The monthly meeting for the
Shelby County Museum was held Tuesday, April 17, 2018 with guest
speaker, Terri Lacher. Terri is a native Californian and is a column
writer for the Light and Champion. She has also written for the online
publication "We the People of Shelby County" and as a freelance writer
has stories published in "Chicken Soup". She shared with the group the
history of the POW Camp in Center, Texas. Of the nearly 70 prisoners of
war camps, Texas had approximately twice as many as any other state.
Over 50,000 German soldiers were held in Texas during the World War II.
While Texas as the choice to house so many prisoners of war may seem
odd, the Geneva Convention stated prisoners of war should be housed in a
climate comparable to the one in which they had been captured.
The bases in East Texas were called fathom base camps which included
Center, Chireno, San Augustine, Lufkin and Tyler. Shelby County is very
much like the country side in which these prisoners were captured. The
ones that were detained in the East Texas area were part of the General
Rommel Afrika Corp. The camps in this area remained opened from about
1942 through 1945 and were the most proficiently run by the German
officers themselves. Even though the prisoners could have their own view
points, they were very well respectful and grateful they were not being
mistreated. If a camp had a trouble maker, prisoner was usually
transferred to another camp. The only other time someone might be
transferred was if a soldier would find out he had a brother in another
camp. Letters would be sent to commanders, so the family members could
be together. The United States was very accommodating considering these
men were prisoners of war.
One of the biggest problems of WWII was that all our able-bodied men who
worked the farms, businesses and forestry were off fighting the war. The
prisoners of war could provide labor to the farms, forestry and
factories. There were never any problems with the men. Farmers paid the
government $1.50 a day for the POW’s labor. Out of this money, the
prisoners were paid eighty cents in scrip which was only used at the
camp store. During this period, the POWs in Texas picked fruit,
harvested rice, cut wood, baled hay, gathered pecans, and chopped
According to statistics, the Center camp had the largest number of
soldiers detained in the state of Texas with the numbers running about
700. The camp was located right were the old fairgrounds were. The
current location is where the new Portacool park is located and where
part of the elementary building is located today.
The camp consisted of several tin buildings surrounded by barbed wire
fencing. Each building was built to house cots and a potbelly stove.
There were also several outbuildings including a mess hall and a
building to treat the soldiers. It was against policy for any prisoner
to be treated outside of the facility even though some were treated.
During an interview with Dr. Steve Oates, he stated some prisoners were
brought to his office for treatment. The camps were well organized and
rarely ever had any type of conflict.
After the war several POWs returned to the area. The POWs could do arts
and crafts. They were encouraged to do oil paintings; they also had
English and engineering classes. Some camps had orchestras and presented
theater plays as forms of entertainment. A lot of the POWs were able to
take correspondence courses so when they earned their credits and they
were able to take them to the universities in German to obtain degrees.
Many of the POWs considered the time spend in camps as the best years of
their life because of the treatment they received from the Americans.