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Lordsburg Internment POW Camp
By Millie Pressler
One of the least studied aspects of the history of World War II has been the network of internment and prisoner of war camps established by the Department of Justice and the United States Army. Few people may realize such a camp existed in Lordsburg, New Mexico. During the war, it held Japanese internees, Italian Prisoners of War, and German Prisoners of War.
At the actual camp site, one now encounters a pastoral scene, several homes surrounded by fields in cultivation. A few structures remain to suggest the activity thriving there over thirty years ago. Behind spacious fences, farm animals now roam freely where once prisoners walked. The scene is like an empty stage many players have strutted on, enacting many parts in the drama of war. This is a brief history of the role Lordsburg played in that drama.
On December 7, 1941, Lordsburg was not unlike any other small town in America going about its usual Sunday activities, unsuspecting that the events of that day at Pearl Harbor would seal its destiny for the duration of the World War which resulted. The War Department soon thereafter wired notification that an army cantonment would be built in Lordsburg.
In succeeding months, construction laborers and military personnel poured into the town with their families. Living quarters were at a premium, and even chickens were contributing to the war effort by giving up their coops to house the new residents. Economically, too, Lordsburg was booming, reaping the benefits of the $50,000 a week payroll paid to the workers.
In approximately one year, the laborers built, between naps under the buildings, a total of 282 structures, a highway, and complete electric, sewage, and natural gas systems at a cost of almost two million dollars.
The people of Lordsburg were probably wondering, “What is the purpose of this new suburb of ours?” The small town grapevine may have doubled its efforts, but neither military men nor construction engineers would divulge any information. It was not until one week before the arrival of Japanese internees that the people learned of the camp’s real purpose.
The first Japanese internees arrived the first week of June 1942 by a special highball train from a war relocation camp in California, where they had been a part of the evacuation of the entire Japanese population of the western coastal area. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had determined these civilian men were potentially dangerous enemy aliens, and deemed their incarceration essential for national security.
The darkness of night covered the unannounced arrivals and marches of the internees from the railroad siting to the camp two miles away. At least three men never made it to the camp. One elderly internee broke into a run across the fields, and although his friends were cautioning him in Japanese and the guards were calling “Halt!”, he kept running in apparent panic until he was shot and killed. On another occasion, two men attempted escape and met the same fate. The soldier that did this shooting was hailed as a hero at first, and some people in Lordsburg took up a collection for him and treated him to free drinks and meals. An army officer gathered the shells as souvenirs, saying the boy deserved a medal, but headquarters didn’t take light of this.
Once at the camp, the internees turned over all property and valuables to the custodial officer, who then issued green uniforms with numbers on the backs. About 2,000 Japanese were billeted in two of the three camp compounds.
The men in each compound elected a “mayor” to represent the internees to the authorities. Some educated internees became barracks “lawyers” who read and interpreted the terms of the Geneva Convention for their men. Contentions arose at times from these interpretations, and once the entire body of internees refused to do any work at the camp after they had been made to clean the soldiers’ latrines. Thereafter, the soldiers did their own cleaning.
Daily activities of the internees included work detail around the camp, doing their own cooking, carpentering, and tending of a five-acre vegetable garden. They are remembered as being very creative, and in their spare time made things from concrete and placed around the camp bird baths, drinking fountains, statues, and other figures one might see in a typical Japanese garden. They also made handcrafts which they exhibited and sold to the public.
Celebration of the holiday season was a special occasion for the internees, and while the enlisted men were celebrating the New Year 1943, the Japanese were welcoming the year 2063. The internees performed as Geisha girls and other Japanese characters in a Lion dance. Both Christian and Oriental celebrations took place within the same area on the same date.
When an internee died, the usual custom was to notify the next of kin to send the money to ship the body by train to Albuquerque for cremation. It would then be sent on to the man’s family. If the family didn’t have enough money, camp commander Col. Lundy, who kept two or three graves dug ahead, would order “Bury him!” One time, a funeral procession had started to the cemetery with the body, with the internees in their ceremonial robes, twirling their noisemakers. The men in the compound called “Stop, stop, we’ve got enough money now,” and the ceremony came back to the camp. No, they didn’t have enough money, so Lundy said again “Bury him!” They did this three times that day until the internees at last had enough money to send the body on. That same night, a trail derailed at Lordsburg, and a casket fell out of a car. When the camp adjutant saw this, he said, “Oh, my God, there’s that Jap again.!”
Three Japanese are still buried at the camp site. Their resting place is covered with piles of barbed wire, put there so tractors and plows would not disturb the area. Several years ago, the family of one of these men stopped and placed food around the graves according to their custom.
Perhaps the most remarkable incident during the stay of the Japanese came about through the Army’s mistake of sending some prisoners of war captured overseas to the camp. Rumors went around that these were the men who had shelled Santa Barbara, California. They had their heads shaved in Japanese military fashion, and the internees hailed them as heroes, going so far as to run a Japanese flag over their barracks. It was a tense time at the camp.
Another time, an army Pfc., without provocation, jumped on an internee coming out of the canteen and started stabbing him. No one knew what made him do it; he just snapped.
Although there were tense times, the internees and enlisted men on the whole came to know each other very well since they were together day in and day out. The former provost marshall said he received letters and cards from former internees for over 30 years. This is one example of the comradery that existed between the men.
Another example can be seen in the story told about a guard who handed his gun to an internee while he climbed up on a wagon. After the guard was seated, the internee handed the gun back to him.
And how did the Lordsburg people react to their new neighbors? Then, as now, feelings were mixed. Some held the opinion, “The Army should have locked them up sooner,” and others resented the fact that the government provided their wards with good beef, sugar, coffee, and other items while they were rationed or doing without. Many citizens, however, were very tolerant toward the men interned at Lordsburg. Since most of them were middle-aged and elderly men, it was hard to see any real threat in them. By November of 1943, the Japanese internees were relocated, and the Lordsburg Internment Camp became a Prisoner of War Camp, holding captured Italian prisoners.
There was never any question about whether or not the Italians should have been kept prisoners, for they were the enemy, the Fascisti. Even so, they are remembered with fondness by former officers of the camp and the people of Lordsburg.
Their arrival is well remembered. The American soldiers who delivered them to the camp had been with the Italians from the time of their departure from North Africa. After being relieved of their charges of several months, the soldiers came into Lordsburg and “tore the town up.”
A former Mess Sgt. found the Italians very easy to work with, and often left them in charge of his mess hall. Many were jovial and friendly, and liked to talk to civilians through the fence. If things got too dull, once in a while they would pull the fire alarm to liven them up. Fond of drill, they spent hours marching in the longest strides up and down the compound. Noted as being good cooks, they made their own spaghetti and pastas, and often cooked for the officers and their wives.
Some of the men wrote and mimeographed a newspaper in their native language which they sold at the canteen. Others organized activities including an orchestra, theatre groups, a choir, and various sports teams, including boccia ball tournaments.
One of the prisoners, who had been an art professor at the University of Milan, conducted art classes for the men, and was hired to paint a full length portrait of a Lordsburg woman. Guards went inside the compound with her every day while she sat for him.
Because many area men had joined the armed services, a labor shortage resulted, and the Italian prisoners proved invaluable to farmers at this time, helping to save the cotton crops in the fall of 1943. With Lordsburg as base camp, sub-camps were established where nearly 1400 Italian prisoners worked the cotton fields in Duncan and Virden Valleys, Las Cruces and El Paso.
Perhaps being spread out like this contribed to the fact that the Italians hold the record for number of escapes in the history of the camp. Two prisoners who escaped to Mexico and were put in jail there were very soon asking to be returned, and they were. Compatibility with the camp commanders seems to be a factor in the number of escapes. Under commander Col. Ledbetter, who an Italian spokesman said “treated them like a father,” few escapes were reported. Under another commander who had stated he found them difficult to manage, there were 16 escapes reported in his first two months of command.
Perhaps it was one of Ledbetter’s charges about whom this story is told:
“One time, the Italians were working in the fields at Red Rock, and when they rounded them up to bring them back to camp, they left one of them over there. He went up to a farmhouse there and knocked on the door. He couldn’t speak any English, and all he could say to the people was “Home, home!” He wanted to go home, meaning back to camp. So they called up the authorities, and they hadn’t even missed him yet. They went over and got him and brought him back to his “home.”
In the summer of 1944, the camp was placed on a reserve, stand-by basis, and most prisoners and military personnel were relocated. Through these months only a small number of prisoners, reportedly both Italian and Germans, inhabited the camp.
The Army then in September made preparations to activate the camp to its fullest capacity. German Uncooperative Non-Commissioned Prisoners of War began arriving in October until finally approximately 5,500 of them were crowded into a camp which had originally been built to house 3,000 men. The Lordsburg camp became a dumping ground for all the incorrigibles from other prisoner of war camps in the Eighth Service Command.
The majority of the men sat around or lay in their bunks most of the time, but some, about 700, were cooperative enough to work in and outside the camp. One woman remembers that after a group of them had worked at her farm, not only were the weeds gone, but the vegetables were too. They’d eaten them right out of the ground! Recreational activities were existent at the camp in the form of boxing, soccer, and volleyball, and there was a small band and a choir of about 80 men. Movies were shown at the camp each Sunday, mostly American films, but it seems these activities were not well attended.
Educational reorientation instruction included a wide range of subjects, taught by the German men. This program came under criticism when an inspection revealed that math taught was the same used by the Wehrmacht, based on the life of a soldier and dealing in such problems as the number of men in a platoon, the quantity of ammunition for a battery, and so forth. That textbook was changed.
Camp commander Col. Napoleon Rainbolt came under criticism also when he allowed the German prisoners to participate in a celebration of a heroes’ commemoration day. The Germans were enthusiastic in this celebration, bringing out their swastikas, flags, banners, and flaming pillars in Nazi fashion.
Apparently, the German prisoners of war were very difficult to manage. It was next to impossible to control the Nazi element in the overflowing compounds, and the uncooperative nature and boredom of the Germans contributed to escape attempts, some of which were successful.
One Lordsburg woman who lived on a ranch near the camp had gone to bed one night, and she heard a German in the kitchen raiding her icebox. She lay still, and he left. Another time, she saw two of them around her barn, then called authorities who came and got them. The stay of the Germans is generally remembered as being a tense time – there were more German prisoners at the camp than the total population of Hidalgo County!
After the Germans were relocated, the camp stood empty in the summer of 1945, a symbol that the war was drawing to a close. The Lordsburg camp lay still and dormant, a haven for jackrabbit and quail a popular “parking spot” for lovers. It was not to be in the news again until 1947, when the Bureau of Land Management placed it on sale as government surplus. Joseph Deckert of Deming purchased the property and resold it to different individuals in Hidalgo, Grant, and Luna counties. Many of them converted the buildings they bought into homes. Some who bought the buildings found the walls contained various graffiti and drawings on the bare boards inside, reminders of their former inhabitants. One couple found between the boards a metal plaque with a silhouette of Hitler on it.
In April of 1948, the War Assets Administration made final dispensation of camp property by transferring the remaining buildings to the City of Lordsburg. These were dismantled and used in construction and repair at the airport.
So it was once again that Lordsburg benefited from the camp. In retrospect, Lordsburg will always benefit by having the history of the camp as part of its history, for it is one of the richest parts of the past. The passing of the camp was the passing of an era.
[La Crónica de Nuevo México 6 (July 1978): 3 - 4. Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]