By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
I have written about Orchard Park prisoner of war camp — which was a few miles south of Roswell — before, but this week I would like to share an interview historian Elvis Fleming did with Hans Rudolf Poethig, dated December 1975. Poethig was a prisoner there from 1944 to 1946. Following is his story and his views of the time he spent at the Orchard Park POW camp, along with how he came back to America to become a citizen.
“Hans Rudolph Poethig was born July 16, 1918 in Cammans in Saxsonia in Germany. (Editor’s note: actually Camentz in the Kingdom of Saxsony — it became the state of Saxsony — in German Sachsen — after Nov. 11, 1918 when World War I ended.) After a few months, his parents transferred to Berlin where he grew up. His parents were Curt Poethig and Selma Adela Baza Poethig. His father worked as an architect for Garden and Park Design for the city of Berlin. Hans was an only child.
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“For his education, he went to a sort of technical school and completed vocational training as a machinist motor mechanic. He wanted to go into a big automotive concern or factory, for public relations doing service, which in Germany is considered service, taking complaints, giving advice on how to use their cars, and also to call the cars back for modifications. You had to be a licensed qualified mechanic and technician, which was the degree he completed.
“He was not able to go into that work because he was drafted into the ‘Arbeitsdienst,’ what was the equivalent of the CCC camps (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1939. After three months, the war broke out and he went to boot camp.
“He was in Poland in fall of 1939, then he was discharged from the ‘Arbeitsdienst’ and went back to the factory and worked professionally for about three months. He was drafted into the motorized heavy armored division at Frankfurt an der Oder (this Frankfurt was in the eastern side of Germany, not to be confused with Frankfurt am Main).
“From there he went to the Saar basin, completed his training and became a driver for a high ranking officer.
“He went to France with the motor pool as car service and repairman for high-ranking officers and tank drivers, then back to Germany, and then to France for occupation. He left there and went to East Prussia, then to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into Russia where he would stay for 22 months.
“He contracted ‘Bovian Fever,’ a swamp fever similar to malaria and so he was sent back to Germany. He was a driver there for a high staff colonel in the army high command, and he could see that the war over there was almost lost, so he volunteered for Africa.
“Hans was captured there in Bizerate and driven to Algeria and then loaded on a British freighter and driven to Bon; from Bon, he was transferred to a luxury liner, just like the British liners, converted for troop transportation. They were in a convoy to Galveston (Texas). From Galveston, they went to Boston. He ended up being transported by train to Mexia, Texas, to his first POW camp, which was for enlisted men, noncommissioned officers and officers. He stated they were screened and separated from the troublemakers, and those who did not make trouble, and ‘also the turncoats were separated.’
“From there he was sent to Camp Swift, in Bastrop, Texas, where they had a kind of POW revolution, and again the troublemakers were separated and kept in Camp Swift. He was finally sent to Orchard Park in New Mexico.
“He arrived in Orchard Park in June of 1944. He was unloaded at the Chisum Trail station. Four companies of them arrived, which would be 1,000 POWs. For the first year here he was an interpreter for the chief surgeon, and then trained as a chair assistant to the dental officer, Dr. Rose.
“Hans stated that Orchard Park was first occupied by Germans and they were a rough bunch, mostly SS Troops, who were sent to Oklahoma to a special camp for the ‘political unreliable.’ Then the Italians came, but the farmers did not want them because they didn’t want to work in the cotton fields, so they got shipped out and ‘we were the third bunch to come in at the height of the camp.’ This was the so-called concentration camp because from here they sent POWs to Fort Sumner, Mayhill, Artesia and Dexter.”
In Fleming’s notes, this is where the interview by Poethig starts:
“‘I was never in a side camp, I always stayed here, I was in the hospital, with Dr. Rose who trained me, and then he was transferred. I wanted to go out and see a little more of the country so I volunteered for going out pick up.
“‘I had never been called, on what you call detailed labor. I found out that it was hard picking cotton because we worked in details of 30 or 60 POWs, which came in three times a day with about 70 or 80 pounds, and you have to lift it up on the trailer and empty the sacks, so it was quite a job.
“‘I kept books and weighed cotton for the Curr Brothers farm and for J.P. White sheep ranch and for Mr. Sergeant, who had not only cotton but had onions, and watermelons, and tomatoes.
“‘When I worked in the hospital the doctors were more likely to make friends, because they know a little bit more about you, and I was together with them every day and sometimes night, I was treated more or less informal and I had a pretty good life. I did not provoke anybody, I avoided to talk about politics and avoided to talk about military, and therefore I didn’t antagonize anyone and they didn’t antagonize me.
“‘We got up around 5:30 a.m. and about 6 o’clock we had breakfast, at 6:45 we were called out and the details went to the main gate and there the farmers stood with their trucks and the details were loaded on the trucks. We were driven out into the field and we started at 8 a.m., we had our lunch box with us and we ate lunch in the field and in most cases, the farmers supplemented our lunch, especially after the war was over. Mrs. Roosevelt had a ‘revenge program,’ (limiting POWs’ food) that was a hard time because in the first place I think it was uncalled for and it was useless, and the American population did not understand it, or want it.
“‘If anybody ever threw up his rifle or waved a handkerchief, I did not shoot him and did not pursue him. I am a firm believer you get what you deserve, so when I stood as a deserter and when I had nothing to eat, we had no gasoline for the tank, we had nothing, the guy who came up to us didn’t shoot us either. My experience is if you talk, whether it is French, or English, or American, or Russian, you can communicate and in a minute and a half, you are friends rather than enemies.
“‘The quality of the food, as long as we were under the eighth army, was better than I have ever eaten at home, and also the kind of food was so much, and so good that we were surprised about it. Mrs. Roosevelt ordered, or it was her initiative to order a so-called ‘revenge business’ against the Germans, so we were limited to 800 calories per day, and if you go out into the field you just can’t do very much on 800 calories a day. The farmers did realize that, and they protested against the poor food and they substituted it and some of them even drove us back and said that if you don’t feed these guys then I won’t work them, I’m not that kind of a guy.
“‘Now they didn’t want us to eat steak every day, or something like that, don’t misunderstand me on this, but the people who we worked for knew us, and they knew we tried to do a full day’s work, and they wanted to feed us right.
“‘When I had to go back to Germany before I could immigrate here into the United States, I talked to other POWs and I never heard that the American population civilians did have anything against the regular German soldiers.
“‘Now in Oklahoma there was a camp where all the troublemakers and also the rough soldiers or SS soldiers were. I’m not sure how it was over there, but I think those people deserved what they have gotten there, because you can’t win the war from the barbed wire and if you provoke people in front of the barbed wire, they make it bad for everybody else.’
“‘The farmers I worked for were suspicious of us at first, it took about a day or two, and they would come and talk with us, and the first thing they did was bring us milk instead of water, and they gave us some cheese, and so on and so forth. They could not understand our situation and we could understand their situation and we regretted that their sons had to be in the battlefield, and we took the place of their children practically. We were working on what their sons would have done. There was, at one time in Snyder, Texas, when I had a detail there, there was a single case where the farmer received a notice where his son was killed, and they found his dog tags, and when we came there in the morning he tried to shoot the whole detail, and it took the guard to keep him from it.’”
At this point, Elvis Fleming asked how Hans came to be an interpreter, if he had learned English on his own.
He answered, “‘In Germany, you have to have languages to graduate. You have to study Latin or Greek, whichever you choose, and either French, English, or Spanish, and so forth. I had French and English.’
“‘When I was in Africa it came in pretty handy there, with the German legion, and I was an interpreter for the Arabians who mostly speak French.
“‘I understand English very fluently and I have no trouble to read it and no trouble to listen to it. I worry that the American press is much like the German press before it came under the dictatorship and it’s not objective anymore. What bugs me is that you have to listen to analysis, and this reminds me very much of the speech when Hitler was giving a speech and pretty soon an analysis was given and told the German people what Hitler had said. Here it is beginning to be the same thing, the president makes a speech and just a minute later the press comes in and gives you an analysis and tells you what the president said. I am kind of rejecting it because I think I understand enough English that I know what the president has said, nobody has to tell me what he told me, and I kind of shiver when I think there is a similarity to the matter that brought Hitler into power of dictatorship.’”
Elvis then asked about Orchard Park having its own newspaper, and if he recalled the newspaper.
“‘Yes, we had, first we had a German newspaper and this was supposed to be given out by the people who thought they could read between the lines and could interpret the American news into the German news, and they were inclined to say this was not so, and just the opposition, and so on. We could also buy three newspapers and they were censored first, then they were brought into the camp and of course the first few months this was frowned upon by all the Germans, you shouldn’t read enemy propaganda and you shouldn’t listen to the radio and so on, but later on we had our own broadcasting stations and we had to broadcast into the Barracks, certain programs, and we could give news through the broadcasting system.
“‘This was just for the camp, not a national broadcasting, and was stationed at the headquarters on the American side of the camp, across the barbed wire, and it was supervised by Lieutenant Maer, Richard Yaman Master Sergent. He came over here in 1935 and moved from Berlin, and we experienced a lot of good out of our relationship and so he understood German just as well as I did.’”
Elvis then asked about Poethig moving back, seeing the camp, and becoming a citizen.
“‘When I came back here I could still point out where I had been, and part of the camp was then occupied, mostly around the part that had been occupied by the guard companies, there was some housing there, and now everything is flat, and nothing is there anymore. On the other hand, I had indicated that I would like to forget about it and so I really don’t know which way is the best, but since the people have been very warm-hearted here, I would like to say that this has changed the attitude towards the American people, as many German soldiers lived together because people showed them compassion, they showed understanding, and they cared. They also had a certain amount of patience, even with the troublemakers, and we could understand that people would get angry with them. But it was the attitude of the American people, men and women, they showed interest and caring in the human being, that impressed us tremendously.
“Hans made his application to the immigration of the United States on 10-12-1948, but stated that the first interview he had was January 1948, but because of all the people waiting, he couldn’t interview until October. When he went down, he thought he was going to be first in line but he was number 21 out of 525, according to the number that was on his document.
Fleming asked Poethig if he ever regretted leaving Germany, which he denied. Then he asked him if he had adjusted well to this country.
Poethig answered, “‘If I have had any problems it’s because of the language barrier. It is not a misunderstanding, it’s not a contrary viewpoint I have, it’s because either I misinterpret something or they don’t understand what I want because I did not express myself in the right way. But I find that if you say things with a smile, you can say almost anything you want to, and people say, ‘well he didn’t mean it that way,’ and we don’t have any difficulties, and we have not had any trouble here. We have not had any conflict with the law, and no conflicts socially, we have a lot of friends, and we had a warm welcome when we came back.’”
Fleming’s final question was if Poethig wanted to add anything to his story. Poethig said, “‘Yes, I would like to say that we should fight to get the violence out of TV. I have had to shoot and carried the rifle too long, I think there are other things we should do other than show violence. We should try here at home, each one of us try to understand the neighbor and to understand that we have to respect each other and not just say something you know, and not think about it, as the American press does right now. That is very disturbing to me because we have rights, but we don’t have any ethics.’”
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at email@example.com.