New Mexico’s Prisoner of War Camps

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Did you know New Mexico had prisoner of war camps during World War II?

This column has talked about ones at Santa Fe and Lordsburg that held U.S. residents of Japanese descent. The camp at Lordsburg also held captured German and Italian soldiers. Another camp at Roswell held almost exclusively German prisoners, most of them from Gen. Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, until late in the war.

As the war dragged on, severe labor shortages began to hit the nation because of the large numbers of Americans who were involved in the war effort in one way or another. In New Mexico, those shortages were mostly on the farms of the state, which were working to peak capacity to produce food for the nation and our troops overseas.

In 1942, the Bracero Program, which brought in contract laborers from Mexico, filled most of the need, but some farmers still had to plow under unharvested crops the following spring. In 1943, the government began allowing German and some Italian prisoners from Roswell and Lordsburg to work on neighboring farms at the local prevailing minimum wage.

The program worked well enough so that over the next three years, several dozen branch camps (also called side, labor or “fly” camps) were set up throughout Southern New Mexico and a few in the north. They were usually located in abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camps, but also in school buildings, warehouses, armories and any other facilities that could be found. They ranged in size from 15 at Mayhill (between Alamogordo and Artesia) to 600 at Las Cruces. Some prisoners were sent to Albuquerque, where they not only farmed but also helped construct some of the buildings at the State Fairgrounds.

The program was very successful. Most farmers reported the prisoners did reasonably good work, except at picking cotton. After the war, some prisoners wanted to stay, some returned as immigrants, and many have taken nostalgic trips back to New Mexico over the years. Most reported that their treatment and living conditions as prisoners were better than what they were getting in their respective armies. The United States was abiding by Geneva Convention rules for the treatment of prisoners, but sometimes was accused of coddling the prisoners.

Wouldn’t you like to know more about the prisoners held in your area? The New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces thinks that would be a great idea. Under the leadership of curator, Robert Hart, the museum is developing an exhibit, tentatively scheduled to debut in the late fall of 2001 on the use of prisoners of war as agricultural and rural laborers during World War II.

Pending local interest and sponsorship funding, the museum would like to tour the exhibit through the state following its debut in Las Cruces. There is even some thought being given to international interest in Europe that could produce a goodwill informational tour through Germany and Italy.

It is a worthy project. Over 10,000 prisoners were sent to New Mexico during World War II. The U.S. War Department was looking for areas located away from population centers and sensitive military and industrial installations. It wanted places where sites and construction and operating costs would be as low as possible. All of that made New Mexico an ideal location.

It is important for New Mexicans to know and understand their history because past events can be shaping our lives today without us realizing it. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself, but it will always be helpful to know what has gone on here in the past.

Besides, there are those of us in my generation who remember a POW prison camp in our local community and we’d like to know more about what was really going on. And that goes for people who didn’t grow up in New Mexico. Every state but three had prisoners, over 400,000 in all.