The issue of what to do with prisoners of war has always been a vexing one for conquering armies. Decisions on how to transport them, where to keep them, dietary needs, healthcare, clothing, work, security and more must be answered. While the standards set by the Geneva Convention helped answer some of these questions the requirements still must be implemented.
For the Allies this problem was extraordinarily difficult. It was known that prisoners of the Germans were not always treated in the most humane way but to treat German POWs similarly went against American values and opened the door to further abuses by the Germans and their Axis partners.
For the more than 370,000 German prisoners, many from the Afrika Corps of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, sent to the United States their time fighting was done. While thousands of miles from home they could be assured of better treatment than they often received from their own commanders. It is these type men that author Jeffrey E. Geiger, the retired chief civilian historian from Vandenberg Air Force Base, sets out to introduce us to in his book German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California.
Geiger begins his work with a history of Camp Cooke which was originally established in 1941 as a training facility before becoming a prisoner of war camp in June 1944. Camp Cooke was home to around 1,200 prisoners and also oversaw sixteen branch camps within a 200 mile radius. The camp remained open until May 1946 when the last prisoners began their journey home. Some would find their way home quickly, especially if they were from the “American Zone”. Others were handed to the British or French and these men were often put to work while others came from lands controlled by the Russians. Their lives were forever changed.
After Camp Cooke closed the army was still there until completely vacating the property in 1953. In 1958 the lands were transferred to the U.S. Air Force and the name was changed to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Today Vandenberg is used by the Department of Defense as a missile testing base and space launch facility for both military and commercial ventures.
Geiger takes the unique approach of having former prisoners tell the story directly in their own words. Geiger systematically chose soldiers, leaving out Nazi party members and known members from the SS based upon the knowledge that many of these men did not feel a remorse for the actions of the German army. Geiger sensed their recollections would prove untrustworthy. Geiger finally settled on approximately 140 names. Many of the men could not be located, were deceased, or declined to be interviewed. We are left with the recollections of fourteen men. These fourteen men provide an often times similar, and sometimes differing account of their time in captivity and in California.
The book is broken into nine chapters with each man having their story translated and reprinted. Mr. Geiger begins each chapter with a brief background to the subject, helping orient the reader as to what is being discussed. The nine chapters include: From Wehrmacht to Captivity, Journey to America, The First Weeks as POWs, Organization and Management at Camp Cooke, Prisoner of War Labor Program, Everyday Life in the Camp, The Branch Camps, and Auf Wiedersehen.
To me the most interesting chapters dealt with the labor program and everyday life. Both really drilled into what life had become for these men. The chapter on work showed the importance and value of the labor these men provided. It kept them occupied and out of trouble while allowing them to earn a small amount of money; script that could be spent at the camp. Also discussed is the Geneva Convention, which lays out the treatment that prisoners are to receive. For those interested in the work regulations see Section III Articles 27-34 which formed the basis of the prisoner work program. The chapter on everyday life teaches us how prisoners lived. We find out about recreation and sports, theater, religion, food, medical and dental care, deaths, and more. One of the most interesting aspects to me dealt with escapes, or should I say the few attempts that were made.
Mr. Geiger is to be commended for his fine work. His efforts to root out and track down the common soldier have paid tremendous dividends. This type of story could easily have been lost; and let’s face it, has been lost on the larger scale. Through their memories we gain insight into the minds of German soldiers showing that not all those fighting were hardened Nazis. Many felt shame and embarrassment for their own actions and those of their country. And while a small gesture, the prisoners at Camp Cooke donated almost $8,300 (just over $117,000 using inflation tables) to relief efforts. Throughout, we see these men view the United States in a positive light and take those ideas home with them as Germany began the painful process of rebuilding.
This is a book that does not require a large background in World War II to read and appreciate. While it is certainly helpful to have some knowledge of what happened anybody with an interest in history can pick this up and enjoy. Technical language is at a minimum and it is not required to know battles, tactics, or geography of the war. The translations are easy to read thanks to the editing Mr. Geiger has provided. While probably not available at your local bookstore this is a book that is well worth ordering. Recommended!