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P.O.W. didn’t mean Plenty Of Work

TRINIDAD — On April 15, 1943 – 72 years ago – a special branch of the Trinidad post office was opened. Its postmark read Trinidad on top, and the words Internment Camp looped around the bottom. The branch served the German prisoner of war camp scarcely 10 miles from Trinidad. The camp, surrounded by high barbed wire fences, contained hundreds of buildings and thousands of German soldiers. How, why or when the location was selected is unknown, but the 710-acre site was chosen sometime in 1942 and development was begun based on the conditions set forth in the Geneva Convention regarding housing, sanitation and livability. The initial construction contracts totaled around a million dollars. The camp facilities eventually accounted for about 90 acres to contain the stockade and recreation areas. The first captured officers arrived in December 1942. According to contemporary accounts, the Trinidad community was very supportive of the camp. Probably the city fathers and county officials recognized the opportunities for civilian employment and government dollars at a time when the local coal miners were unemployed and the effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days were still rampant. In 1944, Lt. Col. Lambert B. Cain, commanding officer of the camp, spoke at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Trinidad. He explained at that time the camp had a monthly payroll for military and civilian employees of $23,000. Combined with the expenses of building and maintaining the premises, the camp had therefore spent much more than a million dollars in the Trinidad area in its first year and a half of existence. While most of the employed were military, civilian employment was provided for clerics and other specific services. Some 140 citizens were employed and their payroll quickly reached $350,000. Military personnel numbered nearly 1,000, and most were fluent in

German. The largest contingent of prisoners belonged to the once powerful and invincible Afrika Korps whose famous commander, Gen. Rommel, was forced by ill health to return to Germany in March 1943. Two months later, in May, the Germans were defeated in northeast Africa and 238,000 men surrendered to the Allied forces. It was mentioned later that many these men were suffering from the shock of their capture, from various desert ailments and were still dressed in shorts and hot weather gear when they arrived in Colorado. Before the month of May was out, many of these prisoners had been shipped to Las Animas County. The prisoner of war camp was situated near Beshoar Junction, east of Trinidad, on the Colorado and Southern line, and a spur was built south from that point to serve the camp. Still, prisoners had to walk about three miles from the railroad to the camp. Soon the camp was home to several thousand soldiers and nearly 1,000 officers. Prisoners included doctors, medics and dentists, who were put to work attending to their fellow Germans alongside medical staff provided by the U.S. Army. Despite the high quality of medical care, there was a camp cemetery. The POWs were originally housed in barracks in a large, 1,200 by 3,200 compound. Just beyond a barbed wire fence overlooked by watchtowers were the quarters for the American officers. The camp was served by water, sewer and power from Trinidad. Outside the barricades were the quarters for the U.S. military personnel, surrounded by storage warehouses, a laundry, fire station, garages and repair shops, hospital and medical facilities and the post exchange. There were eventually a total of 263 buildings, among them 134 barracks, 13 mess halls, seven recreation buildings, six administration buildings, four post exchanges, five officers’ quarters and one officer’s mess hall, a bakery, a theater and a fire station. Eighty-three buildings had no designated purpose but were used as needed. The camp originally designed for 3,000 internees reached a population closer to 4,000 at its peak. The confined men were provided not only with mail from that branch post office (though the prisoners were allowed to receive just one letter per week, and were permitted to write the same), but musicales and theatrics and moving pictures. There was a camp band. There were also regular religious services, both Protestant and Catholic. The officers were allowed some leeway. In 1944, some of them had formed basketball and baseball teams, and were competing with city teams from Trinidad, Walsenburg, Aguilar and other towns in semi-professional leagues. And, yes, they played “away games”. Adherence to the guidelines of the Geneva Convention was regularly inspected by the International Red Cross and the neutral Swiss government. One of these was the payment of soldiers, which was to be equal or better than what they had received in their own military. Turned out, this was minor, because the German enlisted men had been receiving 10 cents a day. At Trinidad, they got 80 cents a day. However, pay was in the form of canteen scrip for work done inside the compound. Prisoners had to maintain their own quarters, including plumbing, electrical, carpentry and sanitary work. They probably even had to mend the fences that held them in. Officers were not required to work outside the camp. Other prisoners were hired out to do emergency farm work. The camp had contracts with employers who could prove they, too, abided by the Geneva Convention and could provide proper housing, sanitary facilities, working hours and conditions to the prisoners. Some of the POWs worked from a side camp in Stonewall where they cut timber for mine props and ties as well as firewood. They also helped with haying. Another group went to Monte Vista to assist with potato harvests and others to Springfield to work in the sugar beet industry. It was noted that the POWs were important contributors to the crop harvests which earned more than a million dollars. But it remained a prison camp, and escapes were not unknown. A number of both soldiers and officers vanished, and while most were soon recaptured, one man hopped a train and made it all the way to Missouri before he was discovered – still wearing his uniform! Another time, a tunnel was found and guards believed as many as a dozen prisoners had escaped. It was said some hopefuls believed if they went south they would cross the boundary and be safely in Mexico instead of unsafely in New Mexico. The prisoners were not released and returned home with the end of the war in Europe in 1945, but rather detained for many months. The branch post office was closed Jan. 31, 1946. After the camp was abandoned, there was much speculation as to what would be done with the site. The buildings were fairly new and certainly useable, and many felt the camp would make a perfect state penitentiary. Instead, in March 1947, all 263 structures, said to be worth $900,000, were put out for bid. Some were sold and others were dismantled for the materials. The land became the home of Roundup Park.

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