Recently, my husband Bob was looking at some amazing photograph collages made by his godmother, the photographer Brigitte Carnochan. On one of photographs called “Three Years, Mostly in the West” he noticed at the very bottom of the photo, one the places Brigitte’s father had lived while a World War II German prisoner of war. The date was April 20, 1946. The place was Nyssa, Oregon, a tiny farming town in Malheur County, my hometown.
Most of the Nyssa locals knew about the Japanese internment camp at a place a few miles outside of Nyssa called “Cow Hollow.” But it wasn’t until I saw Brigitte Carnochan’s amazing work that I learned of the German prisoner-of-war camp in town near the Snake River flowing between Eastern Oregon and Idaho. This POW work camp in Nyssa was a branch camp of “Camp Rupert” located near Paul, Idaho.
Brigitte Carnochan was eighteen months old when her father, a German soldier in Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, was captured in North Africa. With the defeat of Rommel’s forces in the deserts of northern Africa, thousands of Germans were shipped to Britain and then sent on to the United States partly to alleviate the POW housing problem in Great Britain. More than 400,000 German prisoners were sent to the U.S. to wait out the war in one of more than 150 German POW camps that were located “in the middle of nowhere,” invisible to most Americans.
From 1944 to 1946, over 3,500 prisoners of war, mostly Germans, were utilized on Oregon farms. In Malheur County alone, they were largely responsible for the thousands of acres of potatoes, onions, and sugar beets harvested. Gitta’s father and other prisoners of war helped fill the massive labor shortage the United States faced because millions of GIs were overseas. Her father worked in POW camps throughout the west from the years 1943-1946. America followed to the letter the 1929 Geneva Convention governing treatment of prisoners of war. One of the treaty’s articles says POWs must receive the same amount and quality of food as the civilian population of the host country. The War Department supplied food to the camps and the prisoners did their own cooking. They could also buy additional food items and toiletry supplies with the 80 cents in coupons they earned each workday. To ease the transition between the period of civilian labor shortage and the return of U.S. soldiers, several POW camps remained in operation for a year after the war. Eventually, the camps were dismantled around the summer of 1946, and the prisoners were allowed to return to Europe. After repatriation, many former prisoners returned to the United States. During the war, Gitta lost track of her German POW father. Her mother eventually re-married an American soldier and when Gitta was aged 7, she moved to the United States with her mother and American stepfather. Years later in 1976, she was re-acquainted with her biological father, who was living in Connecticut where he had settled in 1952. I’ve become really fascinated by this seldom discussed aspect of this county’s history. Gitta’s beautiful photos touched me in a way I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because I’ve been digging into my own past the last couple of years trying to figure out where my ancestors came from. I’m a mix of Scottish, English, and German but have so many unanswered questions. My Dad was a young boy living on a farm near Nyssa during the war; maybe his family ate food harvested by Gitta’s father or other German prisoners that worked in the fields owned by my Dad’s family or friends. Maybe as I’m getting older, I’m just getting nostalgic about my small hometown and things of the past. Isn’t it amazing how people’s lives intertwine? Six degrees of separation, or, as they say, it’s a small world! I don’t understand why people in the world can’t get along when we are all connected in some way?
Today, little is left of the Nyssa POW labor camp. Most of the old buildings were torn down years ago to make room for new buildings that house Mexican migrant farm workers. I don’t have any family living in Nyssa anymore but I did make a special trip over to Nyssa last week to visit the camp. In the back corner of the labor camp underneath some tall trees I was happy to see one old buildings still standing. I asked my Dad about it and he said was the old mess hall. It was proof with my own eyes that this part of history, which happened 65 years ago, is now not forgotten. I wonder how long the mess hall will be there…