ministry of Education offered full high school and university credit for courses taken by German prisoners in the United States.
In May 1945, World War II in Europe ended. As the war came to a close, the POWs were repatriated and the many Texas communities which had hosted a POW camp resumed their peacetime existence. The barracks that once housed the prisoners have long since been torn down, and new barracks now occupy the area on Logan Heights. A field is all that remains, along with the water tower of the old Italian Camp on the main post, and the buildings at Biggs Field have all been replaced.
The only real evidence of the POWs that remains, besides El Pasoans during the war who knew about them, are the graves of 26 German and 15 Italian soldiers and the three graves of Japanese civilians who were detained here in El Paso. These graves can be found in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in the G section of the old post cemetery.
Other reminders in the surrounding area include an Iron Cross that was carved into a stone near the prisoner of war camp in Roswell, New Mexico, and four graves of German sailors who were interned at Fort Stanton, in south-central New Mexico. Fort Stanton is also known in history as the first U.S. internment camp of World War II.
Since World War II, Germany has become a friend and ally of the U.S., and the presence of the German Air Force Command and Air Defense School in El Paso is influential in bringing European culture and traditions here to our city. The Oktoberfest celebrations, German restaurants and the German soldiers and their families are a welcome addition to our multicultural city on the border.