The Trinity Valley Exposition grounds and facilities served as one of several German Prisoners of War Camps in Texas during the years of 1943-1945. This is the story of how that came to be.
U.S. forces captured Rommel’s Afrika Korps 24 after the North Africa Campaign Victory and under the Geneva Convention, they had to be transported to areas in the United States that were similar in climate and conditions. Southeast Texas was a perfect fit for four reasons: the climate was similar to North Africa with mild winters that saved the government the expense of buying winter clothing for the Germans; there was a labor shortage in the agriculture and the timber industries; Texas was hard to escape from at that time; and there were Texans who spoke the language.
In June 1943 at their annual meeting in Lake Charles, the rice farmers of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas re-elected Capt. A. H. Boyt of Beaumont as the president of the American Rice Growers Association and his brother, E. W. Boyt of Devers as the Devers Division President. Capt. Boyt noted “if the 1943 crop is to be saved it will be necessary to import labor either from Mexico or Jamaica, or employ war prisoners. He assured the members that everything possible will be done to solve this critical situation.”
Capt. Boyt and E. W. Boyt began a campaign to make the government aware that there was a drastic situation, dire straits for the rice growers, for to harvest the largest volume of rice in the history of the association, they needed men.
In July 1943 TVE President J. M. Rich and the board of directors discussed and approved the use of the grounds as a temporary prison-of-war camp after Pat Boyt, J. H. Sandlin and Liberty County Agricultural Agent G. L. Hart reported on their trip to Huntsville.
Following their meeting, Rich met with General L. F. Guerre, director of internal security division of the Eighth Service Command, to verify that the U.S. Army would furnish the guards at no cost.
Editor Jake C. Smythe wrote the following editorial in the July 15, 1943, Vindicator:
Prisoners of War to be welcome in county
When a group of patriotic Americans—directors of the Trinity Valley Exposition—gathered a few days ago to discuss the possibility of using prisoners of war for rice harvesting, the Axis propaganda leaders’ campaign of hatred and race prejudice took a nose dive.
If prisoners of war whose homes are in the heart of the German Reich, come to Liberty County and Chambers County to help harvest rice, they will be treated as honorably as if they were regular American laborers imported from another state.
The idea of giving the prisoners of war a midafternoon treat of turnip greens, or some other tasty American dish, appealed to the farm leaders who gathered at Liberty. If these young Germans do come to this area to help with the rice harvest, they will unquestionably learn that most Americans do not feel bitter toward the average fighter for the Reich, no matter how incensed we may be at Hitler and his gang of thugs.
Such an attitude should do much to help shape a better post-war world. Every real student of history knows that a permanent job of policing cannot be done in Germany after the war. Sooner or later, the Germans must be given again the task of governing themselves. If we can impress the young German prisoners with our basic friendliness and fair dealing, most of them will no doubt return home, after peace comes, with a different conception of America than has been given them by a generation of Hitlerism.
This new conception may lead the German people to conclude that it will be more profitable to live in a cooperative world than in a world in which they, the self-called “master race,” seek to be a slave-driver of other nations. A farfetched idea? Not at all, when we remember that “as a man (and that includes a German) thinketh, so is he.”
Major H. E. Henson of Internal Security Division Eight Service Command met with the rice labor committee of J. M. Rich, Jimmie Trousdale, M. E. Peterson, Pat Boyt and J. F. Clark on July 16 and officially inspected the proposed camp sites. Major Henson approved the TVE site for 400 prisoners and the necessary guards. The rice labor committee had asked for 850 prisoners, but the camp site was not large enough so the additional men might be houses at a camp on the west of the river in Chambers County. Liberty County War Finance Committee Chairman A. J. Hartel, Jr. agreed with the change, but commented: “that thoughts of quotas should be abandoned during this closing day of the Third War Loan Drive and an all-out effort launched to boost the bond total to the highest possible total.”
On September 40 County Agent Gordon L. Hart reported their appeal to lift the ban on housing POWs within 150 miles of the coast was waved and that the Liberty Camp would be established in time to harvest the bumper crop.
Capt. J. E. Crawford and Colonel J. R. Carvolth, Supervisor of the Huntsville Prisoners-of-War Camp, arrived on October 7 with 140 prisoners wearing P. W. on their clothes. By October 12, 400 additional prisoners and 100 guards were on hand to start the rice harvest. The guards worked in the fields as well as in the camp. The Liberty and Chambers County rice farmers paid $2.15 each per day and furnished transportation. They had signed contracts for 625 laborers so the shortage continued.
The people of Liberty embraced the guards and tried to make their service pleasant. A soldier entertainment committee with Mrs. N. A. Allison as general chairman and Miss Arlene Pickett as secretary-treasurer established a recreation center in the Steusoff Building on main street. “Writing tables and materials, chairs, games, magazines, radio and other facilities are being provided.” Civic organizations were asked to provide hostess for weekday hours of 7-10 pm and 1-10 pm on Sundays. Mrs. Allison requested donations of current magazines due to a shortage of up to date reading materials. Many Liberty citizens invited one or more “soldier boys” to their homes for Sunday dinner with Mrs. R. T. Cocke organizing their transportation. Army trucks brought the guards to the city hall at noon and returned them to the fair grounds in the afternoon.
By the end of the month , the camp was running smoothly and the rice harvest was well under way. On Sunday afternoon fifteen German POWs provided a musical program for 150 visitors, mainly rice farmers and their families. “The 15 were dressed in blue shirts, white trousers, and white ties-music was on piano, violin, guitar, accordion and drum; and the entire group of prisoners seated on the grandstand, joined in singing some snappy songs.” Buchanan Radio Service installed and operated the “loud speaker service” and provided the piano.
This inspired Vindicator Jake Smyth to write another editorial on October 28:
Prisoners of War See An American Combination
This war will not be won with slobbery sentiment nor with friendly gestures.
But the end of the war will be hastened—and many post-war problems will be solved—if Americans throughout this land continue to treat prisoners of war as the rice-harvesting Germans are being treated in the Liberty-Chambers County camp.
We are treating them as enemies, yet as human beings; as young men trained to kill, yet as creatures of God who. under an environment of love and goodwill might have been as peace-loving as most Americans. Peace failed to follow the first World War not because the Allies loved their enemies too much nor treated them too justly . . . peace failed to come because, for one thing, the Allies became foolish through self-seeking and dollar-grabbing.
By December 7 1943 the number of prisoners were deleted to on eighteen guards and two hundred prisoners to work with the lumber men. Capt. Tierney, Capt. Dent of the Liberty Camp, Mr. Ezell of the Beaumont Employment Office, Liberty County Agent Gordon Hart and Chambers County Agent J. H. Sandlin certified the contracts with mill owners, lumbermen and sawmill operators.
On December 25, the two hundred prisoners and guards waded through the mud and water at the TVE grounds for their traditional Christmas observance. In the old school display building, the men had a holly evening on Christmas Eve with eating, drinking and entertainment. On Christmas Day the Germans had their traditional Yuletide feast, except they had to substitute chicken and turkey for the Christmas goose. Even a German Santa Claus made the rounds giving out gifts of food, German cigarettes, two bottles of beer at each plate, and packages from the Reich through the German Red Cross. Other food and gifts were purchased from the funds earned by the prisoners from the rice harvest.
Until October 1944, the guards and prisoners were frequently relocated to other camps in Texas and Louisiana to harvest other crops and timber resources. On October 19 200 POWs were allocated to Liberty for the 1944 harvest. Agent Hart reported “Prisoners from camps at Huntsville and Bastrop are being used by 10 other nearby counties for various kinds of farm labor and in saw mills”—Jefferson, Orange, Chambers, Brazoria, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Matagorda and Wharton,
The two hundred men were under two major contracts, the first with J. W. Trousdale, west of the Trinity River, and the second with E. W. Boyt and the American Rice Growers Cooperative Association, Devers Division, east of the river. With the aid of new combines and local labor the decrease from 500 men in 1943 was not as dire.
Again the number decreased in 1945. The Vindicator reported “Nazi Prisoners Will Work Here in Rice Harvest” on August 16. 170 prisoners obtained from Camp Polk in Louisiana under the control of Colonel Greg arrived on September 17 to begin the rice harvest in Liberty County that continued through December.
The Vindicator added “Heretofore, the German prisoners of war have proven to be good workers, but some of them showed a haughty and condescending attitude. According to observers who have seen the prisoners who have seen the prisoners recently they are said to be a very changed group of men.”
The 1945 harvest was delayed by a Gulf Storm and at the end of December, sixty-five German prisoners of war from the China Camp were still working in Liberty and Chambers Counties. According to the newspaper report, “Germans are said to be doing better work in the harvest than at any previous time they have been employed for this work.”
In 1987 the experiences at the camp and of Liberty citizens were well documented by Lee College student Jeanie Carmody in her article “German Prisoners of War—The Liberty Experience”, published in Touchstone. Carmody interviewed Mrs. Gordon Hart who recalled that her husband enjoyed eating “there because of the wonderful German cooks” and camp guard Roy Hagar who remembered that the “men spoke English, . . . above average in intelligence, . . . and each one seemed to be trained as carpenters, electricians, and mechanics.” On average Hager thought that each prisoner was paid seventy cents per day.
Hager furthered recalled that the Germans missed their food the most and that a riot almost occurred when corn was served at a meal. The Germans disliked corn for they considered it as cattle food. This insult was not repeated.
In 1981 Carmody interviewed Dorothy Gassett of Liberty and Evelyn Evans of Devers. Mrs. Gassett recalled riding her bicycle to the fairgrounds to listen to the Germans since and recalled the tragic drowning of a young prisoner while swimming in a rice canal on a hot summer day. Evelyn Evans recounted a story of about her daughter, Betty. While Betty was in Mercy Hospital, one of the Germans was working as an electrician. He had to move the bed and Evelyn made motions about being careful moving her daughter. Once the work was completed, the POW said in perfect English. “I hope I haven’t disturbed your daughter too much.”
World War II ended and the prisoners returned to Germany. A few actually returned to Liberty to visit in later years and wrote letters to several of the residents thanking them for the hospitality under the circumstances.
By March 1946 the camp was empty, but the Farm Labor group left the Exposition Committee a balance of $3,800 in the bank, $3,700 in rent was paid to pay off all its indebtedness and two new water wells complete with pumps at a value of $2000 were left behind.
At their 1946 Spring Meeting TVE Directors approved their acceptance of the farm labor committee report after W. M. Parker, appraiser, said it was a sound proposition. Additionally, Guy Cade Jackson pointed out that insurance on the buildings was paid until June 1946 by the farm committee’s management and all of the improvements including the cash balance.
Attending the meeting were: J. M. Rich, president; Vernon F. Poole, secretary; Guy Cade Jackson, J. H. Sandlin, Miss Gena Thames, Grover Chambliss, Mrs. J. B. Wooldridge and Link Nolte, Anahuac; Pat Boyt, Cecil Boyt and C. B. Jeffrey, Devers; J W. Trousdale, Dayton; J. R. Barber, Barbers Hill; Mayes Middleton, Jack Eckols, Buck Eckols, E. B. Pickett, Voris Burch, G. L. Hart, C. A. Miles, Miss Nettie Smith, J. C. Smyth, W. M. Parker, R. H. Watson, H. L. McGuire, Max Kay and R. W. Chambliss, Liberty.
On May 2, 1946 the workmen and TVE leadership were busy cleaning the fair grounds and stacking lumber left at the prisoner-of war camp. Parker, Elmer Ratcliff and Voris Burch were supervising the building projects. Vernon F. Poole, exposition secretary-manager, stated that the materials would be salvaged and used in building and repairing new and old projects. The Trinity Valley Exposition grounds were better than ever for the next fair held on October 23-26.