Home News Vision The legacy of the German POWs

The legacy of the German POWs

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German prisoners of war doing rock work along the banks of Spring River. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Many of you may already know about Orchard Park, officially known as the Roswell POW Internment Camp. It opened on Nov. 26, 1942, with about 250 prisoners from Gen. Erwin Rommel’s 8th Army Afrika Korps. By Aug. 15, 1943, another 400 Germans arrived. Nineteen companies of guards were brought in to escort the prisoners in and out of “Camp Roswell,” as the locals called it.

The Iron Cross created by German POWs on the side of the riverbed as it looks today. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

The camp consisted of 120 acres with framed barrack buildings to house 4,800 prisoners in three compounds, consisting of 1,600 in each compound. It employed four American physicians, two dentists, seven nurses and an optician. The 250-bed hospital had operating and X-ray facilities. There was a large recreation area next to the compounds which was used for exercise, tennis, soccer and croquet.

The prisoners were transported to the area in iron cars on the Santa Fe Railroad and unloaded 1.5 miles from the camp. A 35-man detail, armed with sawed-off shotguns, marched the men down the middle of the dusty unpaved road to the Orchard Park Camp. They were said to be good soldiers, maintaining their pride, their military discipline and bearing.

Post-Normandy prisoners, who came later, included old men and young boys from units hastily organized near the end of the war. These two very different groups presented different problems to the officers in charge of the camp.

Two compounds of Italian prisoners were brought to the camp, but they didn’t work out well. They only were there a short time.

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The mess hall at the Roswell POW Internment Camp. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

The grounds were kept well-landscaped by the prisoners, who made beautiful drives and walkways. They carefully took care of the wildflowers that grew on the prairie.

According to the reports of the POWs, as well as other inspecting bodies, the accommodations were acceptable in every respect.

The prisoners were fed according to the specifications of the Geneva Convention, and the food was identical to the type A food rations that were served to all the American troops. However, the prisoners prepared their own food according to their own tastes. At their request, rye bread was substituted for white bread, as they wanted “bread they could chew a little longer.”

The war is over. German POWs detained in Roswell line up for their return to Germany. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Security at the camp was of utmost importance. It was surrounded by two high fences topped with barbed wire. The 15-foot space between the fences was sometimes referred to as “dead man’s strip.”

The perimeters were dotted with towers that were continuously manned by guards armed with machine guns. Search lights covered the fences, and there were mounted guards, as well as sentinels on foot, who were constantly patrolling the area.

There were relatively few attempts to escape, as the men were treated so well. The unfriendly terrain and miles and miles of wide open spaces did not give a prisoner much hope of escaping or of being able to return to his homeland.

Those who did escape were always caught, with very few of the cases ending in tragedy. Mounted guards and tracking dogs were used in running down the escapees. One of the POWs said, “I never did see a dog, but I knew they were being used, as I was an interpreter for escapees when they returned to camp.”

POWs working in the cotton fields

New Mexico farmers needed field hands desperately during those four years. Several side camps were set up in a few isolated places, usually in old abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps. A few of these were located in Artesia, Dexter and Mayhill, as well as other places in the region.

Most of the prisoners were hired out to the farmers. The majority of their man hours in the crop season of 1943-44 was in the New Mexico’s cotton fields. Most of the prisoners disliked the bending and the stooping, and did not become good cotton pickers. Farmers complained that the POWs didn’t make an attempt to meet their quotas. Women and children would often get considerably more pounds of cotton per day than the POWs. A diary entry of one prisoner stated that he “wished all the cotton fields in the area to the devil.”

Several hundred prisoners would arrive at the gate every morning and would be taken by trucks to farms or to various work projects. One farmer stated “they represented the only type of labor he could get.”

Work projects for the prisoners

On one of these projects, a work contingent of some 50 of the prisoners were detailed to work on the flood-control projects by lining rocks along the slanting sides of Spring River banks. Located on the north side of the river, between Pennsylvania and Kentucky avenues, lies a symbol of those war prisoner’s work. The men chose a variety of colors and different sizes of rocks to form the Iron Cross and set it firmly in the bank. The Iron Cross was a military decoration in the Kingdom of Prussia, and later in the German Empire and Nazi Germany

When they discovered what had happened, some people of Roswell became so angry that they set out to do away with the grim object. In doing so, they had to pour five yards of concrete over it. However, the concrete did not stay. Floods, sun and wind, eroded the concrete away, and that old iron cross is still clearly visible.

Art, music and newspapers

The prisoners also left artistic impressions in the windows of the old First Presbyterian Church of Dexter. These men were members of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but left lasting impressions with their beautiful painted windows one of which read, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The names of the artists were Hilker, Querhammer and Angel Tinger.

The prisoners were able to take advantage of many educational activities offered them by our government. They also had time to engage in leisure time activities to include physical sports and even plastic arts. Some beautiful work was done in the craft shop, but when the men were not allowed to take it with them, they broke it up.

The POWs also were able to carry on a very impressive music program. They formed an orchestra, using instruments provided, or that they had purchased for themselves. POWs, camp personnel and sometimes visitors from Roswell enjoyed these outstanding performances. Their favorite song, learned from the radio, appeared to be “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

They were provided an opportunity to attend church services with Protestant and Catholic services provided for them.

Magazines and newspapers were freely available and many POWs held subscriptions to local papers, “Christian Science Monitor,” “Life,” “Time” and “New York Times.” The prisoners also published their own paper, “Free Word,” on mimeograph machines.

When the war was over and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt initiated her revenge program, the POWs were rationed to 800 calories per day. Many farmers in the area, realizing that a man cannot work on such short rations, supplemented their lunches as they also felt that cutting down on food was unnecessary.

One prisoner, Hans Rudolph Poethig, made friends with the farmers. Forty years after the war was over, Poethig commented, “the people have been very warm-hearted here. I’d like to say this has changed the attitude of many Germans toward the American people. The people over here have shown compassion, understanding and that they cared and showed a certain amount of patience. It was the attitude of the American people — men and women — that showed interest in the human being that impressed us tremendously.”

At Christmas 1948-49, the American forces sponsored the orphanages for Christmas and the Germans in return, invited American soldiers into their homes. “The war was over!”

Credits to Elvis Fleming’s “Treasures of History IV” and the Star Tribune of Hagerman article by Ernestine Chester Williams.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdhist4@outlook.com.