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German POWs Remembered at Fort Bliss
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Leigh Smith
Each November 11, the United States armed forces at Fort Bliss and all over the country celebrate Veterans Day to pay tribute to those who fought and died for their country in time of conflict. Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day, in honor of the signing of the cease-fire treaty to end "the war to end all wars," World War I. Ceremonies range from laying of wreaths to church services and speeches.
Similarly, on the second Sunday of November each year, the German Air Force Command, USA, stationed at Fort Bliss, honors its war dead on the German Day of National Mourning. The day has special importance here in El Paso. German soldiers stationed here today remember World War II German prisoners of war who died during their internment in El Paso and the surrounding area and who are buried in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery alongside Americans. The German Commandant, his soldiers and their families remember twenty-six former German prisoners yearly.
The German Day of National Mourning came about from a proposal made in 1919 by the Bavarian Branch of the German War Graves Commission. This proposal was introduced in commemoration of the soldiers who died in the First World War. The idea was not mourning by order but the establishment of a firm symbol of the solidarity shared between those who did not suffer losses in the First World War and the families and friends of those who did.
The first official commemoration was held in the German Parliament in Berlin in 1922. In an important speech, then President of the German Reich, Paul Loebe, contrasted a hostile environment with the idea of reconciliation and understanding.
The date finally settled on was the second Sunday before Advent in November, a season that includes the four Sundays prior to Christmas. In 1934, Adolph Hitler, then Chancellor of Germany, renamed the day Heroes' Memorial Day and declared the day a national holiday.
After World War II, the Day of National Mourning was reintroduced by the German War Graves Commission and celebrated for the first time in 1950 by a ceremony held in the German Parliament as well as in towns and villages throughout Germany. Today on the Day of National Mourning, Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, remember victims of the Holocaust and Nazi rule and all other people from all nations who died as a result of the war.
After the 1950 Parliament ceremony of the Day of National Mourning, any installation or military base, wherever it was, that was home for German soldiers were to celebrate the day. In the United States, these ceremonies usually take place in military cemeteries where German soldiers are buried.
In German towns and cities on this day, people go to a special mass and then to the cemetery with the minister of chaplain. At the cemetery, people pray or lay flowers by the grave of a soldier or relative. Speeches are usually made by the government and military officials. Also recognized are the dead from the England who are interred in German cemeteries.
A total of 477 German prisoners died, from various causes, while incarcerated in the United States. The Germans are buried here because no next of kin could be located in Germany thorough the German Red Cross. The next of kin were killed in the massive bombings of cities, or they relocated, never to be heard from again. Since the United States accepted the Geneva Convention, the Americans buried the bodies of their enemies in hopes that their enemies would in turn take care of Americans in the same manner.
The standard procedure for prisoner burial was burial in the POW camp cemetery or transport of the bodies from the temporary camps to the more permanent military bases, such as Fort Bliss, which remained open after the Second World War.
There are very few POW cemeteries located in the United States, but those that still remain were often designed and built by the prisoners themselves. One cemetery is located at Camp Swift, near Bastrop, Texas, where eleven German POWs are buried, was designed by a POW architect from Hamburg, Germany. Additional cemeteries are in Arkansas, Missouri, other Texas locations and the German War Memorial Cemetery, at Fort McClellan, Alabama.
The German Air Force Command has been in El Paso since 1956, and annual memorial services are conducted for the German soldiers in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery. During the ceremony, a German soldier is posted at each of the graves, and flowers are placed by the headstones. The German Commandant and German chaplain both speak before the ceremony concludes.
The United States is represented at the ceremonies with an Honor Platoon of U.S. soldiers that marches along with a platoon of German soldiers. The American Commander of Fort Bliss and the mayor of El Paso both are invited to attend the annual ceremonies with the German Forces.
While these ceremonies are taking place in America, similar ceremonies are taking place in Germany. As Americans pay tribute to German soldiers buried here in El Paso, it is quite possible that someone in Germany is paying tribute to a soldier from El Paso, who was buried in foreign soil because no next of kin could be found.