There seems to be a lot of interest in the last two columns about a young German Prisoner of War who spent time at Camp Denison, a POW camp for captured German solders during World War II.
One of the things that people keep asking is the location of the camp site. I didn’t realize so many people didn’t know about the camp near where the Denison Dam now stands. I hope I have a correct answer about the location because I have been told several different sites where the German prisoners — mostly young men, but some as old as 50 years — were held for several months.
Yes, they did work on the Denison Dam, not building the actual dam, but clearing trees, brush and shrubs from the dirt side. German prisoners were involved in the construction of the dam at Lake Texoma and were the first to be used in a labor camp, but only non-war related work could be performed by POWs according to the Geneva Convention. The prisoners here did such work as clearing trees for the proposed lake and light construction. Construction projects performed by the prisoners also included mortaring the stone lining of the drainage ditches around the damsite that still are present today, and a bathroom facility at the damsite, according to a release by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Manfred Just was just 18 years old when he was captured in France, turned over to the British, then brought to the U.S., where prisoners were housed in camps all over the country. Manfred kept a diary of his days here and in other camps around the state and his travel to and from Texas. On a vacation here with his family in 1997, he traveled 7,000 miles across the country and decided they would like to live in New Mexico, Arizona or his top choice, Texas. He said it would be better to “clean the stairs from sand than from snow or ice.”
I guess he isn’t aware of the snow and sleet we usually see about once a year.
In our two previous columns, we discussed the part of his diary translated by his Canadian granddaughter. On Monday, I received information on his growing up days in Germany. He said he was drafted in November 1943 for the German Army. He had his high school diploma and was 18 years old. In his school years, he had only three months of English which he described as “too bad” because he said he could have used more lessons.
During the time he was kept in Camp Denison, the population was reduced by 40. Camp supplies were probably still sent for 120, so rations became a lot better. For his birthday in November, he said he was even baked a cake.
At the end of January 1945, he said they woke up one morning to a “donkey serenade” but not for work. They received blue duffle bags on which to write their prison numbers with white paint, then to pack their belongings. Two fancy buses were ready to take them to big Camp Fannin. I first believed this was Bonham because that town is in Fannin County. But I learned it was north of Tyler. During that time, Camp Fannin trained more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers, sometime as many at 40,000 at one given time. Some buildings still stand today.
One email I received about Camp Fannin told me it was a U.S. Army Infantry Replacement Training Center and a POW Camp near Tyler that opened in 1943 and only operated for four years before closing in 1946.
At that time, only a few prisoners remained in Denison for the liquidation of the camp. Manfred didn’t know for sure how they were selected for that task, but he was in the group.
Two weeks later, he was driven with 80 others to the lumber camp at San Augustine. This was a tent camp and labor was hard there. They had a quota of 12 pins of four foot long log pieces. Defaulting on the quota was punished. One day they only managed two pins, then they were given a week to train. Relief came at the end of March when they were transferred to Camp Polk.
The days there were great, without hunger, he related, and they were excited because talk was about release. The timeline he had put together showed they soon went back to Europe.
“The time on board was the worse period of hunger for us all” he said.
They had hoped for release and learned through the speaker system that they were then British prisoners and had to work in England for a few years. He was sent to Camp Byfield, arriving in June 1946 and stayed there until February 1948 before he was returned, first to Holland, then to Muster Camp in Germany and on to home in March 1948.
For an 18 year old who was drafted in 1943 and told what to do in the German Army, he was no different that an 18 year old drafted into the U.S. Army and sent somewhere to fight in a war not of his making. He had grown up on a farm with the thought of working in a drugstore. But the surrounding stores didn’t need any apprentices, he said, so his parents looked further for a place for him.
His teacher suggested he should apply for teachers’ prep college. He filled out all the papers and was accepted. When he passed, he was entitled to go to the university. A week later, the school inspector showed up at the school and he was the only one given exam questions. He said they were tough and he is still mad at himself for not distinguishing the Balkans from the Baltics despite help. But he made it and was invited to a one-week entry exam and passed.
But like so many young men in this country, he was drafted instead and I’ve told a lot of the rest of the story.
But not quite. When the war was over and he returned home, he did go to college and became a teacher of mathematics, physics and chemistry before being promoted to assistant on Chemical Institute, then UNI at Potsdam, a docent for organic chemistry, and a professor for organic chemistry from 1983 to 1990 before he retired.
In 1954, he was married and they had two sons, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. At 94 years old, he isn’t that much older than this writer.
It’s interesting to learn of so many other people with connections to Camp Denison, as a POW, a guard or in some other capacity. I met with one lady, Marion Sonnenburg, whose grandfather, Gerhard Kaczmarek from Berlin, also spent a short time at Camp Denison. Gerhard was captured in April 1943 by British troops in Tunisia and was discharged in 1947. Marion lives just down the road from me and is married to Mike Sonnenburg.
It has been interesting to learn a little about both Manfred and Gerhard and the lives lived when they were at one time prisoners of war kept so near where we live here today. Aside from the war, they were no different than our fathers, grandfathers or our brothers. Then they returned home to raise families and get on with their lives work. It’s actually a very small world.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.