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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

NAZIS
IN THE PINEYWOODS

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald, PhD
I borrowed that title from Mark Choate's book on the prisoner-of-war camps in East Texas during World War II. Mark wonıt mind. His book began as a masterıs thesis at Stephen F. Austin State University, which Mark asked me to direct. His thesis was published by Best of East Texas Publishers of Lufkin and is yet available for those who want "the rest of the story."

Mark's interest in German prisoners of war was born of the experience of his father, McCoy Mickey Choate, as a prisoner of war in Germany. Choate served in the 35th Division, Third Army, and spent four months as a prisoner before his liberation just a month before Germany surrendered.

Mark chose this research topic because he knew his father's story "over there" and wanted to know more about our own nation's policy and practice. Mark learned that the problem of dealing with enemy prisoners did not begin in World War II. Even in the American Revolution, maintenance of prisoners of war presented logistical problems. During the Civil War, many were paroled until exchanged, meaning they could just go home until a one-for-one paper exchange occurred. Then they were eligible for service again.

World War II was different. Captured Germans or Japanese could not be allowed to "go home" or our G.I.'s would be fighting them again soon. So it was decided that they be detained in America until repatriated at the end of the war. Texas hosted 29 such camps, including a major depot located in Huntsville.

Work brought the German prisoners to Deep East Texas. Faced with a labor shortage during the war and a devastating ice storm that made rapid harvest of damaged timber imperative, Ernest L. Kurth, founder of the Southland Paper Mill in Lufkin, convinced the government to "loan" him some of Huntsville's German prisoners of war.

The prisoners were willing to work, a better alternative than the tedium of incarceration. Their arrival in camp in Chireno raised the anxiety level of native East Texans at first, but in time the system worked well. Amid war-time rationing, some East Texans resented the good chow -- including ice cream! -- enjoyed in the camp, but mostly they were just curious about these strangers from the Rhine country.

There were few escape attempts -- where would they go? One left in the woods at the end of a day's work waited patiently until picked up the next day. Some liked the area sufficiently to request permission to remain in America at war's end, but all were sent home.

Perhaps Mark's title overstates the issue. It wasn't as much a case of real Nazis -- with all the arrogance and cruelty the name implies -- in East Texas, as just folks from a different culture. When one got to know them, fear faded away.


All Things Historical April 28 - May 4, 2002 Column
(Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas Historical Association and author or editor of over 20 books on Texas)

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