Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
of War Branch Camp
The following article
appeared in the 8 November 2013 issue of the Davis Enterprise.
at War: German POWs Helped Work the Fields
By Brett Johnson
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
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 countys 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 Clarksburgs 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
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 werent 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
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, youd never know they werent American, except
most couldnt 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 dont think they expected things
to happen the way they did, but thats beside the point.
By that, Heringer means that weeding,
sowing and harvesting crops wasnt what they thought theyd
be doing. But that didnt stop them from working hard in
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 farmers sugar beet fields.
Heringer was called in to mediate, but
he wasnt 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
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. Browns 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 Americas 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 Browns 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 Countys
They were some of the finest workers
that Id 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett
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