Shirley Contreras: German and Italian prisoners of war made their home in the area during WWII | Local News
As Allied armies crossed Africa and Europe in 1943, hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were captured and placed in local internment camps behind established battle lines in North Africa.
Considering that the duration of the war was unknown, something more had to be done with the prisoners. They could not all be accommodated and fed in the area where they were captured.
The US government decided to move its prisoners to a camp system developed in the United States. The reason was that Liberty ships bringing supplies to Europe were returning to the United States empty, so why not bring the POWs back with them? They could be housed and fed in the United States where there was plenty of food and shelter rather than having to move resources to them in already heavily overloaded incoming ships.
After the outbreak of World War II, the Office of the Provost Marshal was given the responsibility of dealing with the prisoner problem. In a very short period of time, the organization had a set of plans in place that seemed simple compared to the methods used today, but the system worked.
There were to be five major prisoner of war camps in California located at Camp Cooke, Lompoc, Camp Angel Island, Camp Beale, Camp Stockton, and Fort Ord. The Camp Cooke POW camp was located on the current site of the Vandenberg Space Force Base.
A prisoner of war (PW) camp branch located at Camp Cooke has been set up at the Edwards Ranch / Goleta branch camp off Highway 101 and located approximately nine miles west of Goleta. Activated on October 20, 1944 as an agricultural branch of the Camp Cooke POW camp, it was designed to hold 250 German prisoners.
No lease agreement has been prepared for the use of the land by the army to house prisoners of war. However, contracts were made between army officials and local agricultural associations for the use of POW labor. These contracts were written for the duration of a given harvest and were renewed if follow-up work was required. The Branche Camp received its first prisoners in November 1944.
According to a description of the on-site facilities, the camp occupied less than 5 acres. The exact area occupied by the annex camp is unknown.
The Goleta branch camp was commanded by 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Small and 2nd Lieutenant Wilford O. Potter. The camp had 30 guards and six guard towers. Most of the detainees were tradesmen (doctors, dentists, teachers and payers). Three were noted as civilians over 50 years old.
The camp housed up to 302 prisoners of war and they were engaged in contact work, which included picking lemons and packing nuts at the Goleta Walnut Exchange on Kellogg Avenue. The camp facilities consisted of six guard towers, a water tower, 14 Nissen / Quonset huts, a shower room, a kitchen / dining hall, a canteen, as well as ‘an administrative building, a barracks, an infirmary and three tents used for recreation. .
With the outbreak of war, able-bodied farmers and farm laborers were put to the service of the defense of their country. Without these people, crops could not be planted and harvested. Therefore, a new source of manpower was welcome. German and Italian prisoners who could do the job and generate income for the army were a ready solution to the problem. Their labor paid for the camp facilities, made a profit for the military, and in fact cost the farmer less than the hands of a regular ranch.
Since large POW camps could only place prisoners near a relatively small number of farms, the Branch Camp system was developed so that the workforce could be located where it was. necessary. Due to the great importance of the secondary camp to the economy of the state, and the large number and wide distribution of these camps, they were the center of importance.
Exposing prisoners to the American way of life thwarted the intensive brainwashing of Nazi prisoners by giving many prisoners exposure to the American countryside, economy, agriculture and its people. In the small camps, American soldiers also got to know the prisoners better, which is not as easy in the large central camps.
As stipulated in the Geneva Convention, each POW camp had to be inspected by someone from the Swiss government. The result of each inspection was a detailed report of the camp and the conditions there at the time of the inspection.
Each auxiliary camp was established as an autonomous organization with a camp commander who was usually a rank captain. Each camp had a German spokesperson for the prisoners. All services were local but supported by supply trucks from Camp Cooke. The Goleta and Saticoy camps had small clinics and a Camp Cooke doctor visited these camps regularly.
A serious problem with the early prisoners arose from the extent to which they had been brainwashed by Nazism. Many of the early camps had powerful spy organizations within them that terrorized prisoners and pressured them not to work too willingly for their captors. A task system was put in place by the camp commanders and attempts were made to implement it, but it encountered resistance from some organizations in the camps. The Goleta camp has experienced labor strikes for this reason.
The war with Germany officially ended on May 7, 1945 when Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies in Reims, France, thus ending World War II and the Third Reich. However, two days later, on May 9, Germany surrendered again.
It took about a year to get the former prisoners of war back to their homes, and later some of them returned to live in the United States.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or [email protected] Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she has written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.