November 1944: POWs come to town
On Nov. 20, 1944, 300 skinny, sunburnt, battle-beaten, khaki-clothed veterans of the German Africa Corps rolled into East Dallas and set up camp among the White Rock CCC’s unoccupied wooden barracks.
American workers no longer needed the beds, after all. Pearl Harbor meant the end of that particular park-improving program, as all the able-bodied young men joined the war effort.
The new arrivals hailed from Hitler’s prized expeditionary force in North Africa, which fell to Allied forces in spring 1943. The United States took 400,000 of these POWs, and 200,000 came to Texas.
Mexia, a Hill Country town of 6,000 at the time, received more than 3,000 prisoners, notes author and historian Ronald H. Bailey, who described townspeople lining up to watch the captives detrain, wearing “large bill-cloth caps and goggles that symbolized Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps.”
A total of 403 of the Mexia prisoners relocated to White Rock. Each afternoon during the Mexia camp’s 11-month tenure, the internees rode a bus to work at the Dallas Regional Quartermaster and Repair Shop at Fair Park, where they mended clothing and equipment.
“In one large room ventilated by three six-foot-high wall fans, 95 men sit at sewing machines repairing G.I. uniforms,” according to a 1940s Dallas Morning News article.
Geneva Convention rules afforded even Nazis humane conditions — Texas was a popular locale for POWs due to its climate, which would save the War Department on heating bills and keep prisoners comfortable. Rules allowed POWs to work, provided the labor did not relate directly to the conflict and was safe.
Dallas historian and author Sally Rodriguez describes the prisoners’ first order of business.
“Upon arrival, they constructed their own enclosure, an eight-foot tall barbed-wire fence around the camp’s perimeter, because there was no fence, no need for a fence, before,” Rodriguez says.
She says the prisoners enjoyed relatively pleasant conditions and had no ostensible reason to abscond or rebel. In fact, she points to an interview with the era’s Park Director L.B. Houston, who considered many of them “artisans.”
In Houston’s transcript, the late director discusses how “artistically inclined” and “brilliant” the POWs appeared.