I had the nicest surprise Sunday as I turned on my computer to think about writing a column. I had a nice long letter from Manfred Just of Rodeberg, Germany. He had been an 18-year-old German prisoner of World War II after being captured by partisans in Kaew, France. He served time at the Denison Prisoner of War Camp near where the Denison Dam now is located from May 1945 to January 1946 when he was transported to Fannin Camp just north of Tyler.
At the time, he came to Denison Camp he had just completed sergeant’s training in 1945 at Camp Brady, Texas. Prisoners with a sergeant’s rank did not have to do manual labor.
Manfred had found one of my columns about the POW camp near here on the internet and wrote to elaborate on his captivity here and at other camps until he was released with 200 others from Camp Byfield in Europe headed toward home and was finally released on Feb. 26, 1948.
Manfred had kept a diary during his captivity that took him from Kaew to Beer, Camp Huy where food was distributed, then on cattle trucks with 60 POWs to a field in Sissoms, then by truck to Suippes, on trucks with 50 POWs to Chartres where they stayed in tents. Cherbourg was their last stop in November 1944 before shipping out to the U.S.
They arrived in New York and were taken by train to Brady before coming on to Denison at what he called the Red River Dam. His departure in January 1946 from Denison took him through any number of stops before he arrived in Hooks, Holland, to continue to Munster Camp in Germany. In March 1948, he was transported by train to Munster Camp in Germany, on to Friedland near the zone border then on to Kirchgandern/Thuringia in the Russian zone, before going to Leipzig to be released to go home.
I figured he must have been born about 1925 which would make him 93 years old now. He has a great mind for all he remembered while he was here in captivity.
He was brought to Camp Denison with 40 other POWS in three trucks. Other prisoners had been brought to other camps weeks before and had been working on the Red River Dam. He said guards, civilians and prisoners had rearranged the camp and it was nice and very clean.
“We received freshly laundered army pants and blue coarse fabric shirts that we had to make with ‘PW’ or ‘POW’ in huge letters with white oil paint. The best thing about the supply distribution was ‘new underwear,’” he said.
Here at Camp Denison everyone was from 19 to 50 years old and all different ranks were mixed together.
“Religion didn’t play any role,” he said, “probably because we were not enough to provide religious services.”
Food was tight and they were hungry most of the time because those who worked got a sandwich with some kind of sausage and a vegetable that made the bread pretty mushy. After some enthusiastic complaints, Manfred said the vegetables were dropped.
In the beginning, breakfast consisted of two slices of bread, peanut butter and orange jam that they liked. Since they were not allowed to have knives, forks or scissors, they were only served soup after work.
There was a commissary for toothpaste, razor blades, socks, laundry detergent and soap. He said oddly enough they were given Russian tobacco (Machorka) in small white bags. They couldn’t figure out how the rare cigarettes from Russia were made available, but since he didn’t smoke, he made a trade with other prisoners of one cigarette for one slice of bread.
He said the prisoners were rarely assigned to work on the dam, but removed brush and scrub on the land side. Manfred said he found it dangerous that water was streaming out of the wet hillside until trucks drove nonstop for hours to pour material into the water side. Sundays and at night, volunteers were needed to help keep the road clean. What he called the amount of “huge salmon in the turbines drain basin” were impressive.
He had never seen anything like that. Must have been catfish or large black bass that he was watching because I’ve never heard of salmon in the Red River.
Guards and working groups got used to each other pretty quickly, he said, adding that every truck was accompanied by two soldiers. At the worksite, they were handed over to the foremen but the guards stayed close. The work areas didn’t differ very much he said.
Manfred started to work in a saw mill at Camp St. Augustine after he left Denison with two groups of trucks hauling the POWs. Here they were working were stacks of planks and no breeze between them. The Texas sun was merciless and by evening, they had crusts of white salt on their shirts. One day, three of the first men passed out and a doctor from Camp Howze waited for the men to return to camp and explained to them that they weren’t drinking enough water.
After that, everyone who walked through the gate had to take two salt pills and a huge cup of water. After that, they paid more attention to drinking enough from a huge barrel that held two grapefruit halves and two blocks of ice with water. Drinking so much water caused Manfred to have what he called “a kidney colic at night.” He ran around the camp fence in his nightgown at his roommate’s suggestion causing the floodlights to come on and begin following him. When he heard the machine guns click he stopped that routine. After a few laps, the pain eased up and in the morning the kidney stone was gone.
South of Denison, a huge field next to the train tracks was leveled then the next day trains with army trucks from Europe arrived. They were checked and cleaned by the prisoners then parked very close together. Manfred was with the cleaning crew and said he was overwhelmed to see so many of the trucks.
“We were sure that more trucks stood there than Germany used in four years of war altogether. It was insane to fight against the allies,” he added.
I have had a lot of people call me asking questions about the Denison POW Camp and others in the area like Tishomingo, Oklahoma. But this is the first time I have had any contact with someone who was there as a POW and I found it interesting to read about life in one of those camps.
Manfred wrote enough in his letter for another column so next Wednesday, I will continue to talk about his life here and some of his personal life including his family and profession since returning home to Germany.
He asked for copies of pictures of the Denison Camp, but I’m sorry to say I don’t have any. Perhaps by the time this column is ready to publish one can be located.
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 column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.