Think of German soldiers during World War II and you think of the enemy. But Yolo County farmers who depended on German prisoners of war to work the fields here remember them fondly.
The German POWs served as farmhands during a time when most fit, young American men were off fighting the war. They were housed in three farm labor camps in Yolo County: two in Clarksburg (the first and the last established compounds) and one west of Davis.
When Maj. Lester Heringer was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corps on Feb. 11, 1946, he never would have guessed the task that was going to be asked of him back home. Now 94, he was in his early 20s then, and was eager to return to farming after spending five years in the military.
But the Yolo County powers-that-be had different plans for him, given the labor shortage that was plaguing agriculture. He was asked to become head of a farm labor camp modeled after the county’s two previous facilities, and to set it up on a large plot of land that he owned.
As with the other compounds, the Army pledged to supply all the necessities, such as food and shelter. This camp would operate on a contract basis, allocating labor to farmers who were in desperate need of it within a busable proximity to the compound.
Ten acres of land were converted into a farm labor camp along Clarksburg’s Elk Slough by April 1946. It was outfitted with enough Quonset huts to house 550 German prisoners, approximately double the number of the men at the Clarksburg and Davis camps that came before it.
The unconfirmed mythology to these particular prisoners is that they were part of the Afrika Korps, an expeditionary force that marched through Libya and Tunisia during the campaign for North Africa. These troops were led by Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Heringer found the prisoners he was in charge of to be self-sufficient, civil and compatible enough for the job.
“They took care of each other,” Lester said of his men, who cooked their own meals and maintained their living quarters. Most were 30 years old or younger, and some were still in their late teens.
“They were actually a good bunch of young fellas,” Heringer said, then paused before adding, “but they weren’t here because they wanted to be.”
Despite not being here of their own volition, the German prisoners made the best of it, staging variety shows with regularity.
“A little singin’ and a little dancin’,” Heringer said with a smile when asked what their performance would consist of. “Just like the Americans. Actually, you’d never know they weren’t American, except most couldn’t speak English.”
There were a few, he added, that did know the language. Heringer said a small amount of fraternization between the prisoners and the local farmers was not uncommon, though the military officially prohibited it.
“They got tied to the Americans pretty well,” he said. “I don’t think they expected things to happen the way they did, but that’s beside the point.”
By that, Heringer means that weeding, sowing and harvesting crops wasn’t what they thought they’d be doing. But that didn’t stop them from working hard in the fields.
One of the only problems Heringer recalls was in June of 1946, when a group of prisoners organized a sit-down strike while working a contracted farmer’s sugar beet fields.
Heringer was called in to mediate, but he wasn’t successful, given the language barrier. Not long after, a high-ranking detained German official arrived from an Army depot in Stockton, who solved the problem with some “verbal coercion.”
What the man said to get rebelling prisoners back to work was not clear to Heringer, but he did say he heard the German word “schwein” (which translates to pig) used quite liberally.
But the German prisoners were treated quite well on the whole. Researcher Douglas Brown, in his manuscript “The German POWs: Farm Labor Branch Camps in Yolo County,” relates a story from the late William Lider, a lifelong Yolo County farmer who had contracted the prisoners for work. Lider told Brown about a guard from the Davis farm labor camp mislaying his rifle; one of the prisoners found it and kindly returned it, rather than using it against his captor.
The compound that Heringer managed differed from the other two farm labor camps in the region in that there were no fences, guard towers or military men stationed there.
But even without those precautions, the prisoners apparently caused no trouble. Brown’s research indicated that there was only one rather innocent case of escape, in which two men fled but returned shortly thereafter. One was at a bar; the other at a brothel.
The first Clarksburg camp, activated in May 1945, and the Davis camp at Straloch Farm, established in July 1945, were more secure. Brown described both as being the Army standard: Two tall guard towers loomed over the front gates, acting as sentinels at the only entrance to a compound otherwise surrounded by barbed-wire fencing.
Not many details were chronicled about either of these camps, but an article in a 1945 edition of The Davis Enterprise reported that the prisoners of the Davis camp were accompanied by guards to work. When they returned, they were “locked in the compound, and soldiers (were) placed in towers to watch all through the night.”
But there were certain standards that needed to be upheld for the POWs: The Geneva Convention of 1929 established that the living quarters of prisoners had to be comparable to those of America’s own military domiciles.
Prisoners also were required to be paid comparable salaries to that of other farm laborers. All three camps in the area reimbursed prisoners at a rate of 90 cents per day (equal to an estimated $11.68 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator).
Payment came in the form of coupons that could be exchanged at a mobile trading post for snacks, toiletries and other items. Beer and cigarettes — which, according to Brown’s manuscript, were popular choices for prisoners — were no longer being offered by 1945.
The saga concludes
Although the war ended in Europe in May 1945, more than 350,000 German prisoners were being held in the United States, and were not freed back to their homeland until well into 1946. The final Clarksburg camp ceased operation in late June 1946, the termination date set by Congress.
The three farm labor camps in Yolo County were open only a total of 18 months, but that was enough time for the prisoners to leave an impression on Yolo County’s agricultural community.
“They were some of the finest workers that I’d ever seen,” Heringer said. “They were there to work our fields when most of our boys were gone, and were a great help to us in that regard.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett