POW’s In The Pineywoods
During the 1940s, East Texas sawmills and paper mills were at a loss due to World War II. Area loggers traded their saws and axes for rifles and went off to fight in the war. With the able bodied men of East Texas off fighting the Germans and the Japanese the area’s principal industry began to slump.
In order to keep timber business booming in the Pineywoods an unusual exchange was made between the government and a few East Texas timber business men. Labor shortage and a devastating ice storm called for the rapid harvest of the area’s damaged timber. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Companies such as Angelina County Lumber Company, Southern Pine Lumber Company, and Frost Lumber Company championed efforts to bring German POW to East Texas. The headquarters for the salvage work was Lufkin, the only Texas town to have two POW camps during the war.
German soldiers who had been captured in the war were transported to the Pineywoods and conscripted as loggers. Texas hosted 29 camps, with a major depot in Huntsville. Seven camps were constructed in East Texas. German POW camps existed in Alto, Center, Chireno, Huntsville, Lufkin, San Augustine and Tyler. The U.S. Army built POW camps to house the captured Germans.
The arrival of the Germans was kept secret for quite some time in order not to alarm area residents. As East Texans learned that Nazis were among them in the Pineywoods curiosity began to get the better of them. East Texans began to drive to the camps hoping to get a peek at the Nazis in the camps.
Camp Alto was a small branch operation of the Camp Fannin base facility in Tyler. The military set up each camp to address the local labor needs. Camp Alto began operating in 1944, with approximately 100 German POW’s living in tents.
The POW’s cut and harvested pulpwood for the East Texas ice storm salvage project. The imprisoned Germans worked hard in the Pineywoods, logging trees and shipping them by rail car to area saw mills. Work crews generally consisted of 12 POW’s, a driver and a armed single guard.
Many East Texans greatly feared the German POW’s would escape the camps and harm their families. While a few Germans did escape, they soon became lost in the thick Pineywoods and eventually wandered back to the camps. For the most part the prisoners were willing to work, although some people believed the Germans deliberately slowed down production in an effort to harm the American war effort.
As the war came to an end branch camps sent POW’s to larger base camps. Camp Alto closed in 1945 under direction of the War Assets Administration. Most of the German POW’s returned home to Germany, however some liked East Texas so much they stayed in the Pineywoods. According to local legend, one German POW who chose to stay in East Texas even became president of the San Augustine Chamber of Commerce.
Today little remains of the East Texas POW camps. Seven historical markers and the name “Rothhammer, 1944” which was etched in the native stone gate at the Lufkin camp are practically all that stand in remembrance of the Germans who came to the Pineywoods. Regrettably, East Texas history does not provide much insight into the nazi camps in the Pineywoods, nor does history recall many names of the German POW’s who were brought to East Texas. The history of the Pineywood POW’s now survives y way of road side markers, and stories passed on by locals who are old enough to recall the days when Nazis were transformed into loggers.