Stephen F. Austin State University

Part II - Managing 1,000 or more POW's at Camp Fannin (September 2013)

Part II - Managing 1,000 or more POW's at Camp Fannin
By Marvin Mayer

Last month, we explored Camp Ford's POW physical facilities, and how the inmates' time was put to good use without being oppressive or abusive. This month, I want to take a closer look at what made it so different from prisoner of war camps shown in the movies and TV series previously mentioned.

In Bridge Over the River Kwi, the Japanese guards were made to look brutal, no doubt a reflection of their commanding officer's attitude. In the TV series, "Hogan's Heroes," the American prisoners appeared to be able easily to manipulate their German captors, portraying them as stupid and befuddled. At Camp Fannin, a different attitude prevailed. Here, the prison Commandant treated his prisoners as human beings, followed the rules of the Geneva Convention, and, by encouraging them to remain active during their leisure time, kept prisoner morale high. As a result, he was able to get his prisoners to perform their work details with professionalism. In their leisure time, competitive sports like badminton and softball were encouraged and less physical but equally challenging mental competition was encouraged through games like chess.

How effective were these policies? According to Born in Dixie: Smith County from 1875 to its Centennial Year, they were highly successful. Quoting from page 762, "An inspection report in March of 1944 contained only a few criticisms. Led by Emil Greuter of the Swiss Legation and E. T. Bailey of the United States Department of State, the team highlighted many positives. First, on most work details around the camp, prisoners got hot lunches at the noon hour. Second, even the night laundry crew received a meal consisting of at least sandwiches and coffee. Third, any men working received two breaks in the morning and one in the afternoon. The post hospital was satisfactory, as was its staff. The report also mentioned the development of a theater with a raised stage where live performances frequently took place. A soccer field had been completed, and it was in use every daylight minute.
"The inspectors also reported that authorities met the prisoners' religious needs by allowing a German Lutheran minister and other preachers to hold services. They had lost their German Catholic priest, but an American priest held weekly services. The reporting teams' findings were negative on only one important aspect of camp life; the woeful state of international mail delivery, which Germany was more responsible for than the United States. The report also mentioned that the camp needed improved recreational equipment. The investigators commented on declining morale, but noted that a new influx of prisoners, some of the Nazis and other hard cases, were 'stirring up' the other men." (We'll revisit this potential problem in a later segment.)

Of particular interest was the relationship Camp Fannin enjoyed with nearby Tyler. While acutely aware of the presence of this military installation just a few miles north of the city, many Tylerites were oblivious to the existence of its POW section. Gayla H. Lawson expressed her incredulity this way: "It is amazing to the historian to discover that few people knew of its position as a POW internment center." She went on to add, "Being one of fifteen base camps, those built on existing military installations, most of Camp Fannin's POWs were not contracted out for labor purposes as on Texas' thirty-six branch camps; therefore, few people in the community had the contact with prisoners that occurred in other areas of the state where prisoners supplied badly needed sources of labor for civilian purposes." Instead, as noted in Part I, branch POW camps were created near the forests and agricultural lands, and prisoners from Camp Fannin were sent to those camps rather than being contracted for work in Tyler.
Another factor may have been the lack of [serious] escape attempts. Two episodes were laughable, but also showed how the Germans preferred confinement at Fannin to the "freedom" of being returned to Germany where there would have been a high probability of being sent back to the war's front lines.

First, Sergeant James Oliver remembers the time one prisoner simply went on a sight-seeing tour of Tyler. Somehow, despite his clothes clearly displaying large "PW" letters, he somehow managed to board a bus and rode into Tyler without so much as a curious look from other passengers. In broad open daylight, he "played tourist," leisurely walking around the square. Just as casually, he caught the bus back to camp that evening. Back inside the POW compound, the solder said he just wanted to see what Tyler looked like. His punishment for this brazen "escape;" a day or two of bread and water.

The second episode was more of a "day off" than an actual escape attempt. Through his behavior, German Sergeant Walter Kattwinkel had earned a position of trust in the Postal Section. Not unlike a trustee in a civilian prison, he was allowed to leave the prison compound each morning to work at the base post office. Eventually, boredom set it. One particular morning, he and some of his fellow prisoners decided to go on a fishing trip. Using his "status" to get through the gate, he told the guard he and his friends had been assigned to a work detail. Unchallenged, they were allowed to pass through the gate. The group found a nearby stream, made fishing poles, and spent the day playing Huckleberry Finn. They returned to the camp without attempting to escape. Twice more, the group spent unauthorized days at the "fishing hole" before their escapade was discovered. Punishment was somewhat harsher - three days each in solitary confinement - but it was reduced to only one day, probably because of Kattwinkel's popularity with camp authorities.

Tylerites who were aware of the POW camp seemed unperturbed to have the enemy so close by. Perhaps the visibility of U.S. soldiers and airmen stationed or trained at Camp Fannin gave them a feeling of security. Additionally, a significant number of civilians, mostly from Tyler, were employed in a variety of positions at Camp Fannin. We'll meet some of those people later in this series of articles.

For slightly more than three years, the city of Tyler and Camp Fannin lived in harmony, like a couple of good neighbors. Some citizens invited GI's into their homes for a home cooked meal. Others were just reaping the financial benefits of having them spend their pay in local stores, shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and other public venues. As for the POW's, Tylerites were either oblivious to their existence or didn't feel threatened. Perhaps the presence of so many service men and women gave Tyler's citizens a feeling of safety. Whatever the underlying cause, the "good neighbor" relationship lasted throughout Fannin's existence, and beyond.