Local officials and members of service organizations gathered Thursday along Highway 285 to celebrate the installation of a historic marker at the site of a former camp that housed German prisoners of war during World War II.
The Roswell Chamber of Commerce Redcoats marked the installation of the marker with a ribbon cutting. Roswell Rotary Club who also had members present, sponsored the ceremony.
Officials from the New Mexico Commission of Historic Preservation and New Mexico Department of Transportation were also present.
Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, who was at the ceremony, said he is happy about the marker, and that it will help educate the public about an often overlooked part of local history.
“I appreciate this being done because it is an intriguing part of our history that most folks just aren’t aware of and it is sad to lose it because the work that was done by the POWs continues to be part of our community,” he said to the crowd.
The brown 5-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide sign reads that Camp Roswell was one of the first and largest base camps constructed in the U.S. The camp was in operation from 1942 to 1946 and at its peak, interned 4,816 Germans.
Most POWs performed work and were paid to fill critical labor shortages in agriculture and public works projects, the sign reads.
A total of 511 branch camps were built in 46 states during World War II and housed more than 425,000 German, Italian and Japanese POWs, the sign reads.
Gretchen Brock, a historian with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Historic Preservation Division, spoke at a meeting of the Rotary Club at the Hi-Q Venue shortly before the ribbon cutting.
She said the historic marker program was started in the 1930s as a way to market the state to the growing number of tourists driving across the country. In all, about 600 markers are at sites of historic and cultural significance throughout the state, Brock said.
Steve Henderson, a Roswell city councilor and Rotary Club member, said he became interested in Camp Roswell’s history more than a year ago after local historian Dale Ek gave a presentation about it at a Rotary Club meeting.
Henderson said although the New Mexico Department of Cultural Preservation listed the site as one that has a marker, he could not find that marker at the former location of the camp on Orchard Park Road. He said he thinks the original marker was displaced when Highway 285 was expanded into a four-lane highway.
Henderson said he later filled out an application to get a new marker at the site. He and Ek then went before the Cultural Properties Review Committee in Santa Fe and gave a presentation to explain why the marker should be replaced. The committee then voted to approve the request.
Ek also spoke at the meeting that preceded the ribbon cutting. He said his interest in Camp Roswell extended back to 1949, when his family moved from Kansas to Roswell. Ek’s father worked as an electrician on the former Walker Air Force Base, and the family lived in an apartment complex on Orchard Park Road that included some of the buildings that were part of the camp.
Ek said the marker is important because none of the remnants of the camp are still intact.
“Everything is gone,” he said. “So I think the marker serves a very worthwhile purpose as far as memorializing the history of which this town and this county is rich in,” Ek said.
Morgan Nelson, 99, and a World War II veteran from the area also spoke. Nelson said that while he was off in combat in Europe, his family employed some of the POWS, and he managed to meet some of them when he returned home. He said that in an age of manual labor, the POWs were seen as “lifesavers” on farms that relied on having a large supply of people in order to function.
“Everything was by hand, so they needed a lot of people,” Nelson said.
The prisoners, Nelson said, were not top Nazi officers, but Germans who had been conscripted into the military and many were very friendly. He said when they first arrived, the prisoners were often escorted by guards, but later the number of guards reduced dramatically.
Nelson added that his parents formed close friendships with some of the prisoners they hired, bonds that lasted well after the war ended. He said that his parents would later even travel to Germany to visit the former POWs after the war ended.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.