Book Review: German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California

Geiger, Jeffrey E. German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, CaliforniaMechanicsburg: Sunbury Press. 2018. 271 pages, index, bibliography, end notes, b/w photos, maps. ISBN 9781620067505, $19.95.

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!

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New Book on World War II Era Sherman Tanks

ATGLEN, PA – Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. would like to introduce Sherman Tank Vol. 1: America’s M4A1 Medium Tank in World War II (Legends of Warfare: Ground) by David Doyle.

This book documents the development and production of the M4A1 through its many variations, as well as its combat use around the globe. Produced by Lima Locomotive Works, Pressed Steel Car Company, and Pacific Car and Foundry, the M4A1 was the first of the famed Sherman tanks and preceded the welded-hull M4 into production. Powered by a nine-cylinder, air-cooled radial engine, the M4A1 fought in North Africa with both US and British forces, across northwestern Europe, and on Pacific Islands with both the Army and the Marines, serving well into the 1950s. The evolving design went through three major hull designs, multiple turret designs, and armament with either a 75 mm or 76 mm gun—all of which are detailed in this book. Extensive archival photographs are augmented by stunning color images of preserved tanks, taking the reader around and inside this famed warhorse. Part of the Legends of Warfare series.

David Doyle’s earliest published works appeared in periodicals aimed at the historic military vehicle restoration hobby. By 1999, this included regular features in leading hobby publications, appearing regularly in US, English and Polish magazines. Since 2003, over 100 of his books have been published. Broadening his horizons from his inital efforts concerning vehicles, he soon added aircraft and warships to his research objectives.

Pressure: A World War II Play

PressureDuring our recent vacation we had the privilege to see the play Pressure performed at the Ambassadors Theatre in London. Written by, and starring, David Haig, Pressure tells the story of Scottish meteorologist James Stagg and his role in convincing Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to postpone the D-Day invasion due to deteriorating weather conditions.

The storyline focuses on the 72 hours preceding the anticipated launch of Allied forcesHaig and Cairns Pressure in their effort to push back German troops and ultimately regain control of France and the continent. American meteorologist Colonel Irving P. Krick, portrayed by Phillip Cairns, however has the ear of Eisenhower, portrayed by Malcolm Sinclair, and Stagg must overcome the influential and charismatic American. If Stagg is correct thousands of lives, and perhaps the entire mission, is saved. If he is wrong the Germans might get wind of the invasion, send reinforcements, and be in a position to defend the coast.

It is hard to imagine that anybody attending the performance doesn’t know Eisenhower’s decision. He ultimately sides with Stagg, who is proven correct as the weather turned dramatically for the worse. D-Day was pushed back to June 6 with the Allies ultimately being successful in penetrating the coast of France which helped lead to the final victory over Nazi Germany.

While Stagg comes off as gruff and difficult, his more delicate side is shown in a sub-plot revolving around his wife’s pregnancy. An earlier birth was difficult and Stagg has received word she is showing the same signs this time. What started out as a rocky relationship with Kay Summersby, portrayed by Laura Rogers, who is Eisenhower’s chauffer, turns to friendship and respect with Summersby providing support for the overburdened Stagg.

Sinclair and Rogers PressurePlaywright Haig also hints at the often discussed relationship between Eisenhower and Summersby. Whether there was ultimately a physical relationship will never be decided. There is not an agreement from those who knew both as to what their relationship was.

I found the storyline interesting and well done. The performers did a great job. The setting is an intimate one. The theatre itself was nice and it did not seem like there was a bad seat in the house. We were towards the rear of the theatre but had no vision or sound problems. Ticket prices for our seats were more than reasonable at only $15.

While a play about 1944 weather probably isn’t one that would immediately attract the interest of most people, I would say don’t miss this one.

All photos are from the play and are not my own.

Book Review–Central Florida’s World War II Veterans

Central Florida's World War II Veterans cover
Central Florida’s World War II Veterans cover

Grenier, Bob. Central Florida’s World War II Veterans (Images of America). Charleston: Arcadia Publishing. 2016. 128 pages, b/w photos. ISBN 9781467116794, $21.99.

The Greatest Generation is silently, yet rapidly, passing on to their reward. When you stop to think that the end of World War II was more than 70 years ago you can easily fathom that it will not be long until the last veterans from the war pass.

Author Bob Grenier, who wears many hats including historian, museum curator, Walt Disney World employee, politician, historical activist, and more, has written what I find to be a very fitting tribute to the common soldier. This is not a book glamorizing the Generals or the Colonels, or even the Lieutenants. This is not a book glamorizing war nor condemning the enemy. Instead, it is a book that reminds us the soldiers who went to serve in far away lands they might not have been able to find on a map were real people. They were fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, husbands, or boyfriends. In some cases, they were daughters, wives, sisters, aunts, or girl friends who served in organizations like WAVES, or as nurses, or were part of the Red Cross. Not all of the men in the book survived. Some, like Medal of Honor recipient Robert McTureous, paid the ultimate price.

The book is broken down geographically into eight chapters with a concluding chapter titled Florida’s Gallant Sons and Daughters. The chapters feature soldiers who lived in or moved to an area and markers or memorials to the War. Each chapter is loaded with photos; some contemporary, some from the war, some personal such as wedding photos, and some are memorials and remembrances. All tell a story though and through the limited text allowed for each image Grenier helps evoke feeling of the image whether it be happy, sad, uncertain, confident, or scared.

This book reminds us how precious life is and that our time is fleeting. A generation called the greatest is rapidly leaving us. It will be left for us, the living, to remember them. With this slim volume Bob Grenier has provided us a way to remember the men and women who helped stop Axis forces and allow the American way of life to continue. One can not finish this volume and not be moved. Highly recommended.

**For full disclosure: Mr. Grenier has spoken at the museum where I work and I would consider him to be a friend. I did however purchase my copy of his book and he has in no way asked for me to write a review. The review is based upon my own reading and viewing of the book.

Book Review–The World War II Bookshelf

Dunnigan, James F. The World War II Bookshelf: 50 Must-Read Books. New York: Kensington Publishing Co., 2004. 302 pages, index. ISBN 9780806526492.

Along with Jesus Christ and the Civil War, World War II is probably one of the most written about topics of all time. So where does the beginner or casual reader jump in at? Author James Dunnigan, in what is now a rather dated work, gives readers a good point of reference.

By dated, this book is now more than a decade old. Many top-notch pieces of history have been published since its release so it is important to not ignore other works, particularly those that are well reviewed and received. Note, I did not say those that have sold well. That is not a sign of scholarship but rather a sign of name recognition or good marketing and PR. A good seller may be an excellent work but pop-history does not always make for accurate history.

Dunnigan provides a listing of 50 books he considered to be must reads. There is little to realistically quibble about. It is his opinion only. Complaints are based upon personal choices.

The book is divided into five chapters; The Big Picture, The War in the West, The War in Russia, The War in the Pacific, and Larger Issues. Pretty straight forward stuff there.

Most of the choices seem to have been well thought out. The problem being, there are only fifty book total. I for one would have preferred a more in-depth listing of books dealing with Nazi Germany. There is no biography of Hitler (even Mein Kampf did not make the cut) or any of his associates. The Holocaust is ignored. Dunnigan makes the statement that biographies and most individual battles are left out in order to concentrate on the larger picture. There is no larger picture in World War II than Adolph Hitler.

Instead, we are treated to Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. Surely there can be better choices for the average beginners World War II library. In addition, the 78 volume The United States Army in World War II is going to be out of the reach of the average reader.

Just my two cents on choices and as I said this is purely an opinion book.

For me some of the reviews got lengthy and beyond what I was looking for. While some were very short, a page or two, others stretched on for nearly ten pages and became tedious to finish.

As a further comment, many of the books listed are now out of print and must be found on the secondary market. Surely this is not a huge problem but is something to consider.

These complaints aside, there is clearly value to Dunnigan’s book. For those, myself included, with a fledgling World War II library a guide like this can get us going in the right direction. From there it is essential to review the notes and bibliographies of our favorites and expand our reading list that way.

Overall, recommended but with the above mentioned caveats.

Franklin Roosevelt: Speech After Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Here is the text of the speech given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941; the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

pearl harbor
Wreckage of the USS Arizona. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

Book Review: The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day, June 6, 1944

longest dayRyan, Cornelius. The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day. New York: Simon & Schuster. Reprint, 1994. B/W photos, index, bibliography. 350 pages/277 pages of text. ISBN 9780671890919, $17.

An instant classic when originally published in 1959, The Longest Day continues to stand the test of time. As a first time reader I can fully understand the praise and longevity this volume has achieved.

Cornelius Ryan was born in 1920 in Dublin, Ireland. While he didn’t experience the fighting first hand he did experience the war from close quarters. During the war he served as a correspondent and flew in bombing missions with the U.S. Air Force and also covered the D-Day landings. This first hand knowledge of events no doubt served him well in the years it took to research and write this account.

Ryan went directly to the sources for much of his research. He used war documents from many countries, used diaries from Generals and other military figures, and interviewed literally hundreds of participants, both soldiers and civilians. Here, we read the story of the great beach landing that ultimately led to the end of the Third Reich.

The book is divided into three sections. The Wait describes the buildup and planning needed until the decision by Dwight Eisenhower to launch the invasion. The Night covers the glider and paratrooper assault and the goals of each. The sea of confusion that comes into play when targets are missed is conveyed to the reader in such a way as to show the fear these men must have felt. The Day describes the beach assault and the horrors, and death, the soldiers faced.

Throughout, one sees over and over again how the German high command failed to heed what in hindsight are obvious signals and warnings about the attack. Air power was moved from the coast, Rommel was headed to meet with the Fuhrer, lower level generals seemed clueless and all along, nobody believed the assault to be the real deal. From Hitler down, or perhaps because of Hitler’s belief, it was assumed this was just a jab and the attempted knockout blow would be delivered elsewhere.

Even once the full assault was underway few were willing to adjust their beliefs let alone stand up to Hitler. In fact, the Fuhrer was not even awakened to inform him of what was happening. Had the Germans been more aware the outcome of June 6, 1944 could have been different.

This is not a “what if” book however and the Germans, with no air support and little leadership, were caught off guard. The actions of the following days, weeks, and months are not told here. This book deals only with June 6. We ultimately know the result however.

While an easily readable book there is a major failing here and I do not know if it through Mr. Ryan or the publisher. The book is sorely in need of maps; the version of the text I read contained none. When I say maps, I mean it needs many. French geography is not my strongpoint and so I was lost in terms of where things were happening.

Despite my concern about maps I can highly recommend this title for anybody interested in the western theatre of World War II. From the novice, such as myself, to the reader who has read more deeply about the war, there is something to be learned here.

Library Additions October 2015 (1)

Here are a few books I have added to my library recently that you might consider taking a look at.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generationwritten by Joseph J. Ellis. Discusses how our founding fathers; Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Burr, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison came together to create the workings of our Federal government.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jeffersonwritten by Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis follows Jefferson from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence through his retirement at Monticello. For this work Ellis was a National Book Award winner.

the dead and thoseThe Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach written by John C. McManus. This is an examination of the 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed The Big Red One) during D-Day.

A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America written by Jon Kukla. From the brink of war to the shaping of the newly expanded country Kukla discusses it.