I met a man the other day who asked me if I remembered Evelyn Carlat. I told him I certainly did and that I talked to her often when she was working in the offices of the Corp of Engineers at the Denison Dam and I was working at The Denison Herald and needed information that she either knew or had at her fingertips.
That started me thinking today as I began thinking about a column. One thing that Evelyn was an expert in remembering was the Prisoner of War Camp that was located just west of the Denison Dam. Often, I am asked questions about what now is a mysterious POW camp.
Newcomers to this area and sometimes those who have been around a few years often are surprised that a German POW Camp was located just beyond the present spillway area of the dam at the end of World War II. The camp was built to house 150 prisoners.
Evelyn, who now is deceased, worked in the Corp of Engineers office for many years. She told me a story a number of years ago about a visit to the camp in 1946. Her remembrance won first place in a Herald sponsored essay contest, “I Remember When.”
At the time that she visited the camp, there were only 35 to 40 prisoners remaining and they were waiting for final orders to return home. She and a friend were invited by military personnel to be guests at a delicious dinner in the camp that was prepared by the prisoners. One thing that she especially remembered on the menu was chocolate pie — a treat since sugar, chocolate and butter had long been on the food shortage list.
Army Capt. David Bates was responsible for this detachment in the Denison area. He was a World War I veteran who had been recalled with the rank of captain and later worked at the Citizens National Bank here.
The compound didn’t attract much attention except for the high wire compound, according to Evelyn’s essay. After the tour, she said she delved a little deeper into the history of the camp by reading files and talking with civilian crew foremen.
The German prisoners, about 10 percent of whom spoke English, were brought to the camp for a planned three years in 1945. This particular group had been held in the Central Camp Howze Prisoner Compound in Gainesville, then was a part of the Tishomingo, Oklahoma, work group. Prisoners from camps at Powell and near Tishomingo had worked earlier during the building of the Denison Dam.
The compound here included wooden barracks much like those that housed U.S. servicemen. A high fence surrounded the area and guard towers were placed in four locations as precautions. The men were from varied walks of life and many were trained tradesmen.
Several performed maintenance work at the Reddam Spur and built drainage ditches and restrooms on the Texas and Oklahoma side of the river. They did not work on the actual construction of the dam. The men had their own mess hall, cooked their own food, elected their own officers and ran their own compound to a certain extent.
Evelyn remembered that plans to use prisoners to speed clearing work on the dam were first announced by Denison District Engineer Col. W.W. Wanamaker in 1943. Wanamaker told her that 16,000 acres of the original 33,000 acres still needed to be cleared that fall as the Red River was to be closed June 1 for work on the dam to continue. It was hard to find civilian forces because most were fighting the war. Wood cleared by the prisoners was shipped to various locations and mostly used for fuel.
One group of prisoners was a regiment of young Germans captured in North Africa who were part of Hitler’s Afrika Korps, Evelyn recalled. She said they looked like any other young men, except for the initials “PW” in large red letters across the seat of their pants and on the back of their jumpers. If they earned the privilege, they were allowed to wear their German uniforms on Sunday, she said.
Except when they were working, the prisoners ate, slept and played in the compound. Discipline was enforced partly through their own non-commissioned officers. Cards were mailed to their families in Germany to let them know that they were safe in America as POWs. These messages went through international channels under the terms of the Geneva Convention, which also called for the prisoners to be paid for their work — 80 cents a day. Each prisoner was allowed 10 cents a day in canteen credits for purchases there.
Allowances were to be repaid by the German government after the war, but I have no idea is they were ever paid.
Some prisoners were not eager to work on the tree clearing project and were urged to by an incentive plan — when a certain amount of work was done they could return to the compound. Most, however, realized they were making as much money comparatively as when they were risking their lives in the German army. They worked a 48-hour week, the same as the hired labor forces.
One guard was assigned to every eight prisoners when they were working. The guards stayed 15 feet from their group as a safety measure and weren’t allowed to talk to the prisoners. Evelyn said she was told that there was very little trouble with prisoners trying to escape. Actually in talking to her it sounded like they had it pretty good to be POWs.
Reading material and movies were earned privileges and religious services were held for those who wanted to attend. The prisoners were faithful in writing letters home and the letters were closely censored.
Claud Easterly, editor of the Denison Herald, told of being asked to go to the Tishomingo Camp and take pictures of some of the handwork made by prisoners there. He did and developed and printed the pictures in his home darkroom, drying them on the top of a heater. He had to take the pictures back to the camp for the military staff there to look at each one to approve it or censor it being sent back to Germany for fear something in it would have given information not to be shared.
Treatment of the prisoners here was quite different from the treatment our U.S. soldiers received when they were held in German POW camps. Evelyn said a Corp of Engineers foreman told her that the prisoners came from all walks of life and some were just kids who said they were only doing what they had been told. Some, however, were the hard core ones.
Back in 1986, the late Thomas Warner Young Sr., told me that in 1945 he lived near the MK&T Railroad tracks in the 500 block of South Scullin and passenger trains passed daily. One summer when it was so hot and a train carrying POWs was either coming in or leaving the camp, the conductor allowed them to open their windows on the train to get some air. The trains had no air conditioning.
One of the prisoners that he believed must have been stationed in France threw him a French coin. Warner passed that coin, a French 2 Franc piece, on to me and it has been among my keepsakes since.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.