Sunday, May 5, 2013

Hearne POW Camp

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.

During World War II more than 425,000 Axis prisoners of war were incarcerated at over 650 POW camps across the United States. More than 50,000 of these POWs were housed in Texas at 22 base camps and 60 branch camps. About 48,000 Germans were held in Texas, along with 2,500 Italians and 1,000 Japanese prisoners. One of the most important POW installations in Texas was Camp Hearne.

I first examined the site of Camp Hearne in 2009 while working on a book for Arcadia Publishing, East Texas in World War II, which was published in 2010. A portion of this large site was under development as a museum, and when I returned last fall I found a reconstructed POW barracks open to the public. I was given a tour by a genial docent, Melissa Freeman, who informed me of other plans that were in progress. When my wife Karon and I passed through Hearne a few weeks ago, we drove to the camp site to find that, indeed, considerable progress had taken place. Melissa Freeman pointed out various artifacts that had been added to the barracks museum, while outside a "Victory Garden" was under cultivation. But the most striking addition was a reconstructed guard tower, one of nine which once had been manned throughout Camp Hearne.
Bill with Melissa Freeman

Camp Hearne was built on a 720-acre site just north of town. Construction of this POW base camp began in September 1942, and was completed within six months. There were three POW compounds, a hospital area, a recreation area, and an "American sector" for the force of 500 guards. A camp cemetery was located northeast of the buildings (about a dozen POWs died of illness or accidents, two committed suicide, one was murdered, and one was shot while trying to escape).

Over 4,800 Germans were incarcerated at Camp Hearne, which also acquired a few hundred Japanese POWs in mid-1945. Camp Hearne had the unique distinction of being the headquarters of the German Postal Unit in 1944 and 1945. The Camp Hearne Postal Unit received and distributed letters and parcels from Germany for German POWs anywhere in the United States. The volume often soared above 40,000 letters and parcels daily, and 22 buildings in Compound I were utilized by the postal unit, which organized three eight-hour shifts six days per week.

Melissa reading Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Several fire hydrants,
stamped "1942," still stand.
Camp Hearne closed in January 1946. Like the structures at U.S. military facilities, POW buildings were sold as inexpensive surplus. Barracks, for example, often were purchased for as little as $100 - the cost of moving a building often exceeded the purchase price. Through the years, Germans traveling in the United States often visited Camp Hearne or their other places of incarceration. In Texas there are remains of POW camps at Princeton, Seagoville, Lufkin, and other sites. But the best site is the Camp Hearne Museum, and I intend to return periodically to watch the progress at this intriguing historical location.
Intricately carved German canteen
The water tower stands after 70 years.
Many Germans were fine stone masons
and woodcarvers.

Diorama of Camp Hearne
POWs converted a barracks to a theater.

Former members of the Afrika Korps

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