History can be easily lost. It happens all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Nature overtakes a structure that decades or centuries ago served as the center of a community; time and the elements wear away at the clues past generations left to their existence; progress rolls over, or builds over, connections to the past before anyone realizes what’s being lost.
Good fortune in the form of advantageous geography sometimes prevents demolition or degradation of historic sites. Surprising feats of engineering often defy the best efforts of time, the elements and modernity to consign historic structures to memory.
But when all else fails, it can be memory that matters most — knowledge people today have of what used to be, who it mattered to and why it matters now to preserve or acknowledge history before memories fade and the past is truly lost.
There are a number of people still in Roswell who remember the POW camp that housed German prisoners here during World War II. But until just over a week ago, those memories were just about all that remained of the camp and the impact it had on the area.
A historic marker drawing attention to the site of the former POW camp, which existed on Orchard Park Road between U.S. 285 and the Dexter Highway, was erected on Dec. 13 thanks to individuals and groups determined to change that.
“Camp Roswell was one of the first and largest base camps built in the U.S. …” The marker reads. “The camp operated from August 1942 to February 1946 and interned 4,816 German POWs at its peak.”
As someone pointed out during a presentation prior to the marker’s commemoration, the camp’s peak population was greater than that of many small towns in New Mexico at that time.
“Most POWs performed agricultural labor,” the marker’s verbiage continues, “particularly during cotton season.”
Longtime Roswell resident Morgan Nelson, a farmer and historian, remembers well how big an impact POW labor made on local agricultural efforts, calling the prisoners “life savers” when it came to farming long before so much of the work became mechanized. “Everything was by hand,” he said, “so they needed a lot of people.” Though the Germans weren’t viewed as especially skilled field hands, they were available, there were plenty of them.
There were 155 similar POW base camps, along with 511 “branch camps,” spread across 46 U.S. states during that period, and in 1945, more than 425,000 POWs — German, Italian and Japanese — were held inside our borders.
Many of the Germans kept here forged connections with local residents that might surprise some, given the ferocity of the combat taking place on the other side of the world between the U.S. and its allies and German forces.
Some friendships were made. Stories are told of Germans returning here long after the war to revisit the place they were held — and of local residents, while traveling overseas, dropping in on former POWs.
As relieved as farmers no doubt were to have help with the crops, POWs were at least as grateful for the humane treatment they received. “The people have been very warm-hearted here …” one former prisoner, Hans Rudolph Poethig, said later. “The people over here have shown compassion, understanding and that they cared and showed a certain amount of patience. …”
Through work in the areas of agriculture and public works, the camp contributed to the region and is rightly recognized as a part of its history. But the same might be said today of any labor force that was available at the time.
What seems most unique about the camp’s legacy is that a world away from the horrors of a terrible war, some of the people here were able to take measure of each other simply as fellow human beings.
Just about any place you stand human events of one kind or another, including those of historical significance, have played out on the ground underfoot — but in many cases, you would never guess that because little or nothing of the past remains.
Thanks to some persistent local residents, that won’t be the case with the site of the former prison camp out on Orchard Park Road.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.