Part IV - Home Town Heroes
By Marvin Mayer
Last month, we discovered that not all of the troops fighting Hitler's war were hard core Nazis. This month, we want to extol the virtues of some Americans by recognizing their contribution to winning over the enemy, at least the enemies who were "guests" of our government; Camp Fannin's POWs.
In prior parts of this series of articles, we noted most of the POWs at Camp Fannin were thrown into the conflict in much the same way our troops were inducted; i.e, the draft. Underscoring their lack of interest in prosecuting the war was the low incidence of [serious] escape attempts. However, a small number of the captured prisoners - generally non-commissioned officers with rank of Sergeant - fully embraced the Nazi doctrine, and attempted to incite their countrymen to disrupt the relatively routine daily functions of the prison camp. Enter a Catholic priest of German descent, a man by the name of Meinrad Marbaugh.
Born to Catholic parents in Monterrey, Indiana, Marbaugh eventually chose a life in the ministry. After the war broke out, there were shortages in almost every profession as young men either enlisted or were drafted into the military. The church was no exception. A shortage of priests led [him] to an opportunity to teach at a local Benedictine school in Subiaco, AR, a small town about fifty miles east-southeast of Ft. Smith. Well received and liked by students and faculty alike, Father Marbaugh quickly rose to the position of Assistant Principal.1
Meanwhile, Camp Fannin's post commander, Colonel Charles H. Brammell, noticed a growing level of insurrection and discontent among the POWs. Here-to-four relying solely on interpreters from within the prison population to keep him abreast of what the men were saying, he decided to bring in a more reliable translator. He invited Father Marbaugh to come to the camp, visit the prisoners, find out what, if anything, was going on, and to report his findings. In short order, Father Marbaugh discovered the Nazi NCO's were "stirring the pot," feeding propaganda and false information to the German prisoners. With no other source of information, many of the prisoners believed the war was going well for the Axis powers, but that their (prisoners') families could and would be harmed if they (prisoners) didn't resist their captors and make every effort to escape.
Father Marbaugh reassured the prisoners their families were in no danger from Nazi storm troopers since the tide had turned in favor of allied forces. That meant all Nazi troops were preoccupied with combat situations and would have no time to harass German citizens. He encouraged the prisoners to go back to work, reassuring them they would receive payment for their work when the war ended, and they would be allowed to take their accumulated pay with them. Then he reported to Colonel Brammell. Brammell wasted no time in having the trouble makers relocated to other prison camps. Without Father Marbaugh's help, no telling what might have taken place at the POW compound.2
Another American whose life was touched by the Camp Fannin POW compound was Tylerite, Louise Coker. A civilian employee at the Camp's Postal Section, she was able to see several prisoners on a daily basis. As she distributed mail to them, they shared with her pictures and news of loved ones. She became very close to some of them. George Metz, whom we met in last month's article, credits Louise for her tenacity in helping him become a post-war U. S. citizen. The same and more can be said of another prisoner whose Camp Fannin life was discussed last month, Walter Kattwinkel. "Miss Coker was there at first, I guess she noticed that I was a scared kid; she mothered me a lot, which I really appreciated."3
Ms. Coker felt she got as much as, or more than, she gave. In an interview with Gayla H. Lawson, she said she "was greatly rewarded by her experiences at Camp Fannin. She speaks of her work there with enthusiasm, and being able to help these friends over the years has brought her happiness she wouldn't trade for anything.4
Sergeant James C. Oliver was especially proud of the work accomplished to educate the prisoners about democracy. As noted in a previous article in this series, his kindness toward the prisoners often was rewarded with gifts - flowers for his mother - from prisoner/gardener Metz. Quoting Lawson again, "even though fraternizing did not occur, there was a warmth and understanding between men as humans that superseded the side on which they had served."5 Not only did he receive unique mementos from some of the prisoners he supervised,6 he is quoted as saying, "I was shocked after the war to receive Christmas cards and postcards from German prisoners the Christmas of 1946. I don't know where they got my address, but I feel very humbled that they thought enough to do it."7
Albert Pfitsch, Jr., a military doctor assigned to Camp Fannin in February, 1944, wrote in his memoirs, "The general set-up was pleasant. I worked in several dispensaries and the final one was the cre of German prisoners of war. I had a rather large staff at each of my places of work. My German assistant at the dispensary was Willi Roettger and in the ward was Alois Wagner. They were mature men of excellent character and intelligence. I soon was able to talk German fluently and could dispense with an interpreter. This was a very congenial atmosphere and both the American administration under Colonel Burchard and the Germans were easy to get along with. Many favors were done by the Germans in the way of carvings, paintings, etc."8
However, there was at least one "civilian" intimidated by the presence of so many German prisoners. At the age of 7 or 8, William Rouse recalls being driven to the camp with several of his young friends so they could sell newspapers to our GIs. He remembers being scared to death of the POWs. And why not? To him, they were those big, bad, German soldiers.9
1 Interview with Mary Jane McNamara
2 Interview with Mary Jane McNamara
3 Gayla H. Lawson, POW Kaleidoscope: First Glimpse, Chronicles of Smith County, Texas Vol 22, #2, Winter, 1983 Pg 16
4 Ibid, Pg 17
5 Tyler Life, November 1985, Pg 61
6 Ibid, Pg 61
7 Ibid, Pg 61
8 Mark Choate, Nazis in the Pineywoods, (Best of East Texas Publishers, Lufkin, TX , 1989) Pg.
9 Interview with William Rouse
Photo courtesy Smith County Historical Society