Many of them were officers, the cream of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Some had marched into Paris just three years earlier, when it appeared that the Führer was unstoppable. But then the campaign in North Africa went to scheisse. They were outflanked in Tunisia and disarmed, hustled onto troop ships and brought to Boston or New York (where they gaped in astonishment at the gleaming Manhattan skyline, which, according to German news reports, had been decimated by Luftwaffe bombing raids). Then they were hauled onto trains and carried into the vastness of the American heartland for four days and nights.
Now here they were, ordered off the train at Beshoar Junction, a windy whistlestop in the nowhere of Las Animas County, a few miles northeast of Trinidad. Trucks and a contingent of nervous American GIs awaited them. They headed up a recently constructed road to a 640-acre compound of wooden barracks surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire, planted on a desolate, treeless plateau. They were ordered to undress and were searched. Although they could keep their Afrika Korps garb, the snazzy tan outfits with the short pants and the large-billed field caps, they were expected to wear newly issued uniforms of olive drab, with the letters P and W painted on the back of the shirts and jackets: Prisoner of War.
The prisoners wasted no time sizing up their captors and testing them. Many of the camp guards had been rated for “limited service” by the Army because of health conditions that made them unsuitable for combat, and this was their first encounter with the enemy. The German officers resisted being fingerprinted, dragging their ink-stained fingers across the cards to smear the impressions. They complained about the long train ride, the lack of books and furniture in the drafty, moth-infested barracks, the rattlesnakes slithering around the place. Clearly, this just wouldn’t do.
“This section of the country is fit only for Indians and not white men,” one wrote in a letter home.
“The Americans cannot organize the least thing,” wrote another. “They fear us ‘Bad Nazis’ so much, but this fear only fills us with pride.”
Part of the problem was that the Trinidad Internment Camp was still under construction, a work in progress; the whole project had been rushed into existence in a few months, and the guards had arrived barely ahead of the prisoners. The guards knew they were supposed to observe the rules of the Geneva Conventions, but there was no master plan explaining how to operate a modern prisoner-of-war camp in America, which had none on its soil during World War I. The War Department was making it up as it went along.
a book about his years as an interpreter stationed at the Trinidad camp.
Born in Prague, Landsberger had arrived in New York in 1939 as a nineteen-year-old Jewish refugee, narrowly avoiding the Nazi concentration camps spreading across central Europe. Despite his clubbed feet, which made it unlikely that he would ever be sent to the front, the U.S. Army was happy to have him and his fluency in German. He was sent to Trinidad days before the camp opened and was soon put in charge of censoring POW mail. Dealing with the prisoners stirred mixed feelings in him, as evidenced by the title of his memoir, published more than sixty years later: Prisoners of War at Camp Trinidad, Colorado, 1943-1946: Internment, Intimidation, Incompetence and Country Club Living.
For many prisoners, too, the camp experience was a welter of conflicting emotions. One of the first arrivals, an officer named Karlhorst Heil, kept a sketchbook and diary, portions of which were later translated by Landsberger, that vividly depict his bewilderment at his new environment.
“Our first impression was that we had been sent to the end of the world,” he wrote, shortly after getting off the train. “Also that we must be considered dangerous, as everywhere machine-gun positions had been set up.”
Heil asked for a meeting with the camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clifford H. Hunn, to discuss developing productive activities for the prisoners. Hunn received him and another POW in his office, offering them tea, coffee, cake and whiskey. To Heil’s amazement, the colonel invited them to join him on a ride into town. He showed them the Trinidad town hall and post office. They were invited into a private home and served orange and grapefruit juice. Then the colonel enlisted their help in loading a truck with musical instruments and books donated by locals and bound for the camp. Several of the books were in German. “The two of us were speechless,” Heil wrote.
A copy of Heil’s diary, along with the reminiscences of several other Trinidad POWs and their keepers, can be found in a special collection of the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department. The collection was assembled in the early 1990s, when many former occupants of the camp were still alive — and still gathering for a series of reunions in Trinidad. The documents and artifacts it contains are keys to a little-known but revealing chapter of Colorado history.
“This was an intolerant place to be during the war,” notes Arnold Krammer, a retired history professor who’s authored several books about the camps. “If you had copies of Karl Marx’s books on your shelf in Oklahoma, you could be arrested.”
Colorado had four principal POW camps — Trinidad, Greeley, one at Camp Carson in Colorado Springs and, later, one at Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained for ski warfare. The state also hosted dozens of “side camps,” supplying prisoner labor to nearby farms and industries, from Grand Junction to the eastern plains. But the Trinidad camp stood apart from the others, and from most of the POW camps across the country, because of the heavy concentration of German commanders among its prisoners; it had been built to hold 4,000 men, and by the end of the war, more than 2,000 of these were officers.
The officers tended to be highly educated, even aristocratic — including a smattering of counts and barons. They were doctors, dentists, lawyers and professors, as well as career military men. They were also more likely to be ardent Nazis, quick to challenge the guards and assert their authority over their own men. That led to some tense confrontations and even violence in the early going, followed by a long-simmering battle of wits, punctuated by embarrassing pranks and escapes.
It’s a strange story. At times it played like low comedy, a Teutonic version of Hogan’s Heroes, with foxy POWs conniving extraordinary privileges and outmaneuvering the blundering guards at every turn, even to the point of constructing a tunnel to the outside world. But by the end of the war, the story had become something else.
As several prisoners would later explain, at reunion gatherings and in letters to friends, the camp in Trinidad was not a place to run away from, but rather a refuge. A place, far from the horrors of the war, to gain a new understanding of your enemy and begin to face the darkness at the heart of your own cause.
Karlhorst Heil busied himself studying the landscape. He made sketches of Fisher’s Peak and the surrounding hills. He watched the brilliant Colorado sunsets with a sense of awe. At night he looked out on the lights of Trinidad and wondered how his family was faring. One day he saw ranch hands working horseback far, far outside the barbed wire, and the scene brought him to the verge of tears.
“We watched cowboys riding over the prairie,” he wrote, “and this made us yearn.”
“We hadn’t thought about taking prisoners when the war began,” historian Krammer notes. “Then the prisoners started to pour in. We put them on Pullman trains and sent them out west.”
According to Krammer, several considerations went into the siting and operation of the camps. Some of the first to open were surrounded by established military bases, reducing security issues. As the program developed, many of the new camps were placed in the South and Southwest. That saved on heating costs and complied with one provision of the Geneva protocols, which stated that prisoners should be housed in a climate similar to that in which they were captured; places like Texas and New Mexico offered the closest American approximation of the Sahara and the African tropics. There was also an expectation, or at least a hope, that if the camps were operated humanely, the Axis powers would be less likely to abuse American prisoners of war.
“We felt that as well as we took care of their prisoners, they’d take care of ours,” Krammer explains. “It didn’t work out that way, but I think we would have done the right thing anyway.”
Trinidad’s town fathers campaigned earnestly for a camp in their back yard. Their eagerness was more about revenue than patriotism; a camp would require construction jobs and a thousand American soldiers to guard the place, as well as civilian support staff. It would also provide a boost to a local economy stalled by the closing of the region’s coal mines. It helped that Colorado congressman Edgar Chenoweth was a Trinidad native; with the aid of Senator Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson, Chenoweth was able to seal the deal.
The physical layout of the camp followed a common blueprint for such facilities, but the officers’ quarters were still under construction when the first POWs arrived. There was no blueprint for dealing with their outraged guests. “The officers were arrogant and antagonized my officers right off the reel,” camp commander Lieutenant Colonel Hunn later recalled. “They referred to the camp as a desert, so to speak; that they, the Americans, were more in the habit of handling criminals.”
Although the camp opening was a bit rocky, with shortages of everything from chairs to toilet paper, the German officers actually had little to complain about. The food was abundant, the medical care excellent, and they received better mattresses and more spacious digs than the enlisted men; the elite were allowed to have orderlies, and those with a rank above captain got their own room. Under the Geneva Conventions, enlisted men could be ordered to work, but not officers. They could do absolutely nothing and still draw POW pay of twenty bucks a month, issued in scrip, which could be used to purchase radios, musical instruments and canteen items — including a one-serving-per-customer ration of Tivoli beer that was, by German standards, absurdly low in alcohol content.
“We felt that as well as we took care of their prisoners, they’d take care of ours. It didn’t work out that way.”
Within a few weeks, the officers began to demonstrate their talents for efficiency and organization. They scavenged lumber and metal in order to make their own furniture. They put together an orchestra and converted a rec hall into a theater, suitable for staging concerts, operas and plays, including all-male productions of Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. (One performance re-enacted their arrival in the camp and featured dead-on parodies of certain guards.) They put out their own professional-looking newspaper, Der Spiegel, printed in town, which put to shame The TIC, the American soldiers’ flimsy mimeographed camp newsletter. (The TIC — short for Trinidad Internment Camp — eventually appeared in newsprint, too, but then ran out of funding.) They also established their own internal leadership structure, which Hunn suspected was designed to root out informers and dissidents in their ranks and persecute them, in order to keep the rest in line.
They were enterprising, but the enterprises soon led to trouble. The contractor trying to finish the barracks complained of vandalism and supplies being appropriated for unauthorized purposes. A verbal order came down that the guards in the lookout towers were supposed to fire a warning shot if they saw any prisoner stealing materials or attempting to sabotage the construction; if the prisoner persisted, the guards were expected to fire on him.
Scarcely a month after the first prisoners arrived, the war of nerves became a shooting war. Guards fired at the feet of prisoners who strayed too close to the fence, sent bullets whizzing over the heads of men who tried to help themselves to lumber. A German captain was wounded when he ignored, or perhaps didn’t hear, an order to drop a piece of wood. Six days later — July 15, 1943 — two POWs who were pulling two-by-fours from a half-constructed building failed to respond to shouted orders and a warning shot fired by a sentry in a tower 700 feet away. Private Lloyd Bilyeu’s next bullet hit one of the lumber scavengers, Private Kurt Frisch, and ricocheted sixty feet and struck another prisoner, Lieutenant Ernst Kramer. Both Frisch and Kramer died of their wounds.
An investigation cleared Bilyeu of misconduct, but the captain who’d ordered the guards to fire on scavengers was soon removed from the camp. Hunn, who denied knowing about any such order, was reprimanded and removed as camp commander. A new directive stated that firing on any prisoner was forbidden unless that prisoner was in the act of escaping.
The Americans weren’t the only ones shaking things up. Deeply disturbed by the shootings, the POW officers decided to replace their designated spokesman, a captain named Wolf, with Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Dahlke, a more diplomatic and less confrontational figure. They would need all their guile and resourcefulness in the months to come. Gardening and plays and lectures and weather stations were fine in themselves, but they were also cover, means to an end. That end was the primary duty of any soldier captured by the enemy, even if it was the one thing that could get him killed:
Despite its improvisational nature, America’s POW program turned out to be successful in ways its organizers hadn’t anticipated. It not only isolated prisoners far from the combat zone, but it also became a surprisingly effective — and lucrative — source of cheap labor at a time when the nation was facing an acute manpower shortage.
After some initial trepidation about the possible security risks involved, the War Department began allowing prisoners to be assigned to menial duties around the camps, then set up a network of smaller work camps near agricultural and industrial centers, making the POWs available for contract labor. The Trinidad camp sent hundreds of prisoners to a side camp in Lamar to pick beets for Holly Sugar, to another camp in Monte Vista to pick potatoes, to another to pick corn in Springfield, to yet another to cut mine supports in Stonewall. The prisoners got eighty cents a day for their work, but the government charged farmers several dollars a head, making a tidy profit in the bargain.
The prisoners operated tractors and other machinery and were guarded by only a skeleton crew. Yet nobody from Trinidad tried to bust out of the work details. They were apparently under orders not to do so. Although the officers weren’t required to work, many relished the opportunity to get out of camp and get some exercise; it’s possible, too, that they saw some value in the trickle of income the work produced for the prisoners, which could be used for canteen items.
There were other, informal arrangements around the base camp, too, in an effort to defuse tensions after the shootings in July. It wasn’t unusual, for example, for small groups of officers to be granted permission to take “nature walks” outside the compound, “of course with our word of honor not to use this as an occasion to escape,” as Heil noted in his diary. “These walks are without guards, proof that the situation in the camp has calmed down.”
There’s no indication in the camp archives that these gentlemen’s agreements were ever violated. But that didn’t mean the German officers had given up on the idea of escape. The best route to success, they reasoned, would be much less obvious than fleeing a work detail. It would be something the Americans wouldn’t even know was happening until it was too late.
On the evening of September 4, 1943, four POWs disappeared from the Trinidad camp. Their absence wasn’t discovered until a roll call at noon the next day. Two of them, one Horst Erb and Luftwaffe lieutenant Karl Gallowitz, were found a few hours later near a farm west of Trinidad; they had altered their Afrika Korps uniforms to resemble Boy Scout uniforms. They had seven dollars in American currency and some bacon, which could only be legally purchased with ration stamps.
The other two escapees were soon caught on their way to the New Mexico border. Under questioning, the men gave implausible, conflicting explanations of how they got out of camp. They claimed to have cut the fence or jumped a gate, but no damage was detected, and no guards reported seeing a thing. The high command was still puzzling over the escapade when three more prisoners vanished. They were arrested several days later 150 miles away, in Dalhart, Texas, a key junction for switching train lines if you’re headed to Mexico. They’d been picked up by chance by a local sheriff, who suspected them of being deserters from a nearby air base. Again, the method of escape remained elusive.
Then all hell broke loose. On October 15, six POWs, including two officers, pulled a disappearing act. Traveling in pairs, they were all rounded up over the next week near towns in northern New Mexico — Springer, Maxwell, Watrous. One of the men, Heinrich Haider, had photographs in his possession that showed him and another prisoner embracing Japanese-American women. Haider refused to say anything about the photos, but investigators suspected — correctly, it turned out — that the women had aided his escape.
The case, with its supposed Axis-forbidden-love angle, brought out the worst in the wartime press. The Denver Post jumped on the story like a cur on a soup bone, headlines cranked up to maximum volume: “German Prisoners Spooned With Jap Girls in Trinidad.” But the question of how Haider and the others got out of camp in the first place made for even more embarrassing national news. Searches and interrogations finally uncovered the existence of a 150-foot tunnel, eight feet under ground, that ran from one of the officers’ barracks to a point 65 feet outside the fence, beyond the reach of the guard towers’ sweeping lights.
According to the reminiscences of Elert Bade, one of the builders (and one of the three escapees who made it all the way to Texas), the tunnel had been completed in less than a month. The prisoners used razor blades to cut through planks in a closet floor, leading to the crawl space beneath the barracks. They then used claw hammers and other tools to excavate the tunnel, working in four-man shifts, four shifts a night. The lead digger clawed at the dirt, filling large food cans on a wooden sled. A second man pulled the sled back to the entrance; a third spread the dirt under the barracks.
The escapees re-tailored their uniform pants and tried to make their headgear resemble the caps worn by railroad employees. But they feared being shot as spies if they took it too far. “Under our ‘civilian outfits’ each person had at least part of his uniform,” Bade recalled. “In case of capture, this would signify that this was not a spying operation.”
The tunnel was the most elaborate uncovered at any American POW camp, and it helped to explain why Trinidad had more escapes than any other camp in the Seventh Service Command. (The officers joked among themselves that they should crawl out en masse some night and march on Trinidad, just to show that they could do it.) All of the escapees were caught, usually within a day or two, but that didn’t seem to matter much in the media firestorm that followed. Subsequent searches turned up two more tunnels under construction, caches of food, U.S. currency and fermented wine, forged documents and getaway outfits, crude clubs, shanks and railroad spikes. Walter Winchell, whose radio broadcasts had been harshly critical of the “mollycoddling” of German prisoners, went bananas. So did J. Edgar Hoover. What was going on in Trinidad? Why was the Army running a “Fritz Ritz” while our boys were starving in Nazi stalags?
Even the discovery and demolition of the tunnel didn’t stop the escapes. POW August Allbauer slipped out of camp in a snowstorm one November day. He was found walking the highway, cold and miserable, and given a ride to the county jail. Lieutenant Kurt Happach, who’d been with Bade on the trip to Texas, escaped again a few months later in a thick fog, found refuge from a blizzard in a stalled car with a post office employee, then was captured when he showed up at a Trinidad hospital, suffering from exposure. That same day, another POW cut his way through the fence and was caught immediately, dragging a big backpack.
Some of the attempts were merely a gesture toward duty, or a middle finger to their captors, rather than a serious break. As the first escapes demonstrated, it was not getting out but staying out that was the problem. The escapees studied maps and railroad timetables, but the great emptiness of the American West stymied them. “In Germany, a man can walk the open roads, or bicycle along, and never be an object of curiosity,” one of the tunnelers later complained. “In America, to journey the highways in any way except by automobile is to be conspicuous.”
Still, the obstacles didn’t deter Captain Till Edward Kiefer, who was shot down over Tunisia in 1943 and escaped his American captors three times. For his most notable egress from the Trinidad camp, he used a vegetable dye to turn his dress uniform brown and arranged for a noncom to answer for him at roll call. He made it to St. Louis before someone noticed that there was an Aryan-looking fellow in full Nazi attire killing time in the train station waiting room.
A subsequent escape from a camp in Oklahoma took Kiefer all the way to the Mexican border before he was stopped. After the war, he resumed a career in films under the name Til Kiwe. In a bit of meta-casting, he played a guard who takes a shot at Steve McQueen as he’s popping out of the tunnel in the ultimate POW movie, The Great Escape.
Men like Happach and Kiefer could make multiple attempts because the penalty for escape from an American POW camp, despite the shoot-on-sight authorization, usually turned out to be pretty mild. The typical sentence was thirty days in the cooler, as McQueen might say. Sometimes it was less. Heil once boasted that he got exactly one day on bread and water for his own dalliance with the tunnel.
For others, the consequences were much more severe. The three women who aided Haider were convicted of conspiracy to commit treason and received sentences of up to two years in prison. An even more serious case erupted in early 1944, after two POWs from Camp Hale in Leadville were arrested three miles inside of Mexico. Accompanying them was a 24-year-old American soldier, Dale Maple, a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard.
Maple had been kicked out of ROTC at Harvard for espousing support for the Third Reich; on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he called the German embassy in Washington to offer his services. In its infinite wisdom, the U.S. Army assigned him to guard duty at Camp Hale, in a unit that contained several malcontents and Nazi sympathizers. Maple outdid them all, sneaking into the German compound in an Afrika Korps uniform; he partied with the POWs for days and persuaded two of them to break out with him.
The episode led to the arrest not only of Maple, but of several other Camp Hale soldiers and three WACs charged with aiding the break. Hale’s court martial was international news; he was convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy and was sentenced to death. Franklin Roosevelt commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was quietly released in 1951.
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters recorded their version of “Don’t Fence Me In” in the summer of 1944. It rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts and sold more than a million copies. It was the hit of the year in the Trinidad camp, too; the POWs heard Der Bingle crooning it on the radio and sang along. They’d seen cowboys riding across the prairie, and it made them yearn.
After the flurry of escapes, the POWs braced for some kind of crackdown. It didn’t happen; life in the camp actually improved. There were still occasional bouts of trouble, including a mini-riot early in ’44, when a group of prisoners ran around the compound breaking windows and had to be subdued by club-wielding guards. But as the months wore on, many of the officers seemed to be settling into their home away from home, seeking to make things run smoothly rather than encouraging resistance.
Several developments prompted the shift in attitude, including the changing fortunes of the war itself. Following the D-Day invasion, the news from Europe got progressively worse. All but the most fervent Nazis in the camp were becoming resigned to the inevitable collapse of the Reich. With so much uncertainty back home, they figured, it would be wise to establish better relations with the victors.
The camp leadership had also changed. Just as Lieutenant Colonel Hunn had exited after the shootings, his successor, Lieutenant Colonel William S. Hannon, was reassigned not long after the discovery of the tunnel. The new camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lambert Cain, showed an unusual degree of deference to the prisoners, particularly the officers. He increased their privileges in jaw-dropping ways, even extending the word-of-honor policy to allow officers to go horseback riding outside the camp without guards.
Cain’s permissiveness was resented by many of the American soldiers, who believed the POWs were getting better food and better treatment than their guards. “We heard right from the beginning that [Cain] told the assembled German officers that as professional soldiers they actually were ‘comrades in arms,’” Landsberger wrote.
The program involved weeding out pro-Nazi books and tracts in the camp library and distributing a national camp newspaper, Der Ruf, that promoted American values; some Trinidad officers burned an early issue, denouncing it as propaganda. The officers were also required to take classes in democracy. The intransigent got sent to Oklahoma.
One 1945 classified report on the situation at the Trinidad camp, issued by the POW Special Projects Division, noted that “a number of the officers here have already been transferred to the POW camp in Alva, Oklahoma, for rabid Nazi activities, but it is clear that many more are here who need to be transferred to a segregated camp for subversives.” The report fretted that there were too many SS officers in the camp, discouraging the prisoners from being productive in their work details.
The need to rid the camp of its bully boys was echoed in some prisoner accounts. “We were more prisoners of the camp Gestapo than prisoners of the Americans,” one POW complained in a letter to his mother.
Shipping the SS faithful out of camp led to a perceptible decrease in tensions. Yet perhaps the most effective tool the Army had for steering the prisoners away from Nazism wasn’t part of the official program. It was the POWs’ contacts with farm families and others during work details. They made friends over meals and break periods and formed bonds that would, in some cases, endure for decades.
“Most of the prisoners I interviewed said this was the greatest time of their lives,” says Krammer. “I met very few who were still recalcitrant nationalists. A surprising number of them came back to America after the war. I met one who bought back a farm that a local bank had taken over.”
At one point they were summoned to the camp theater and required to watch a documentary that featured raw footage of the liberation of the death camps. There was no boasting that day, not even a murmur of protest. Perhaps up until then, they could claim to know nothing, nothing about the Holocaust, or at least less than the “good Germans” back home. But not anymore.
“We all were stunned,” Rüdiger Freiherr von Wechmar recalled years later in a memoir. “Shaken and silent, we returned to our barracks.”
Von Wechmar, a baron and Afrika Korps officer, known around camp as one of the horse riders and an amateur thespian, would go on to become Trinidad’s most illustrious alumnus. He was picking beets on a POW work detail in the fall of 1945 when he heard a radio report about the formation of the United Nations. Decades later, he would become the Federal Republic of Germany’s ambassador to the UN, and, in 1980, president of the General Assembly.
George Gaertner escaped from a New Mexico POW camp in 1945 and was living under an assumed name in Boulder when he finally decided to “surrender” in 1985, at the age of 64. He also collaborated with Krammer on a book about his experiences.
The Afrika Korps had a strong veterans’ network, and many of the POWs kept in touch through reunions in Germany. In 1964, the Trinidad city council invited the group to hold a reunion there. Thirteen former prisoners made the journey, including Heil and Bade. They were greeted by some of their former captors, as well as Mayor Johnny Cha, Representative Edgar Chenoweth and other dignitaries.
The gathering went so well that the city hosted several more reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, even as memories faded and the ranks thinned. In a 1990 letter, Heil noted that the group had talked about establishing “the first monument of peace in the world in Trinidad” but had run out of time. “Our distance has been too far to realize this objective, but we served it in our heart.”
Of the camp itself, not much remains. The buildings were stripped and demolished, the materials sold for scrap or repurposed in other institutions across southeastern Colorado. An archaeological survey of the area conducted in 2013 by a University of Denver graduate student located scraps of glass, bottle caps and tin cans, remnants of the prisoners’ gardens and some concrete foundations.
There’s no trace of the tunnel. But the sloped floor of the prisoners’ theater is still visible — a place where men far from home put on plays about duty and honor and pride, a place of show and make-believe, ravaged by the wind.