Baby Boomers know about war. We’ve seen a few, lost family to some, and felt the social and personal repercussions of all of them. Each November 11, the nation quiets down and comes together to honor those who served our country. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of war, I think it’s safe to say that we all support those who risk their lives in the name of freedom.
I had the immense privilege of covering a story about Camp Hearne, Texas — a WWII POW camp — for both “Texas Co-op Power” and “Texas Farm and Home” magazines. It was during this research that I met three men with amazing stories: Matthew Ware, Karl Blumenthal and Heino Erichsen.
By the age of 10, Heino Erichsen reluctantly became a member of Hitler’s Jungvolk (Young Folk). At 18, Erichsen was shipped to Tunisia as a private in Germany’s Afrika Korps. When the Axis forces under German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel surrendered to the Allied forces in 1943, Erichsen was held captive — only six months after his arrival in Africa. He turned 19, war weary and homesick, at an American field hospital in Oran, Algeria.
From Oran, he endured a nerve-wracking, three-week voyage across the Atlantic by freighter, finally landing at Ellis Island.
“We had no idea where we were going,” says Erichsen, who chronicled his experiences in the book The Reluctant Warrior: Former German POW Finds Peace in Texas (2001, Eakin Press). “But when I saw the Statue of Liberty, I knew I was in the United States.” (Excerpt from my article, “Former German POW at Home in Texas,” as published in “Texas Co-op Power Magazine”; Nov./2011)
The Fritz Ritz
It was from Erichsen that I learned what real life was like at “The Fritz Ritz,” a name given to Camp Hearne because many felt the prisoners were treated too well. Even though the camp complex consisted of 250 buildings surrounded by two,10-foot-tall barbed-wire fences, adhering strictly to the Geneva Conventions was paramount. The POWs were fed and housed in the same manner as the soldiers of the United States.
The prisoners were expected to work for area farmers. Wages of ten cents per hour were paid by the government in the form of canteen coupons. Baylor University offered classes to the prisoners.
Erichsen recalled, “We could take hot showers, eat good food, and we had sports facilities for soccer.”
Leisure activity consisted of creative endeavors such as building elaborate fountains for the grounds and a theater at which the POWs could produce plays for community entertainment. Reading was another favorite pastime and by 1945, the library at Camp Hearne held about seven thousand German and five hundred English books. But nothing could replace packages and letters from home.
POWs were allowed to receive food from home, and packages of bread, sausages and cake were always a welcome reminder that they had not been forgotten.
At Camp Hearne, prisoners initially were allowed to write two letters and one postcard per week, with letters not exceeding 24 lines. In 1943, those privileges were reduced, with enlisted men and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) now allowed to send only one letter per week.
At times, the postal service helped carry out long-distance marriage ceremonies. The German bride would mail legal papers, signed before two witnesses to Camp Hearne. When received, the intended POW husband would sign the papers—also before two witnesses—and the American chaplain, along with the highest-ranking prisoner, would officiate the nonreligious procedure. The couple were pronounced married “in the name of Hitler and the Third Reich.” (Excerpt from my article “Excavating Forgotten History”; Published 11/2011 “Texas Co-op Power”)
The biggest threat to the prisoners was not from Americans, but rather from the internal Nazi sympathizers. Erichsen spoke of German Cpl. Hugo Krauss, a translator, who was murdered at the Camp after being accused of speaking against the Hitler regime. Erichsen, also a translator, feared he could meet the same fate.
What makes Erichsen’s story so memorable is that after being declared a free man in the spring of 1946, returning to his native Kiel, Germany and finding it in ruins, he returned to the United States and became an American citizen. He made Texas his permanent home..
He told me, "I learned the meaning of freedom in a prison camp. I never knew what America was like before I was a prisoner."
The Yellow Rose
In 2015, I also covered Camp Hearne for “Texas Farm and Home.” In doing so, I was allowed a flight in The Yellow Rose, a vintage B-25J Mitchell WWII bomber. What I remember most about that day is the emotion on the faces of the veterans who were with photographer Kevin Black and me.
As the plane shook the ground beneath the skies of central Texas, nothing could have prepared me for that sobering experience. It was clear that they were not “with us” in the bomber — instead, the American veterans were back in their soldiering days of WWII, recollecting the rigors of battle.
Back on the ground, I met with two POWs —Karl Blumenthal (who also became an American citizen) and, again, Heino Erichsen — and in a unique twist, escort guard Matthew Ware. Prior to the surprise reunion, the three gentlemen had no knowledge of each other because of the enormity of the Camp during their wartime coexistence.
It was an incredible feeling to know that these men, once warriors on opposing sides, now stood side by side in friendship, reminiscing about a period of their lives that they will never forget.
Beginning with escorting the POWs back to the States, [Ware] recalls that the prisoners gave guards “not a bit of trouble in the world.”
Ware says the guards were trained to respect their charges. “We were served Geneva Conventions for breakfast every morning.” (Excerpt from “Finding Peace in a Most Unlikely Place”; published “Texas Farm and Home 02/2015 —not available online)
But even in discussing the seriousness of the circumstances, it was clear that war didn’t affect their sense of humor. While liquor was prohibited at Camp Hearne, “boys will be boys.” Ware humorously informs me of just how creative the prisoners could be, secretly using fruits, sugar, yeast and 1-gallon jars obtained from the kitchen to get the job done:
The jars fermented while buried in a hole under the barracks or hidden in the rafters. A second option was to filter shaving lotion, aftershave and shave tonic (all containing alcohol) through a loaf of bread. What emerged was pure alcohol.
Ware says Camp Hearne had “the cleanest prisoners in the world. They ordered Mennen’s shaving lotion- 60% alcohol- by the truckload.” He laughs and recalls, “If the green color of the Mennen’s wasn’t gone the first time, they’d run it through the bread again.” (Excerpt from “Finding Peace in a Most Unlikely Place;” “Texas Farm and Home” — 02/2015 —not available online)
Time moves on
Over seventy years have gone by since the last POW was released from Camp Hearne. Erichsen and Blumenthal are gone now — a reminder that with each passing of one of our WWII veterans (or any war veteran, for that matter), we lose a part of our history.The dedicated folks at Camp Hearne are working diligently to preserve this very important part of our past.
At first glance, Camp Hearne looks like an unremarkable open field, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Archeological digs continue under the direction of Texas A&M University, and the camp has become an indispensable teaching tool for students of all ages.
Visitors will find a museum housed in a barracks replica that displays the uniforms, field equipment, mess kits and thousands of artifacts from the bygone days when 4,800 “enemy” soldiers were held captive on that soil.
Celebrations like their annual Living History Event include tours of the camp, reenactments,
weapons demonstrations, a communications display, military vehicles and planes and much more.
The fact that these particular soldiers — Blumenthal, Erichsen and Ware— felt no animosity towards each other or their circumstances, left an indelible impression on me. While we fight with each other and spew hatred because of political differences, I’m reminded of these three men. I remember the kindness in their eyes and the peace they seemed to hold within themselves.
I came away with an incredible respect for the way we, as Americans, treated our POWs and I left with an important lesson from Mr. Erichsen.
In his broken High German accent he told me, “Was dich nicht umwirft, macht dich stärker.”
Or, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
PHOTO CREIDT FOR CAMP HEARNE IMAGES: Kevin Black Photography
I think my first real memory of any significant military mention came about in first or second grade under the tutelage of our lovely, colorful music teacher, Kathyrine Jones. Mrs. Jones introduced her pupils to “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” as written and performed by a Vietnam war veteran, SSG Barry Sadler. For some reason it stuck with me and remains one of my favorite tributes.
While the soldier images above include only photos I have access to, there are numerous other family members who previously served or who are currently serving, including granddaughter Tarah Hughes. Hubby Lanny Strong also served as a Marine Reserve.
Thank you for your service!