Our younger generations are probably unaware that during World War II there were 511 Prisoner of War camps and 175 branch camps on United States soil that held 425,000 POW s, mainly captured German and Italians soldiers. The camps were located mostly in the southern states and there were more POW camps in Texas than in any other state. The camp at Hearne housed 4800 inmates and the one in Huntsville less but still a large number.
The POW s were treated by the rules of the 1929 Geneva Convention. These rules included a diet similar to what our soldiers were served and as much barracks living space as our GI s were given. They filled a critical labor shortage and although none were forced to do so, many chose to work on nearby farms, factories, hospitals and road maintenance for which they were paid .80 cents a day. That sound like a very low wage but our Privates in the U.S. Army received $21.00 a month at the beginning of the war.
There were very few attempts to escape because they were eating better than their counterparts in the German Army. Members of the die-hard Nazi element were transferred to a special camp in Louisiana.
Many gained 20 or 30 pounds while a POW, especially those who had been in camp since 1942-43. They were provided with books, writing material and musical instruments and were allowed supervised trips into the local towns. Many emigrated to the U.S. after the war as a result of their experiences as a POW.
Preferring death or suicide to surrender, very few members of the Japanese armed forced were captured and placed in POW camps. Sometimes this reality was not apparent until after camps were built to house them and were subsequently converted to other uses.
In contrast many of our POW s did not fare as well. I am reminded of Jerry, a naval officer who served on the USS Calleo, sister ship to the USS 872 on which my husband served. As a young junior officer, Jerry had been stationed aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Houston, which was sunk by the Japanese Navy in February 1942 off the coast of Java. From the ship’s crew of over 1000, 371 crew members survived her sinking, only to become Japanese prisoners of war for the following 42 months. Seventy-six of those sailors did not survive their captivity. The survivors who were picked up by Japanese surface ships were sent to Burma, Thailand and Japan to work as slave laborers in the mines, shipyards and on the infamous Burma–Siam Railway. They were subjected to mental and physical mistreatment, starvation and ravaged by disease. Japan gave no credence to the Geneva Convention and did not abide by it.
Jerry was newly married when he left to go to the Pacific Theater of Operations. After the USS Houston was sunk, nothing was reported regarding survivors so nothing was known. His wife was never notified that he was dead, missing in action, a prisoner of war or that he was alive and after two years she assumed he was dead. She remarried and became the mother of a little girl.
He returned from the War to find his wife happily married and the mother of a child. He bowed out of the marriage and left them to live their lives, but one can imagine the heartbreak.
Jerry was small of build, quiet of manner, friendly and a good officer, from all reports. We would be with him at the Officers Club or sometimes in our home and he would seem just fine. But after a drink, the tears would begin to roll down his cheeks, unbidden but unstoppable as well. He would just wipe them away and have another drink. The sight of him with tears running unchecked down his face made those of us who knew him want to help, say something, do something, anything to ease his pain. We felt so inadequate. After new orders to other ships, we did not keep in touch and I regret that. But I hope this fine young man eventually found happiness in his life.
Historically, our nation has played a part in wars against aggressor nations but once conquered, this country has a history of helping to re-build the vanquished, Germany and Japan come to mind. So lately all this ridiculous talk of colonialism as a justification for tearing down statues and re-writing history to justify it leaves me unable to accept, excuse or indeed forgive behaviors our population is witnessing in our streets.
Those who speak this nonsense, or teach it in our schools should be held accountable. We should take a strong stand against it and make sure our citizenry and especially our school children are familiar with our history as a compassionate nation. If we do not stand against this tide of destruction it will continue. It will worsen and find justification among those who are so ill- informed, they can readily accept and adopt the attitudes and the beliefs of those who would destroy this country in the name of some politically correct label.
I plan to lighten up next week. I am sure my editor will be relieved to hear it!
Marge Flados resides in Harlingen, Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.