Camp Ruston sometime between 1943 and 1946. (www.latech.edu)
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 7:32 PM
Were there any POW camps in the Lake Charles area?
Between 1943 and 1946, German prisoners of war were housed at four main posts — Camps Livingston, Polk, Ruston and Plauche — and at more than 30 branch sites, where they were used as contract labor.
The branch sites included camps in Bell City, Edgerly, Eunice, Gueydan, Iowa, Jennings, Kaplan, Lake Charles, Rayne, Sulphur and Welsh.
The Informer last addressed the subject in 2006, when it wrote the following:
The first German POWs, veterans of Erwin Rommel’s desert campaign, arrived in the region in 1943. The Jennings camp opened first, and the Lake Charles camp, situated on Sallier Street, opened second, on Oct. 15.
“The prisoners-of-war arrived by convoy in Lake Charles Friday and immediately moved into a camp set up for them,” reads that day’s edition of the American Press.
“Through the afternoon, they were moving around the camp getting things in order and preparing to go to work in the rice fields as soon as possible.”
People today, and most of those interviewed in the war years, considered the Germans hardworking and polite. And most of the prisoners — astounded by the kind treatment by their captors and the comfort of the camps — held no ill will toward the United States.
“I believe that we could turn them loose and they would come back for they are very happy and feel that the people have been nice to them,” said Lt. L.W. Colter, Lake Charles camp commander, according to a story printed in the Oct. 25, 1943, American Press.
In it, Karl-Heinz Heinemann, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer among the prisoners, complains only about the camp’s lack of mail, and he asks residents to donate musical instruments and open their minds.
“Many of us play almost any instrument, and some of our men are talented musicians,” Heinemann said. “And please tell them (residents) that we German prisoners look just like Americans — not like the advertised Hun!”
Though Heinemann confined his comments to the camp and the desires of his men, another prisoner, described as an ex-schoolteacher, defended Adolf Hitler — “The leader has united us,” he said — and lamented U.S. involvement in the war.
“No teacher in Germany teaches the students hatred against other nations and he takes no political interest,” he said. “We think our real war is against Russia and England. Not against America, unless we are obliged to make it so by America itself.”
The prisoners, who volunteered to labor in the fields, played a vital role in Southwest Louisiana’s wartime economy, which suffered from a labor shortage so acute that even camp contractor Emmett Young Inc. lacked workers in 1944, according to an American Press story from Aug. 31 of that year.
But despite their contribution, the prisoners’ mere presence — and their curiosity — led to hysterics among some and to head scratching among others.
A grateful farmer’s gesture of reward to his hardworking German laborers — some beer and a seafood dinner in Lake Arthur — led at least one local minister to decry the behavior of the prisoners, who he said were “making whoopee” in public, reads the Sept. 28, 1943, edition of the American Press.
The incident became a “great Nazi orgy” in state newspaper reports and caused widespread indignation, reads a 1982 article in the journal Louisiana History.
“As for reports that the prisoners had visited women of easy virtue, Sheriff (Azenor) Buller said there was no such report in the Lake Arthur incident,” reads the Sept. 28 Press. “Sheriff Buller said he believed the farmer gave the party with the ‘best of intentions.’ ”
Three months later the curious nature of another contingent of prisoners forced a Cameron farmer to send the POWs back to their camp and call in local workers.
“Whether the workers were too much interested in sociability among themselves or whether they deliberately stalled the harvest work the Cameron man does not know,” reads a report in the Dec. 30, 1943, American Press.
“He said that when one German discovered a snake on the ground he called others to view it and it was the subject of interested discussion until the group was tactfully reminded ... that the rice must be gotten in as soon as possible.”
By the time the last of the camps closed in 1946, the War Department — buffeted by criticism that it was lenient on the POWs — had imposed harsher conditions in the camps, stripping canteens and lessening rations’ quality and quantity, reads the Louisiana History article.
Despite the imprisonment, and the later harsh conditions, many POWs looked back fondly on their confinement here.
Heinz Kuska, of Salzburg, Austria, returned to Vernon Parish in 1992 to visit the site of Camp Polk, his home for two years during the war.
“I remember when we got to Camp Polk it was a sunny, cool Sunday afternoon. When we arrived we were given clean, white sheets, clothing with POW on the backs of the shirts, toiletries, everything we needed,” Kuska said, according to the newspaper’s Sept. 25, 1992, edition.
“A lot of prisoners wanted to stay here in 1946. They didn’t want to go back, but they had to be turned over to the British anyway.”
The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email firstname.lastname@example.org