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German POWs picked tomatoes and worked in Tracy warehouses 75 years ago

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The World War II prisoner-of-war interrogation camp, mostly for Japanese prisoners of war, at Byron Hot Springs 14 miles northwest of Tracy became the subject of a great deal of public interest, including several books and lectures, in recent decades, but the presence of German POWs nearby in the Tracy area during World War II has never received the same level of attention.

Japanese POWs being interrogated for military secrets in bugged rooms in a secretly located spa hotel generated a lot more interest than German POWs living in tents and stacking boxes of supplies in a warehouse, or living in barracks and picking tomatoes in Tracy fields.

Those tents were in plain sight next to Chrisman Road at the California Quartermaster Subdepot (now Defense Logistics Agency Distribution San Joaquin), and the barracks-like quarters were at several locations in rural areas, including a fairly large one at Vernalis.

By far, the largest concentration of German POWS was at the depot, where between 400 and 600 German POWs were held at various times over several years until well after WWII ended in the spring and summer of 1945.

By the time Hitler’s Germany surrendered on V-E Day — May 8, 1945 — the War Department had decided to release more of the details of the 370,000 German POWs — along with 51,000 Italian and 5,000 Japanese POWs — still being held in the U.S., including 440 from the Third Reich at the depot.

Rumors that the Germans were being coddled and taking jobs from American workers prompted Brig. Gen. Milton Boone, commanding general of the Oakland-based California Quartermaster Depot, parent unit of the Tracy subdepot, to invite my dad, Harvey Matthews, then editor and publisher of the Tracy Press, to take a look at the POW operations at the depot and report back to Press readers. He did 75 years ago, on the June 8, 1945.

What he learned of the German POWs at the depot included the following — some in the exact words of the Press article, some paraphrased:

• Most of the prisoners had been captured in North Africa or in Normandy, France. The POWS consist of 40% older men and 60% younger.

• “Humane treatment, based on fairness and firmness, is the rule in the local camp. There is no so-called ‘coddling.’”

• “The U.S. guard unit at the POW compound consists of six officers and 40 enlisted men, many of whom are overseas veterans. There is one medical officer.”

• The prisoners live in heated, floored, salvaged tents surrounded by high fences with barbed wire. They wear recycled clothing with “PW” on the back.

• “The prisoners do their own cooking, under the supervision of a U.S. Army sergeant. The daily diet during the six work days allows each working prisoner 3,400 calories. On Sundays, the diet is reduced to 2,500 calories.” Meat consists of cuts not issued to U.S. troops or sold in markets: hearts, livers, brains, kidneys, tripe or flanks, but no steaks, bacon, roasts, chicken or turkey. There are no canned fruits or vegetables.

• A detail of prisoners with farming backgrounds works the five-acre victory garden near the POW enclosure producing vegetables for the prisoner mess.

• The morning call is at 5:30, and lights go out at 10:30 in the evening. It takes 27 prisoners to run the camp, and the rest are at work, 280 on the day shift and 68 on the swing shift, mostly in warehouses; 28 are in a corrective stockade or military hospital.

• Discipline in the camp is no problem, according to the POW camp commander, who said prisoners choose a leader, subject to a U.S. captain’s approval. All matters of camp conduct that need attention are transmitted by the commander through the POW leader. Prisoners not conforming to rules are sent to an outer stockade, where they are placed on bread and water and punished by working the most strenuous jobs.

• For recreation, there are facilities for pingpong, soccer, football and handball, provided by the pooled funds of wages of the prisoners, who earn 80 cents a day in scrip. A snack bar provides snacks and toiletries, but no cigarettes, beer or bottled soft drinks were seen, at least during the tour. Two radios and magazines and newspapers are available.

• The sub-depot executive officer, Col. Herbert Wilkinson, said no Americans are being deprived jobs because of the German prisoners working there, and in fact there is a labor shortage with openings for trained railroad workers, 50 laborers and several stenographers.

• In conclusion, Harvey Matthews wrote, “The American traditions of fair play and decency were reaffirmed, but the thought of our boys in enemy camps, where all authentic reports indicate less favorable conditions, came to mind. Two wrongs do not make a right, and in this case we Americans are right again.”

(The depot POW camp, like most of those throughout the U.S. — and there were 1,204 in total, including 106 in California — remained in operation well into 1946.)

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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