the Republic
Columbus, Indiana
date unknown

Camp Atterbury's Old POW Camp Just a Memory
by Kevin P. Kilbane - Staff Writer

ColKingatPOW.jpg (16949 bytes)

All That's Left - Ret. Col. Richard R. King, civilian chief of staff at the Atterbury Reserve Forces Training Area and a former post commander, examines concrete building foundations - all that remain from a prisoner-of-war compound at Camp Atterbury along Stone Arch Road.  The camp was once home to as many as 10,000 foreign troops during World War II..                                      
Staff photo by Mark Crowley

All is quiet now.  Gone is the sound of marching boots, the groaning engines of hulking military vehicles and the distant report of rifles and artillery fired in preparation for battle.  Gone too, is the chatter of foreign voices.

Concrete building foundations, footings for guard towers and a few lonely fire hydrants are about all that remain of the Camp Atterbury prisoner-or-war compound, once home to as many as 10,000 foreign troops during World War II.

"A lot them didn't want the war, they didn't want to fight," James Streeval, 503 S. Walnut in Edinburgh, said of the Italian and German soldiers housed a the POW camp during its operation from early 1943 until June 27, 1946.

Streeval, 68, often worked with the POWs as a civilian mechanic at Camp Atterbury during the mid-1940s.  He returned to the camp during the Korean Conflict and retired two years ago after working 30 years at Alma Plastics Company in Edinburgh.

The 20 to 30 acres that was the compound lie along Stone Arch Road and form the northernmost portion of a land parcel that fans out south toward Hospital Road, bordered by the Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area and the Atterbury Job Corps Center, said retired Colonel Richard R. King, civilian chief of staff at the Atterbury Reserve Forces Training Area and a former post commander.

The land has been licensed to the Indiana Department of the Military for use as an artillery firing range and tactical training area, King said.

The Army moved quickly to dismantle the POW camp after its deactivation, salvaging what it wanted and selling off what it could of the rest.  

During its operating days, the POW camp was commanded by the late Colonel John L. Gammell, father of Columbus physician Dr. Lindley L. Gammell, 57.  Two sets of barbed wire fence surrounded the compound with guard towers containing search lights stationed between the fences.

Most POWs held at Atterbury had been captured in Africa, said the younger Gammell, who was then about age 16 or 17.  The camp held Italian soldiers until Italy surrendered in September 1943 and then began to take in German prisoners.

German troops included some of General Erwin Rommel's elite Africa Korps, "Every one, built big and strong," he noted.

Gammell recalls one German POW escaped but turned himself in after five days because he apparently could find nowhere else to go.  Published reports indicate a few other prisoners escaped but were recaptured.

Italian POWs had their own camp orchestra and received permission to build a chapel just outside the compound fence, the "Chapel in the Meadow" now standing along Stone Arch Road.  Catholic mass was held weekly during the Italians' stay, Gammell said.  Prisoners also had opportunities for recreation and other activities.

Gammell said his father had no problems maintaining order at the camp.  American requests or other communications were presented to Italian or German officers, who then directed their men.

His father's reputation for fairness once started a rumor that the younger Gammell, then fighting overseas, had been captured by German forces, leading his father to treat POWs fairly to insure fair treatment for his son.

Gammell said the Army also often hired out POWs to area farmers and manufacturers because of the war-time labor shortage.

He recalls one instance where farmers and canning companies in the area hired POWs to pick tomatoes but set the daily picking quota at double what they thought possible for the men.  The POWs made the quota in half a day, he said.

The farmers and canning companies then tried to redouble the quota, but Gammell said his father prohibited it because the move would violate prisoners' rights under the Geneva Convention.

Dressed in blue denim pants, shirts and jackets, all marked with "PW" in large white letters, POWs also de-tasseled corn, picked beans and did other agricultural work at Camp Atterbury and in Bartholomew and surrounding counties.

They filled a void in the available labor supply, said Tachel Henry, 65, of Franklin Route 2, whose father hired prisoners to pick apples at the family's Saunders Orchard on Indiana 252 at the north end of Camp Atterbury.  POWs never caused any problems, said Mrs. Henry, the curator of the Johnson County Museum.

"I know when they had the Italians, the guard would just go lie down under a tree," she added.  She believes guards seemed to watch German soldiers a little more closely, however.

At Camp Atterbury, Streeval recalls seeing German POWs cutting weeds, feeding coal-fired stoves and working in garages, kitchens and laundries.

"You kinda had to keep a eye on the," but most POWs at his garage seemed to be good workers, he said.

"If anything came in there with a machine gun mount, you could just figure they were not going to touch it," he said.  "They'd say, 'That kills my brother. That kills my brother,' and they just wouldn't do it."

Streeval said the Italians seemed more friendly than the Germans, who generally kept to themselves - "They didn't want any more to do with American people that they had to."

POWs often carried coffee to work each morning in old liquor or beer bottles they had found, he recalled.

"Anything you had to eat that you didn't want, all you had to do is hold it up and they'd take it", he added.

Prisoners listened regularly to the radio while working at the garage but disliked hearing news about defeats suffered by their countries, he said.  Many did not speak English but some of those who did often talked about their families.

"Some of them were pretty good people, and some were trusted not too far," he said.  "Some, well, they were just like us."

Streeval says he still can see faces of POWs he worked with but never has heard from them.

"I've often thought about it, you know, if they are still living, or what in the world did happen to them."

'America beats by far anything,' said the ex-POW

In WWII, thousands of captive Germans found our prison camps so hospitable that they later became U.S. citizens

From the start, our POW policy was driven by an intent to ensure the safety of Americans in Nazi hands. So scrupulously did we hew to the 97 Geneva Conventions that many Americans thought the prisoners were being coddled. It didn't take long, however, for word about the good conditions in all 644 U.S. POW camps to reach the European front. As former POWs at a reunion in Arizona relate in this story, prisoners had room and board better than that provided by the German army, and eventually were allowed to work on farms and in factories. Add to that educational and recreational programs that served as subliminal instruments of de-Nazification, and the country ended up with many POWs who, after the war, chose to return to the land of their captors.

Abstract of an article by Jack Fincher, originally published in June 1995 Smithsonian. All rights reserved.  1996 Smithsonian Magazine All rights reserved.


When the United States went to war in 1941, what to do with enemy prisoners of war was among the last considerations of a country reeling from a Japanese attack and preparing for war in Europe. The nation had never held large numbers of foreign prisoners and was unprepared for the many tasks involved, which included registration, food, clothing, housing, entertainment, and even re-education. But prepared or not, the country suddenly found itself on the receiving end of massive waves of German and Italian prisoners of war. More than 150,000 men arrived after the surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in April 1943, followed by an average of 20,000 new POWs a month. From the Normandy invasion in June 1944 through December 30,000 prisoners a month arrived; for the last few months of the war 60,000 were arriving each month. When the war was over, there were 425,000 enemy prisoners in 511 main and branch camps throughout the United States.

Texas had approximately twice as many POW camps as any other state, first because of the available space, and second, curiously, because of the climate. The Geneva Convention of 1929 requires that prisoners of war be moved to a climate similar to that where they are captured; apparently it was thought that the climate of Texas is similar to that of North Africa. In August 1943 there were already twelve main camps in Texas, and by June 1, 1944, there were thirty-three. At the end of the war Texas held 78,982 enemy prisoners, mainly Germans, at fourteen military installations: Camp Barkeley (Taylor County), Camp Bowie (Brown County), Camp Fannin (Smith County), Camp Hood (Bell County), Camp Howze (Cooke County), Camp Hulen (Matagorda County), Camp Maxey (Lamar County), Camp Swift (Bastrop County), Camp Wolters (Palo Pinto County) Fort Bliss (El Paso County), Fort Brown (Cameron County), Fort Crockett (Galveston County), Fort D. A. Russell (Presidio County), and Fort Sam Houston (Bexar County).

In addition, seven base camps were set up especially for POWs: Brady (McCulloch County), Hearne (Robertson County), Hereford (Deaf Smith County), Huntsville (Walker County), McLean (Gray County), Mexia (Limestone County), and Wallace (Galveston County). The Hereford camp alone contained Italian POWs (2,580 men), and a few Japanese POWs were kept in Hearne (323), Huntsville (182), and Kennedy (560).

The main camps were generally built to standard specifications: they were military barracks covered by tar paper or corrugated sheet iron; inside were rows of cots and footlockers. A potbellied stove sat in the center aisle. Each camp held an average of 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners. In fact, the only real differences between these POW camps and any normal army training installation were the watchtowers located along a double barbed-wire fence, floodlights, and, at some camps, dog patrols. Guards were kept to a minimum number and were usually GIs who, for reasons of health, lack of training, or psychological makeup, were not needed overseas. The actual discipline among the prisoners was rigidly enforced by German officers and sergeants themselves. However uncomfortable, the POW camps were sometimes considered too good for the captive Germans, and many a Texas community called its local camp the "Fritz Ritz."

Since the war had drawn most of the nation's young men overseas, the War Department authorized a major program to allow labor-starved farmers to utilize the POWs. Consequently, in addition to the base camps, Texas had twenty-two branch camps, some containing as few as thirty-five or forty prisoners, to provide labor to farms and factories located too far from the main POW camps. The branch camps, like the labor program, were temporary and often housed in school buildings, old Civilian Conservation Corps facilities, fairgrounds, even circus tents like those erected for the Navasota branch camp. Grateful farmers paid the government the prevailing wage of $1.50 per day, and the prisoner was paid eighty cents in canteen coupons. The difference went to the federal treasury to pay for the POW program. German officers, like their American counterparts in enemy hands, were not required to work, and few volunteered. German POWs worked on such projects as the Denison Dam reservoir and the construction of state roads; they also served as orderlies at Harmon General Hospital (now LeTourneau College in Longview). Their greatest contribution, however, was to agriculture. From 1943, when the POWs arrived in large numbers, until the end of the war in 1945, the POWs in Texas picked peaches and citrus fruits, harvested rice, cut wood, baled hay, threshed grain, gathered pecans, and chopped records amounts of cotton. Many Texas farmers recalled their POW laborers with admiration and even affection; indeed, many farmers maintained warm friendships with them, and periodic reunions often saw entire communities turn out to renew those memories.

Daily life for the prisoners was basically the same at all base camps. Reveille was at 5:45 A.M., and lights were turned off at 10:00 P.M. Between those times, the prisoners worked, took care of their own needs, and entertained themselves with a large variety of handicraft and educational programs. Every camp had an impressive selection of POW-taught courses, ranging from English to engineering, a POW orchestra, a theater group, a camp newspaper, and a soccer team. Some prisoners even took correspondence courses through local colleges and universities, and their academic credits were accepted by the Germans upon their return. Apparently the majority of German prisoners who spent the war years in Texas remembered their experience as one of the greatest adventures of their lives.

A few prisoners wanted to escape despite the insurmountable odds against success-the vast countryside, the language difference, and the absence of an underground railroad or safe haven. The records indicate that only twenty-one POWs escaped, the majority from Hearne and Mexia, and that every escapee was caught within three weeks, most of them much sooner. Motivated by boredom, the need for privacy, or a desire to meet girls, the prisoners often simply wandered away from their work parties and were picked up within a few hours, confused and helpless. Most escapes were comical affairs: a prisoner from Mexia calling for help after having been chased up a tree by an angry Brahman bull; three from Hearne who were found on the Brazos River in a crude raft hoping somehow to sail back to Germany; and another from Hearne who was picked up along U.S. Highway 79, near Franklin, heartily singing German army marching songs. There is no evidence that any of the escapees committed any act of sabotage while on the loose.

After World War II ended, the prisoners were readied for repatriation. They were moved from the smaller branch camps to the base camps, and from there to the military installations at forts Bliss, Sam Houston, and Hood. Beginning in November 1945 the former POWs were returned to Europe at the rate of 50,000 a month, though most were used to help rebuild war-damaged France and Britain before their ultimate return to Germany. As the POWs left Texas by the trainload, the camps began to close. In Hearne the campsite and its 200 buildings were put up for public auction; in the 1980s the space comprised a small municipal airport and a proposed industrial park. The camp in Huntsville became part of Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University); in April 1946 Camp Mexia became the site of Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded; and Camp Swift in Bastrop later comprised scattered housing developments, a University of Texas cancer research center, a unit of the Texas National Guard, and an $11 million medium-security prison for first offenders. See also PRISONERS OF WAR.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Arnold Krammer, Nazi Prisoners of War in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1979). Arnold P. Krammer, "When the Afrika Korps Came to Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 80 (January 1977). Robert Tissing, "Stalag Texas, 1943-1945," Military History of Texas and the Southwest 13 (Fall 1976). Richard Paul Walker, Prisoners of War in Texas during World War II (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1980). Richard P. Walker, "The Swastika and the Lone Star: Nazi Activity in Texas POW Camps," Military History of the Southwest 19 (Spring 1989). Weekly and Semi-Monthly Reports on Prisoners of War, June 1942-30 June 1946, Office of the Provost Marshall General (U.S. National Archives, Washington). 

The capitulation-room.
In this room the unconditional surrender
of the Wehrmacht was signed in the night. 

8 - 9 May 1945

The hall in which the capitulation was signed had been the dining room of a former officers' clubhouse. For the official opening of the Capitulation Museum in 1967 the room was restored exactly as it had been. And it retains its original appearance today, with the exception of the wall-charts, mounted in 1967, listing the units that participated in the capture of Berlin. Positioned in the room for the surrender, mute witnesses, so to speak, were the lighting on the ceiling and the walls as well as the flags of the four Allied Powers by the front wall. The furniture and furnishings were reconstructed. A documentary film chronicle of the events in Karlshorst on May the 8th - 9th is projected onto a large screening area in the room.

Page last revised 08/30/2022
James D. West