It was because of the photo collage below, made by my husband’s godmother, that inspired my blog The Forgotten German POW Camp of Nyssa, Oregon. The blog post written almost three years ago got people talking and remembering and so far has gotten the most comments of any of my posts. Just last week, in comes another random comment from a stranger kind enough to share their personal memories from a time long ago.
The photos above are from a collection of photos from Brigitte Carnochan’s book Imagining Then: A Family Story, 1941-1947. Gitta’s father was a German prisoner of war captured in Africa and sent to the United States to work in labor camps all over the West.
Below are some of the comments made by people regarding the German POWs stationed in and around Nyssa, Oregon during the war.
Leslie Clark Lewis wrote, “My father, Eugene Clark, was the mayor of nearby Vale, Oregon during the war years. After the war, probably 1947 or so, he received some letters from former POWs who had returned to Germany. They were asking for donations – clothing, shoes, food – things were so bad at home and people were desperate. I saw several of these letters myself when I was a teen. I remember asking my dad about them and as I recall, he said that things were tough enough in Oregon, too – and he didn’t take it any further. I just just asked my mom, Vi Clark (who is in excellent health at 99, by the way); she also remembers the letters.”
Melvin Marcum wrote, “Both myself and my wife lived in Nyssa during the time the POW camp was there. My wife lived just across the street from it and remembers when they let the prisoners go home. She say they had trains waiting behind her house and the POWs came running down the street howling and seemed to be ready to go home. I remember seeing them going the fields to work in trucks with guards riding with them.”
Ken Schimmels wrote, “Mel Marcum and I grew up 5 miles from each other, he in Nyssa and I just across the Snake river from him. He mentioned the German POW camp in Nyssa. Told him I remember the POWs coming to work on our farm, about 12-15 men. Because I had 3 uncles over in Germany fighting I wanted to see these Germans, They didn’t look like I had thought and were quite friendly. The guard told me most of them did not want to return to Germany.”
Doug wrote, “I’m much younger but my grandfather and dad spoke of the German POW working on the farms and said that they were great people and actually sometimes had to awaken the guards if they seen someone coming down the road.”
Grant Vaughn wrote, “I was born in Nyssa (1957). My Grandfather, Glen Peterson, had a dairy farm west of town past the cemetery. I still have a lot of Peterson relatives in the area. My Mom told me that she remembers the German POWs working on her dad’s farm.”
Barbara Schmitter Heisler wrote, “I came across your blog by accident. I just finished writing a book on former German POWs who later immigrated to the United States (like Gitta’s father). The book is entitled, From German POW to American Citizen: a Social History with 35 Interviews. The book will be published in April this year but is already available from the publisher, McFarland Publishers, as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The men I interviewed were all prisoners of war in the United States and returned after the war. I would be curious to know what happened with Gitta’s father.”
Dennis Leavitt wrote, “I am told by my aunt that we sat on the fence and watched the German POWs work in the fields of Ted Frohm’s farm just north of Nyssa (across the highway from Arcadia School). We also lived briefly in the same labor camp as the POWs, in a 10 x 10 wooden-floor enclosure covered by an olive colored tent, although the POW’s may have been repatriated by then. My only confirmed memory is of a Dutch family and a German family who emigrated to the U.S. following the war. The children attended Nyssa schools and were well received. I wonder if any of the POWs actually returned to settle in Nyssa?”
Ron Strobel wrote, “It’s not forgotten. I was there and remember it very well, the POW camp in Vale, that is. The Army built it on half of the city block behind my folks’ house. I was about two years old when they built it and four when they tore it down. The area was so clean when they finished there wasn’t even a post hole left. Now there are a couple of houses, the care facility, and the LDS Church where the camp was. My Mom, Grace (Strobel) Pennington, did laundry for the camp officers and so got to know most of the GIs. In the winter of 1944 they gave Mom a wool coat for me, made like a little one-star general’s uniform coat which I still have. I outgrew the coat about the time they took down the camp and both were great disappointments to me. The GIs explained that one of the German POWs was a tailor and was in charge of keeping everyone’s uniforms in shape In the war years it was helpful that the camp was there. When they left, the GIs gave me a softball bat and ball along with a helmet liner all of which I kept until I just wore them out. I was never able to find any pictures of the Vale camp but a lady named Diane Alters contacted me a few years ago and referenced some photos that are in the Oregon State University archives of the Nyssa camp which was located across the highway from the sugar beet plant. At my urging, Gary Fugate did a great story about the Vale camp for the Stone House Quarterly, for the Malheur Historical Project a few years ago. I sent a map showing the location of the Vale camp. I also loaned Gary one of my reference books on the 5,000 or so POW camps that were scattered all over the country but I will have to include the name of the book later. As I recall it only mentioned the White City camp in Oregon which is leaving out quite a bit. Here’s a project for you folks living around Vale: roust out those old timers and see if there aren’t a few pics of that camp still around. It really wasn’t much though—just a few dozen wall tents and a wire mesh fence. I don’t think it even had a front gate. I remember the GIs saying they weren’t worried about anyone running off. They would show newcomers a map of the US and point out where they were. Then tell them that everyone between Vale and Germany had a rifle and would most likely kill them on the spot if they got caught running around loose. Besides that, virtually every family living around the camp had someone off fighting either in Europe or the Pacific so there was no humor available for misbehavior. One of my jobs, as soon as I could count, was sorting out ration tickets and I knew I had to do that because of the guys in the camp out back.”
Jay Tanner wrote, “As a youth I remember carrying water out to the prisoners working tn the sugar beet fields on our farm on Grand Ave. S.E. of town. One day I was talking with the guard assigned to watch over the group. He had taken his shotgun apart and was having trouble putting it back together. One of the German prisoners came over and helped him reassemble it. The guard was so overweight that any of the prisoners could have overpowered him, but instead they seemed be humored by his misadventures. Our school bus picked up the Japanese youth from the camp just to the South of our farm on a daily basis. Our bus was usually very crowded and we had a couple of the older white boys who had brothers serving in the Pacific at that time. They were quick to get in a fight with some of the Japanese boys. However, for the most part we got along very well.”
Pat Eastman wrote, “My father had an insurance and real estate business on Main Street in Nyssa from 1938 to 1993. I remember him telling stories about the German POW’s being housed in what I knew as the “labor camp”. He told me about the POW’s being marched out to the fields down Main Street. Now, the “marching” part may be my inability to totally recall the stories as told, but that is what I remember. Possibly, they were trucked to the fields. I also remember him saying that the security fence consisted of three strands of barbed wire, the highest being about 3′ high. Not much security really. He also said the POW’s were very happy to be “prisoners” as they were safer, ate better and treated much better than in Germany. Also, he remembers them not being to anxious to return to Germany after the war ended. They knew they were going back to a real mess back home. When I grew up, there were not that many of the migrant laborers that stayed on after the crops were harvested. Little by little more and more of them stayed and became year around residents, business owners and productive residents. Many were my friends in the NHS class of 1970.
In the summer I played baseball and one of the teams we played against was Cow Hollow. The baseball field at Cow Hollow was close to some small very basic housing units. My dad also told me about the CC camp. Cow Hollow was a Japanese interment camp of some kind, as I remember. Between games we would play around and inside the buildings. I vividly remember the wall paper in one of the buildings and it was pages from magazines pasted on the shiplap walls to keep the wind from blowing through. Not sure if Cow Hollow was a holding site or a real CC camp.”
I even received some comments about the Japanese that were interned in the area to work in the nearby sugar beet farms.
Larry Stephen wrote, “I was born in 6-28-1945, I grew up about 1 mile from br43, I remember several Japanese Americans that rode the school bus with me, during my school years at Nyssa 1951 to 1963. I used to play in the old dining hall and ride my bicycle around inside the building in the winter time, I used to slide down a hill there in the winter time on my sled. Even one of my friends that lived there drove the Ontario senior citizens bus around Ontario until he retired. When one of his parents past on, I was a Pallbearer at the funeral, Sam or Pearl Matsunaga. When I was 15 years old, I was given a 1945 Chevy pickup from one of the residents at the CCC camp. The pickup burned so much oil it should have had a special permit to drive it down the road or used by the military to make a smoke coverage to protected the army from the enemy. My older brother Ron was a room-mate the OSU with one of the Matsunaga classmates, or 1958.”
Steve Johnson, “Thank you for an opportunity to share some information I have sat on since 1987. My father, Harold Johnson, died in 1987 in Vancouver, Washington where we were living at the time. My two brothers along with myself and my wife went to a flower shop in Ontario to buy some flowers. The lady that helped us ask if we were the Johnson Brothers which we said we were. She asked if we would like to come into the back room so she could tell us a story. She told how her family was forced to leave Portland by the Federal Government to sell every thing they owned for virtually nothing and were placed in an internment camp in Payette, Idaho. because they were Japanese. She told us the conditions were very bad. My Grandparents owned a farm in the Sand Hollow area out of Vale. All of their children were married and had no longer in the area. My father was their youngest and had left Vale to work in the shipyards in Portland. My Grandparents were in their 50s and need help to run the farm but there was no one available in the whole area any more to hire. My Grandfather Trent Johnson contacted Senator Wayne Morris and explained his plight to Senator Morris. He ask if he might have a couple of the Japanese families that had been interned come and live on his ranch (farm) and help him. Senator Morris gave his approval. Two families of which one was her family. Her father explained that they knew nothing about growing what they growing but were good at growing vegetables. Grandpa said great… Vegetables it will be! She told us that when Grandpa went into Vale everyone shunned him because he had Japanese working on the ranch. After time the community realized how wonderful the results were and other farmers began having the Japanese come and help them. When the war ended a number of Japanese families decided to stay instead returning to the Portland area. She told us Trent and Nancy were so good to them. They even held dances for them. Her family ended up staying in the area. It is really something that my dad never mention anything about that. We moved back to Vale in after the war and heard about any of this story until after my father had died.”
Roger Stephen, My dad sold to Ollie Eggie a little corner of land that later became Sunset Market. Located just a mile east of the Cow Hollow civilian conservation/Japanese camp. I have no personal memory of the cc camps, but after the war when we returned from Seattle after the war, we had a lot of interaction with the Japanese living there. They would often come to our farm to get eggs. I went to the camp many times with my mother, with a crate full of chickens, and a set of scales to sell them.
My dad bought one of the buildings, that he moved to the farm and used it as loafing shed for the cows. He thought the “general” had lived in it, and it was rumored that there was money stashed in it somewhere. None was ever found.
I recently chatted with a woman who has lived in Nyssa since 1961. She had never heard about the POW camps until just recently. She told me that the local historical society of Malheur County was planning on having a meeting to discuss the camp. Exciting! The WWII Prisoner of War camp of Nyssa, Oregon is definitely not forgotten.
Memories from almost 70 years ago are slowly fading away. No matter how small the recollection, it’s important. Please keep those comments coming. Thanks.