When the clattering wheels of the Pullman cars finally came to a stop one fall day in 1943, 19-year-old German soldier Heino Erichsen took his first step onto unfamiliar Texas soil. After a long train trip from Ellis Island, New York, he joined approximately 3,200 German prisoners of war already housed at Camp Hearne, one of the first POW camps created in the U.S. during World War II.
Erichsen was no stranger to military life. He was 9 when Adolf Hitler came into power; by the age of 10, he reluctantly became a member of Hitler’s Jungvolk (Young Folk). German law dictated that all boys between the ages of 14 and 18 become Jugends (Hitler Youths), and Erichsen was no exception. “Every weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays, you had to go to ‘class,’ which intentionally prevented you from going to church,” recalls Erichsen, who has lived in Texas since 1981. “It was a camp, sometimes with pre-military training.”
At 18, Erichsen was shipped to Tunisia as a private in Germany’s Afrika Korps. Undermanned and underequipped, the Axis forces under German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel surrendered to the Allied powers in 1943. Erichsen, suffering from dysentery, was held captive only six months after his arrival in Africa. He turned 19, war weary and homesick, at an American field hospital in Oran, Algeria. His journey to Ellis Island began by freighter from Oran, a nerve-wracking, three-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
“We had no idea where we were going,” says Erichsen, who chronicled his experiences in the book The Reluctant Warrior: Former German POW Finds Peace in Texas (2001, Eakin Press). “But when I saw the Statue of Liberty, I knew I was in the United States.”
Camp Hearne, by Erichsen’s description, was a “standard” POW camp: “We could take hot showers, eat good food, and we had sports facilities for soccer.” Also, Camp Hearne adhered strictly to the Geneva Conventions, which stated that POWs must be fed and housed in the same manner as soldiers of the country holding the prisoners.
POWs at “The Fritz Ritz,” as the locals referred to the camp, also had to work. Working for farmers in nearby fields, enlisted men earned 10 cents per hour in canteen coupons from the government. The coupons could be used to purchase personal items from a canteen, or general store.
Leisure time was spent on such activities as building elaborate fountains and a theater in which the POWs would produce plays for the community. Math, agriculture, stenography and foreign language were among the college courses offered to the prisoners by Baylor University.
Yet the prisoners of war at Camp Hearne were exactly that—POWs held in a complex of 250 buildings surrounded by two, 10-foot-tall barbed-wire fences. Erichsen writes that the POWs were “observed from watchtowers with power searchlights.” He adds, “We were prisoners of the enemy—in the enemy’s country—a situation never covered in our army training manual.”
Yet the greatest threat to the POWs was the internal threat from covert Nazis, several of whom killed German Cpl. Hugo Krauss, a translator, for making disloyal statements about Germany and Hitler. Erichsen was sleeping in a bunk nearby when his barracks mate was murdered. “You learned, ‘Don’t tell anybody how you feel unless you are absolutely certain they feel the same way,’ ” he says.
Erichsen, also an interpreter, asked for a transfer from Camp Hearne, fearing he could be the next fatality. He was sent to a POW camp in Mexia, where he spent one day, and then went to Fort Knox, Kentucky. There, in spring 1946, at the age of 21, he was declared a free man.
Erichsen became an American citizen after returning to his hometown of Kiel, Germany, and finding it mostly destroyed. Ultimately, he chose Texas and lives only an hour-and-a-half drive from Hearne. In October 2010, he eagerly drove the distance to attend the opening of the Camp Hearne exhibit and visitors center.
“I learned the meaning of freedom in a prison camp. I never knew what America was like before I was a prisoner,” says Erichsen, co-founder of Los Niños International Adoption Agency with his wife, Jean.
Heino Erichsen has seen both the ugly and the beautiful side of life, and today—at 86 years of age—enjoys every moment to the fullest. What has Erichsen learned on his journey? With a quick smile, he responds in his native High German: “Was dich nicht umwirft, macht dich stärker.”
Or, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Connie Strong is a freelance writer based out of Chappell Hill.