Smooth 'Sailing' at Camp Fannin
- By Marvin Mayer
Camp Fannin, located about 7 miles northeast of Tyler, Smith County, Texas was created in 1942 as a training facility for inductees into the Army Air Corps. However, it quickly morphed into an IRTC, an Infantry Replacement Training Center. As the name implied, IRTCs trained soldiers to be replacements for troops killed or injured on the front lines. In its heyday, some 35,000 to 40,000 service men were trained at Camp Fannin every four months.
In more than one way, Camp Fannin played an integral role in helping win the war. Processing (training) as many as 200,000 new soldiers was significant in and of itself, but Fannin also was the temporary home to another 1,000 to 1,200 soldiers. German soldiers. In 1943, captured members of Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Korps began occupying a relatively small section of the massive 15,000 acre military site. This article will be the first in a series dealing with the POW aspect of Camp Fannin; its history (in today's article,) events, stories of a few of its inmates, and a couple of Americans who had an impact on the prisoners.
First, let's put this in perspective. Hollywood produced some wide ranging images of life in enemy POW camps. "Stalag 17" (1955) starring William Holden depicted the plight of American airmen in a German POW camp. Another classic, "Bridge Over the River Kwai" (1957) featured Alec Guinness as a British Officer who suffered extreme torture by his Japanese captors. And who could forget such characters as Colonel Klinger and his dolt-like adjutant, Sergeant Shultz, in the farcical TV series, "Hogan's Heros?" These are just three, but very different, insights into life in a hostile government's prisoner of war centers.
No one would argue that, as a general rule, being a POW was a picnic. That having been said, life as a POW at Camp Fannin stood in stark contrast to the brutal treatment allied forces prisoners received at POW camps, at least as depicted in movies. Some might even argue that conditions in this Texas detention center more closely resembled a country club than a prison. With approval from the [prison] camp's commanding officer, the prisoners were allowed to build such amenities as a kitchen-mess hall, canteen, outdoor theater, infirmary, library, church, and recreational buildings. The closest thing to brutality was an occasional sentence of a day in solitary confinement for the few inmates who tried to escape. Most of the captives, however, were content to remain at Camp Fannin for the duration of the war. And why wouldn't they have been? Here, they didn't have to sleep in fox holes, dig latrines, stand guard duty, go on reconnaissance missions, or risk injury or death while engaged in fire fights with their adversaries, the soldiers and marines of the allied armed forces. Instead, safely inside the barbed wire perimeter of the POW camp, they received decent food, medical care, and the enjoyment of the facilities mentioned above.
To say these captured soldiers enjoyed a country club lifestyle at Camp Fannin would be inaccurate. There were rules and there were work detachments. Labor consisted largely of gardening, grading, salvaging and similar on-post tasks. Because the [U.S.] draft had depleted the ranks of workers in the lumber and agricultural industries of East Texas, some Camp Fannin inmates were utilized as their replacements. About 400 prisoners were sent to a branch POW camp at Chireno, about fifteen miles east of Nacogdoches, to cut storm-damaged trees in nearby forests. The wood harvested by Chireno's POW contingent was used for lumber and paper, and the work continued until the end of the war. Other Camp Fannin POWs were put to work in the camp's massive laundry facility while still others worked in the POW mess hall. An article in the November, 1985 edition of Tyler Life suggests the prisoners sometimes enjoyed meals that could be compared to those served at the finest hotels and restaurants. These prime meals were the result of a draftee, a French chef refugee who, upon being drafted into the army, was made the camp's mess sergeant. Assisted by German cooks, his meals became legendary. Even some civilian employees and a number of Tylerites, were fortunate enough to enjoy some of his masterpieces.
One of the prisoners who had access to the camp's wood working shop, built the model sloop shown below. His hand crafted vessel is now on display at the Smith County Historical Society's museum.
Next month, we'll examine how:
- the Camp Fannin POW facility co-existed with nearby Tyler
- the prison's commandant kept German morale high
- most prisoners felt about:
- their captors
- Americans in general
- and Tylerites in particular
- Chronicles of Smith County, Texas, Volume 22, Number 2
- Chronicles of Smith County, Texas, Volume 32, Number 2
- Tyler Life, November, 1985 Article, POW Kaleidoscope: First Glimpse, by Gayla H. Lawson, Pg 12,
- Chronicles of Smith County, Texas Volume 22, Number 1
- Another model sail boat courtesy Smith County Historical Society.
- Photographs of two unidentified prisoners pictured working on model sail boats courtesy Smith County Historical Society.