Robertson County’s Greatest Generation – WWII Veterans’ War Stories


Milton Aalen (Hearne)

Milton Aalen learned responsibility early. It was a family trait. His father, a career military man, who had moved his family to San Antonio, died when Milton was 12 years old and his older sister worked to support the family until Milton graduated from high school in 1939. Then it was his turn. With about two months of business school under his belt, he went to work at Duncan Air Depot, later Kelly Field, to support the family, and in a few years, moved up to Supervisor of Meteorological Supply.

But, there was a war on and Milton realized he would soon be in it, so he volunteered for the service he wanted. Aalen was in love with aviation.

In June of 1943, he volunteered and signed up for the Army Air Corps aviation cadet program; he wanted to fly.

The Army Air Corps cadet program had two training centers, one in San Antonio and one in Santa Ana, California. “OK, great!” he thought, “I’m already here,” thinking he could stay in San Antonio, and before he knew it, he was off to Santa Ana, CA.

He went through basic in Santa Ana, and it did have one unanticipated advantage. “I got to dance with Linda Darnell.” (For those of you who are too young to remember, Linda Darnell was a particularly gorgeous movie star of the 1940s.) Aalen added that he did not get to dance with her for long—there was a long line of cadets waiting for their chance.

After basic, Aalen was transferred to Thunderbird Field in Arizona. There, he had a flight instructor who was not committed to his success. In fact, he seemed committed to the opposite. Even though Aalen learned how to do the loopty-loops, he washed out when his Stearman airplane wing tipped and hit the ground, “resulting in a ground loop.” Therefore, even though he had completed his solo flight and logged about 40 hours and “enjoyed flying and acrobatics,” he was out.

The Army sent Aalen to Sioux Falls, SD, to become a radioman. It was the winter of 1944 and bitterly cold. Trainees hustled out from under their covers at 3 am for training. But, in February 1944, he was suddenly sent to Laredo, TX to become an aerial gunner. “The training was actually a lot of fun,” said Aalen, “as it mainly involved learning to lead from a moving vehicle and airplane.” He explained that, when gunning from a plane, you actually have to shoot behind the target since the plane is moving away. He was back in the air.

Aalen was sent to Fresno, CA, for a short stay and then to Tonopah, Nevada, where his ten-man crew was assembled and given their new B-24 Liberator, the four-engine heavy bomber that was about to help soften up Nazi resistance for the invasion of Europe. The crew was supposed to pick up their bomber and head for England but the plane was faulty. It “would not trim or fly correctly” and they had to leave the plane in Midland, TX.

From there, Aalen went to New York City where he stayed in the Waldorf Hotel for two weeks. With Aalen, it seemed that every disappointment was soon reversed.

After his Waldorf stay, Aalen was put on a troop ship bound for Northern Ireland, mostly filled with Army infantrymen and WACs. The WACs were separated from the Army men, but wouldn’t you know, Aalen was given the job of chaplain’s assistant, and he was able to move around the ship freely. He remained in contact with some of those women of the Women’s Army Corps during and even after the war was over.

Two days into his stay in Northern Ireland, Aalen caught a “gooney bird,” the nickname for the C-47 transport plane, and was airlifted to Horsham St. Fate at Norwich, England—his headquarters for the rest of his tour of duty. “As the base was a former RAF airfield, we were assigned to permanent-type barracks with wooden bunks and straw mattresses which were good accommodations comparatively speaking.” The straw could get tickly, but most of the time, say Aalen, “If you were tired enough, it didn’t bother you.”

On June 7, 1944, he found himself in another crew’s Liberator in the “waist” section, flying over Normandy the day after D-Day. The regular gunner was sick and Aalen got the call to fill in as waist gunner.

Artillery fire was intense on the ground below, and Aalen mentioned to the pilot that it looked like they were really mixing it up down there. The pilot indicated that he (Aalen) was not seeing the situation exactly right. “It turned out to be anti-aircraft guns shooting at us!” Moreover, Aalen was introduced to flak, the Liberator’s most serious threat, first hand.

“The flak was pretty heavy but we only caught a few holes in the wings.” It was Aalen’s “baptism of fire” – an experience he might have delayed if the gunner had not been sick in bed.

June 7 was the first of Aalen’s 50 missions over France and Germany. Thirty-five were combat sorties; fifteen were supply missions to re-fuel Patton’s tanks.

On combat missions, Aalen’s 458th Bomber Group, 754-squadron, hit targets like refineries, factories, marshalling yards (train stations), bridges, airfields and communication centers. The most difficult targets were those in Berlin and Munich because the return trip was so long—more chances for anti-aircraft fire to hit them. “They were very accurate too.” Munich was heavy guarded, and Aalen remembers one bombing run on a train-switching yard through particularly heavy fire. But, they made it. “It was a magic time.”

The 458th was engaged in daylight precision bombing—a very hazardous business early in the war. The U. S. Army Air Corps bombed during the day, the RAF at night.

On those sorties, Aalen served as tail gunner, waist gunner or nose gunner, but he never actually shot at an enemy plane. The bombers flew in tight formations of 12 (painted strips on the tails of each Liberator would tell you if you were in the right group), and Germans could not handle such concentrated fire. They would wait until a plane had a problem and had to drop back. Then they would pick it off.

Aalen’s plane lost an engine over Belgium on one sortie, but, fortunately, they were close enough to home base that, even though they were a sitting duck in every sense of the word, they were not picked off. The crew threw out what they could to lighten the plane and limped on into England.

But, flak, not enemy fighters, was the real problem. One thing the crew frequently did after they safely landed was count the holes. If they had encountered lots of flak, they would see if the holes in the plane’s skin would break their standing flak record. Aalen remembers 17 as being the ultimate flak-hole record set in one of those missions. He flew in two bombers during his 50 missions– the “Tail Wind” and the “Little Lambsy Divey.” Crews could get pretty inventive when it came to naming (and painting) their planes.

Even though Aalen was not doing any shooting to speak of, he found himself engaged in another activity on occasion that may have been a lot more dangerous to him and the bombing target. Liberators carried 250 lb. bombs with propellers attached. The propellers were actually triggering devises that blew off in the air, beginning the ignition sequence.

Sometimes, said Aalen, those propeller wires would hang and the bomb would not drop. You could not bring your bombs home with you—they had to go somewhere—so someone had to kick the bomb off, out of the open bomb bay doors. The wind was horrendous and the catwalk running between the two bays was only about a foot wide, and you had to make a little leap before you could find something to hold on to so you could kick the bomb off. To top is all off, “you couldn’t wear a parachute.”

“Never look down” was the rule.

The two or three times he had to kick bombs were some of his more terrifying moments. The other came when Aalen was sitting in the nose turret. “A big hunk of metal came through the Plexiglas and, like a ball on a roulette wheel, circled [round and round] the turret and dropped at my feet.” That was the closest he came to being hit.

On a Berlin raid, “I was able to drop the bombs and possibly hit my grandfather’s alleged brewery.” He had heard during his childhood that one of his grandfathers had owned a brewery in Berlin.

Another memorable mission was a sortie over Hamburg, home of the German U-bomb fleet. It was a “booger,” lots of anti-aircraft fire, very heavy flak. “We watched one of our planes take a direct hit with no chutes.” The plane went to pieces—no survivors. That was the mission on which Aalen’s crew achieved their “17-hole” record.

On its 15 non-combat missions, Aalen and crew carried fuel to the Eighth Army on the ground. “The gas was stored on the aircraft in the bomb bay area in large rubber tanks which were unloaded to tank trucks on various airfields north of Paris.”

On Christmas Day, 1944, Aalen’s crew flew their last mission. It was a memorable Christmas. Then it was off to the coast to catch a ship home. The return trip was a lot quicker than the first—a good thing, too, because the WACs were not available on the trip home—but it, too, was memorable. Aalen came home on the Queen Mary, probably the greatest cruise ship of its day.

After a two-week leave, Aalen reentered the aviation cadet program, this time hoping to become a navigator. And, unlike the first time, he was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. But, apparently, it wasn’t meant to be. On his second time through, he injured his knee playing football and never got to fly over the Pacific.

Instead, Aalen was attached to the Corps of Engineers and “sent to Ft. Lewis at Tacoma, Washington, to learn how to fight forest fires.” After a month’s training, he was sent to Boise, Idaho, where he “operated the radio for the men working in the mountains putting out fires.” His early radio training came to good use.

After several months in the Corps of Engineers, Aalen was discharged and returned to San Antonio. A good friend of his, Ed Tschoepe, was going to Texas A&M University and Aalen decided to become an Aggie as well, thinking he might want to get a permanent commission in the Air Force (after all, he had flying in the blood).

During his college years, he was introduced to Bernadine Wright; they were married in September 1948.

He did not make it back into the Air Force. He made it to Hearne instead. After five years of working for the IRS in Houston, he became administrator of the Hearne hospital. Moreover, that is how he became the first name in the phone book for over 40 years, and, along with Bernie, an invaluable member of the Hearne community.

First Published in the Hearne Democrat,  Melissa Freemen, Reporter

Camp Hearne Ghost Walk

  • Saturday, December 16, 2023 5:45pm to 7:00pm+
  • Located at 12424 Camp Hearne Road, Hearne, Texas, 77859
  • Contact Telephone: 979-314-7012 (leave message or send text)

Camp Hearne, located northwest of Hearne, Texas, serves as the historical backdrop for a former World War II prisoner-of-war camp and an unfortunate crime scene where one of five murders transpired among the 432,000+ Axis soldiers held captive in scattered small towns across America.
Hugo, a robust 25-year-old German soldier, found himself imprisoned at Camp Hearne. Unlike his fellow inmates, he was fluent in English and received visits from his German American family upon his arrival in Texas. Originally a resident of New York City since the age of nine, he returned to Germany as a young adult only to be conscripted into Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Hugo’s narrative is particularly unique due to his family connections, coupled with the tragic circumstances of his demise resulting from a distressingly common “holy ghost” beating orchestrated by pro-Nazi gangs. Within the confines of America’s POW Camps, the hardcore Nazis wielded significant control behind the barbed-wire fences, resorting to bullying and intimidation as tactics to punish those perceived as lacking sufficient loyalty to Hitler’s Third Reich.
Delve deeper into Hugo Krauss’ poignant story during Camp Hearne’s annual Ghost Walk on December 16, 2023. Visitors will gather at the Camp’s Barracks by 5:45pm where visitors will take part in the Christmas holiday traditions of the 1940s on both the American and German Home Fronts.
As twilight envelops the Camp, participants will hear Hugo’s compelling story and proceed to the Scene of the Crime. Over the years, nature has obscured the location under trees and brush, so it is advisable to wear closed-toe shoes, bring a flashlight, and be prepared for the ghostly presence of Hugo, carrying his message that ultimately led to his untimely demise: “America is winning the war.”

“Whittling” as an Art Form

Among the many activities offered to prisoners of war during their internment at camps across the country, woodcarving was a notable pastime. At Camp Hearne, we have been privileged to receive several woodcarving projects, or what some might call “whittling,” created by prisoners and generously donated to our exhibit.

These carvings vary greatly in terms of detail and craftsmanship; some are intricate masterpieces, while others are more modest in their execution. However, each of these works of art represents a prisoner’s earnest endeavor to occupy their time and make the most of their confined space. Beyond their intrinsic artistic value, these carvings held an additional significance as they became a form of currency within the camp. Prisoners would offer their creations to guards they considered friends or trade them for coveted items like cigarettes, coffee, soap, and other necessities.

Recently, we had the privilege of receiving a remarkable woodcarving project, a hexagonal box, as a donation to the Camp Hearne Exhibit. This unique artifact was generously contributed by Catherine Mottet from Lubbock, Texas.
Catherine’s uncle had served as a guard stationed in Texas during WWII. Before leaving the state, he contacted his niece in Dayton, Ohio, to inquire about any mementos she might want from Texas. She requested a pair of cowboy boots. However, as time passed, she expressed curiosity about whether he might possess one of the inlaid boxes crafted by the camp’s prisoners. He informed her that he had, in fact, held onto a hexagonal box created by a German POW.

For years, Catherine took great care in preserving this distinctive piece of artwork, and she eventually decided that it deserved a place in a museum. We are incredibly fortunate that she chose Camp Hearne as the final home for this historically significant and visually captivating creation.

World War Two Bomber visits Hearne, TX

submitted by Everett Gibson

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC).  Relatively fast and high-flying for a bomber of its era, the B-17 was used primarily in the European Theater of Operations.  The B-17 and many other WWII aircraft were repurposed after the war and continued to fly for many years before these warbirds were retired. 

In 1967, an American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-17G-95-DL built by Douglas-Long Beach, was purchased by the Commemorative Air Force’s Gulf Coast Wing “Texas Raiders” group, which maintained and flew the aircraft out of Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport in Conroe, Texas.   

Earlier this month, a military aviation enthusiast shared a special story about this magnificent warbird and Hearne’s small municipal airport.  But, we need a little history of the air field before we get to Everett Gibson’s story. 

Kent Brunette, a local historian, writes: “[The] Hearne Air Field was constructed as an auxiliary landing field for the Bryan Air Force Base (BAFB).  A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project built to exacting military specifications, Brown & Root began construction on Hearne Air Field on August 7, 1952.  Hearne Air Field was finished by March 1, 1954.  Formal dedication ceremonies were held on May 13, 1954.”  A true product of the Cold War era.

A Hearne Democrat newspaper article at the time reads: “Constructed chiefly to provide a practice area for students learning landings and take-offs, the asphaltic concrete strip of the auxiliary field provides an alternate strip in the area should the jet runways on the Bryan base be restricted for any reason.  During flying hours, Hearne Air Field will accommodate a constant stream of T-33 jet trainers under the direction of a mobile tower.  Accompanying the mobile unit will be BAFB ambulance and crash crews.”  The BAFB and its auxiliary fields were decommissioned in May 1961 and deeded to TAMU and City of Hearne.

Today, Hearne Municipal Airport has an FAA-approved, 4,000-foot improved lighted runway with over-runs of 1,000 feet on its north and 2,200 feet on its south.  The original 33-inch thick concrete- and steel-reinforced base of the initial 7200 ft runway makes it a perfect emergency alternative for landing runway if needed since it can handle the weight of large aircraft.   Just such an emergency arose and the Hearne Airport was ready to serve again.  We thank Everett Gibson for sharing this story.

“During the Spring of 1990’s the Commemorative Air Force’s B-17 Flying Fortress made an unscheduled stop at the World War 2[1] Hearne airport.  “Texas Raiders” was on a mission from Ellington Airport, Houston, TX to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, TX when unexpected bad weather forced the aircraft to land at the Hearne Airport.  The aircraft encountered the edge of a weather system moving across Texas.  The crew of the bomber decided the proper thing to do was to get the aircraft on the ground and let the storm pass over.  We noted our location and saw the Hearne Airport available as a safe location to be for the storm to pass over.   We made a pass over the small airport and noted it appeared safe for the four-engine bomber to land on the runway.  We landed and taxied to a safe area.   The storm continued to build darker and moved over the airport with wind and rain during a 10-minute period.   After the rain, we noted what a quiet and peaceful location we had chosen to stop at.  The Texas Blue Bonnets and Indian Paint Brushes were everywhere around the airport.  The attached photograph shows the beauty of “Texas Raiders” along with the wild flowers at the Hearne airport during a brief interlude of time.  Thank you, Hearne, for providing our airplane and crew a safe haven to stop at.”  

Story submitted by Everett Gibson

Some 30 years after its brief visit, the “Texas Raiders” B-17 flew the skies one last time.  The aircraft was destroyed on November 12, 2022, in a mid-air collision with a P-63 Kingcobra at an air show at Dallas Executive Airport, Texas.  All five occupants and the P-63 pilot were killed.

We are saddened by the loss of life.  We like to remember this Flying Fortress as resting in the wildflower fields of Hearne Municipal Airport forever.

“Coupon of the Day”

Scrip is a form of currency that was often used by the US Army in the past. It was essentially a substitute for regular currency, and was used primarily in situations where traditional forms of payment were not available or feasible.

Obviously, giving German prisoners US dollars would not be a good idea. So, the War Department issued each enlisted man or NCO $3.00 in Camp scrip in 1-cent and 5-cent coupons allotments each month. Since the Geneva Convention required equal treatment between U.S. and enemy soldiers, each prisoner compound included common buildings to house their infirmary, canteen/post exchange and administrative offices. This provided the “company store” where prisoners purchased items from their post-exchange that you might find in a hotel gift shop today. Various brands of personal hygiene items, writing supplies, tobacco, candies, etc. were routinely stocked. Prisoners could even buy postcards with pictures of the Camp activities to send home.

A favorite item of the POW canteen was a pint beer. Unfortunately for them, the War Department limited each prisoner to only one pint per day. As any resourceful man will tell you when it comes to beer, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Groups would pool their coupons to allow one in the group a sufficient number of pints to get an occasional good buzz.

Although NCOs were not required to work except to supervise, enlisted prisoners might be ordered to work doing general house-keeping or maintenance chores around the camp for $.80 (80-cents) per day. Some worked in their own barber shops, kitchens, infirmaries, post office or clerical offices to earn a few “cents.” Others might join crews to work chopping or picking crops for neighboring farms. A few even worked in one of the downtown cafes.

Earned tallies would be recorded by Camp bookkeepers and the equivalent scrip coupons issued to each prisoner accordingly. The more coupons earned, the more services and goodies they could purchase.

Read more about Camp Hearne’s POW canteen, post-exchange and utilization of labor in Michael Waters book, Lone Star Stalag: German Prisoners of War at Camp Hearne.

“Postcards from Across the Pond”

The Geneva Conventions of 1929 allowed prisoners to send and receive personal correspondence, including packages. Of course, all in-coming and out-going mail was examined and censored according to War Department instructions. The postage was free, but correspondence was restricted to War Department-issued POW stationery. Other rules related to the type of ink and number of letters and/or postcards that could be sent by each prisoner varied throughout the war due to backlogs and inability to efficiently process the high volume of correspondence. By 1944, each enlisted or NCO prisoner was allowed two letters and four postcards per month.1

Former POW Heino Erichsen remembers the news was always late and the censoring from both sides of the pond left some recipients with little more that a date and greeting.2

To facilitate notification of a prisoner’s internment assignment, he was issued a “Card of Capture” within a week of his arrival to each new Camp location. This dispatch allowed the prisoner to give the Camp’s name and address to his family and to specify the state of his health.

The International Red Cross Committee served as intermediary between warring nations, delivering correspondence and packages. They were also responsible for the internment camps’ inspections to insure compliance to the Geneva Conventions.

Card of Capture, Front & Back

__________________________________________________________1 Waters, Michael R. with Mark Long & Lone Star Stalog: German Prisoners of War at Camp Hearne, 1st ed. College Station, TX: TAMU Press, 2004, p62.

2 ibid.

“Vintage Branded Workwear”

The “PW” Denim jacket used during WWII is on loan from the Museum of the American GI, College Station, TX

Once prisoners arrived at their final internment destination, they were issued clean clothing, but required to stencil or paint the identifier “PW” on sleeves and back of shirt and the legs and backside of pants.  Prisoners later were allowed to purchase clothing via their Post Exchange catalogs with money credits earned for work.  However, the “PW-logo” was still required.

Former prisoner-of-war, Karl Blumenthal said, “They even made us stencil our underwear.”

Another former prisoner shared his memories with his daughter after she told him of her family’s visit to Camp Hearne.  She writes, “He fondly told us about learning to play soccer in the small field at the front of the camp grounds near the entrance of the compound.  As an enlisted man he was issued a WWI uniform made of wool that he had cut into shorts.  There was a strip of leather at the bottom of the pants that each of the men cut off.  From these strips of leather one of the prisoners who had been a shoemaker, sewed together a soccer ball that they used for their sport.  He chuckled as he told us about the ball going “whoosh” when it got kicked a little too hard and popped on the barbed wire fence.”

Judging from many of our photographs, it appears that shorts and undershirts were the uniform-of-the-day.  Bet our Texas heat and humidity had something to do with that.

WAR DEPARTMENT BASIC FIELD MANUAL FM 19-5, Military Police, 14 JUNE 1944, Chapter 11, Section 134

d. Supplies and equipment.  (1) Clothing.  Except as circumstances warrant or climate requires, no uniform or suit is issued as a replacement to a prisoner who is not an officer until the one in which he was captured has become unfit for use.  The uniforms of prisoners are renovated and used when practicable.  Prisoners are permitted to wear insignia of rank and decorations.  No article of the United States Army

uniform will be issued to a prisoner of war unless so altered that it cannot be mistaken for a part of the Army uniform. Except for clothing of officer prisoners and the national uniforms of prisoner enlisted men, out garments worn by prisoners are appropriately marked with the letters “PW”. The clothing of protected peroneal is mark with the letters “PP”.

“Ditty Bag”

Upon arrival at the prisoner’s base camp, he was issued a “ditty bag.” This was in response to the Geneva Conventions of 1929 that required treatment of prisoners to be equal to that of our own soldiers.1

The contents included basic hygiene items:
• Tooth brush
• Tooth powder/paste
• Shaving cream
• Razor and blades
• Hair brush/comb
• Shampoo
• Bar soap

Former US Army Military Police Escort, Mr. Warlow, was stationed at Camp Hearne when the first prisoners arrived. He remembered the first group deboarding the train as wearing the same battlefield uniforms in which they were captured, dirty and bloodied. The stench was overwhelming.

Prisoner-of-war, Mr. Karl Blumenthal, remembered being very afraid of what the future held in the US camps as enemy POWs. They were surprised that they were issued new clothing, a ditty bag, a bunk bed with clean sheets, and most rememberable, HOT WATER in the showers.2

Life was not going to be too bad at Camp Hearne.

1Geneva Convention of 1929, Section II. Prisoners-of-war Camps, Chapter 1, Article 10: “Prisoners of war shall be lodged in buildings or in barracks affording all possible guarantees of hygiene and healthfulness.”
2Geneva Convention of 1929, Section II. Prisoners-of-war Camps, Chapter 3, Article 13: “…prisoners shall be furnished a sufficient quantity of water for the care of their own bodily cleanliness.”

Friend of the Enemy

A fictional short story by John Maes © copyright 12/9/22

Military Police escorting prisoners-of-war (PW) to motor pool. – 1943

Lamar Tindall watched with anticipation as the young man applied the finishing touches to a change of spark plugs on his aged pickup truck. Just a few more turns of a socket wrench remained.

The simplicity of it all made it almost easy to forget that the man bent over the truck was a German prisoner of war. That awareness came roaring back as Tindall noticed the large black PW stenciled on the back of his shirt.

“Thanks, Jurgen,” he said.

Bitte, you’re welcome, Herr Tindall,” came the somewhat muffled reply from the young German, his head still buried under the hood. “I’m just checking your fan belt and a few other things here and then I’ll be finished.”

Lamar Tindall had been among many townspeople that day to witness the arrival of the first groups of Rommel’s defeated Afrika Corps to the small town of Hiram, Texas. Disembarking from a train, the Germans organized themselves, and began their march through the streets on their way to Camp Hiram, a hastily-constructed compound, mostly of wood and tarpaper barracks where they would be housed for the duration of the war. Though looking tired and weather-beaten from the heat and their long travels, the good military form of their step and parade ground manner impressed the onlookers. Perhaps the Germans were serving notice to their captors that they were still soldiers and expected to be treated that way, Tindall thought.

Now the repair job was complete. Jurgen, sweat-soaked in the summer heat, emerged from the innards of the engine, went around to the driver’s seat, started the truck which groaned, coughed and sputtered to life and then began to run smoothly. He got out, came around to Tindall and smiled warmly while wiping his hands using an already dirtied cloth.

Tindall thanked him again. “You sure are good at that mechanic stuff. I’d been having a helluva tough time trying to take care of this truck and all else around here with only one good arm. It’s gettin’ more and more difficult all the time.”

And, within the next couple of moments, the German saw for himself Tindall’s useless, inert left arm as it dangled in his shirt sleeve.

Jovial knowing that his truck had a new lease on life, Tindall put his good arm around Jurgen and invited him to the house. “Let’s go have a beer and see what the missus is doing. You’re German, you gotta like beer, right?”

“Sounds like a great idea, but…” said Jurgen cutting himself off in midsentence as he gestured toward Cpl. Elmer Davies, the soldier guarding him.

“How about it, Elmer? Can you guys stay, have a beer and cool off a little bit?” Tindall asked.

Davies, a skinny, bespectacled Arkansan, whose uniform always seemed too big on him, was already wincing in skepticism at the idea. “Well, I sure can’t drink no beer – I’m on duty – and I’m supposed to guard this guy.”

But Tindall persisted. “C’mon, Elmer, your gal Tessie lives just up the road a mile or two. Why’nt you go visit her for a little while and let me and my new friend here have a couple of beers?”

Tindall turned to Jurgen with a droll smile. “You ain’t goin’ no place, are ya?”
Jurgen shook his head, remaining expressionless and silent.

The only reason Jurgen was allowed outside the compound to begin with was because the town needed a decent mechanic, a scarcity with most all the able-bodied men away in service. Lt. Col. McPherson was willing to bend the rules a little to help the townsfolk. The camp commander loved all things Texan because he was a Texas boy himself – Waco born and bred – and Baylor educated. So when word spread through Hiram that one of the PWs had car-fixing skills, a clamor broke out for his help. The commander looked kindly on requests for Jurgen to be allowed outside the gates now and then. Groups of PWs were being let out of the compound anyway to work on farms and ranches in the area, and in cafes and restaurants in Hiram to relieve manpower shortages. The idea might be worth a try, it was thought.

Elmer Davies knew well, however, there was one thing about which Lt. Col. McPherson would not have been so approving – that a prisoner had been left unguarded on the outside – even if only for a little while. Yet, that’s exactly what was about to happen. Elmer’s hormones were in a state of rage. Tessie was indeed a dish, they had a thing for each other, and yes, it had been a long time. The soldier sighed and looked at each of the men in front of him as he relented. Well, alright, just for a little while. But remember somethin’, Lamar. If he runs, it’s my ass hung out to dry.”

“I think your ass is gonna be took care of real nice today,” Tindall said with a devilish smile.

Davies didn’t laugh, but instead pointed a finger at Jurgen and adopted a stern manner. “And you, it’s gonna be a lotta trouble for ya’ if ya’ try anything. Got that Mein Herr?”

Jurgen nodded his acknowledgement, calm all the while. “I promise I will go nowhere.”

In the shade on the front porch of Tindall’s house, the two sat in wicker chairs as Sarah brought them each a cold bottle of Pearl. Each took a lengthy pull on his bottle. They sat quietly for a few moments until Tindall let fly with a long, loud, visceral belch.

They could hear Sarah scolding him from inside the house. “Good land, Lamar, can’t you ever stop making that awful noise? It’s so disgusting.”

Waving off the remonstration from his wife, he turned to Jurgen. “She’s always houndin’ me about that. But I always say ‘not bad manners, just good beer!’’’ Tindall guffawed and hollered in knee-slapping style at his own humor.

Jurgen, laughed robustly too – just not quite as boisterously – as Tindall.

With things quieted down again, Jurgen pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his brow. His features were classically Germanic: a prominent nose, a smooth sculpted face and wavy blond hair. He looked at the sky of rich, radiant blue with a few clouds lying lazily overhead, far too few to relieve them from the searing sun. He tugged at his shirt collar in an attempt to find some comfort. The heat was stifling and the drought had turned the surroundings from what would otherwise be a more verdant expanse into a parched brown terrain. It looked as though nature had overlain the landscape with a gigantic sandpaper tarpaulin. “This Texas is enormous and magnificent, but it is also damn hot,” he said putting the handkerchief away. “And I thought North Africa was bad. I thought I’d seen the last of that weather when we were captured.”

Tindall let out another laugh, not as raucous as previously. “They didn’t tell you guys you were comin’ to central Texas in the summer? All heat and almost no rain?”

Jurgen said nothing and just shook his head.

Tindall asked, “how come you speak such good English? You have the accent of a British guy, but it’s still damn good English – I got no trouble understandin’ you.”

The wicker chair squeaked as Jurgen leaned back and sighed. He laughed before answering. He appreciated the sparkling wit and collegiality of his new-found drinking companion. “I was a banking and economics student in Munich, at the same college where my late father taught English and economics. He believed strongly that English will someday be the language of diplomacy and commerce in Europe, so he taught me early and well. He sent me to a prep school in England for a few years to learn it even better. My goal is for perfect fluency.”

“How’d you guys get captured?”

“I was part of a mechanized battalion. That’s where I learned mechanics, which was about the only good thing they taught me. We were advancing toward El Alamein last November and the British outflanked us, cut us off and surrounded us. There was nothing else to do but give up. They turned us over to the Americans – and the next thing you know we’re on a troopship – then on a very long train ride through America and here we are.”

The PW finished off his beer with a sigh of refreshment, wiped his mouth with his wrist and continued. “And most of us were glad to surrender. We were running out of everything: petrol, ammunition, food, medical dressings, everything. Most all of our supplies were going to the Russian front and we were being left to go to our slaughter with almost nothing. My brother is on the Russian front right now. Last letter I had from him said he was near Stalingrad. I know he would find this place to be a paradise compared to where he is. I certainly do.”

“I’ve heard you Americans call the camp Fritz Ritz because you think we Germans eat and live better in there than you do on the outside,” Jurgen went on. “I don’t know about that, but I do know that I – and most of the others – much prefer being here than being on the front lines someplace.”

Tindall was aware of the derisive label, and to some extent, it made sense. The army seemed to be having no trouble taking pretty good care of its soldiers and prisoners. But there was strict rationing of most everything for civilians. Consequently, some folks found themselves struggling to find enough to eat. Few grumbled and protested, however, chalking it all up to yet another necessary sacrifice for the war effort.

Sarah, as if telepathically demonstrating an example of the home front shortages being discussed, appeared on the porch with another Pearl for each. But she cautioned, “this is all the beer for a while, Lamar. And, please keep your internal gasses to yourself.”

Almost immediately, both men tried to gain the momentary relief to be had by rubbing the cold bottles along their foreheads.

“These camps with all you POWs – even eye-talians and some Japs – are springin’ up all over the place around here. A cousin of mine writes that they have one near him in Oklahoma. Sarah has kin near Ruston, Louisiana and they say there’s a big one there! It’s like there’s thousands of you guys over here. You have anybody left to fight the war?” Tindall asked, again laughing at his own humor.

Jurgen looked out at the landscape for a few moments. If he considered his host’s last question to be rather silly, he gave no indication. He answered in a solemn tone. “Oh yes, Lamar, plenty are left to fight. Hitler is swine and he is taking Germany into disaster, but many still follow him. Most of us here simply want to survive all this and go home to our lives and families someday. But some in the camp are loyal Nazis who want to escape, get across the border into Mexico and somehow find their way back to Germany so they can rejoin the fight. They think there are U-Boats patrolling the Gulf of Mexico watching for escaped prisoners to pick up.” He sneered at the very idea. “What fools they are to believe they would actually be able to do that!”

Tindall studied Jurgen, nodding as he listened to him. “And you,” he said. “You ain’t strikin’ me as one of them arm-swingin’, ‘zeig heil’ shoutin’ kinda Nazis. I’m right, ain’t I?”

Jurgen chuckled. “The only reason I ever thrust out my right arm and uttered that vile expression was I had much fear at who might see me not doing it, and what parties they might tell, and who might pay me a visit afterward. I didn’t want that. One day I was ordered to report for duty. I believe you folks call it ‘being drafted.’ So I had to go. They weren’t asking my opinion about it.”

Now, it was Jurgen’s turn to study Tindall and ask a few questions of his own. He saw a large, roly-poly man with a bulbous, cherubic face to go with the ever-present congenial smile. Jurgen pegged him for a man who wore coveralls just about all the time – perhaps the same pair for days on end. “And, what’s the story of your life, mien freund?” he asked.

When Jurgen added, “any children?” to his question, a look of tension and worry suddenly showed on Tindall’s face. He hesitated and let out a whooshing sigh.

“Yeah, there was, but I can’t talk about it just now,” he said making a head motion to the door where his wife was inside – and within earshot. He had to be careful to avoid any talk of their son, nine-year-old Luther, who drowned in Dordt’s creek where he had gone on a sunny Sunday afternoon to catch polliwogs.

And though seven years had passed since then, Sarah’s psyche remained unhealed. The mere mention of the boy’s name or the circumstances of his fate was often enough to send her into a paroxysm of shrieking, sobbing anguish and grief.

Tindall continued his story. ”Well, I never went as far as you did in school. Only about sixth grade. Pretty much stayed right here in Hiram. Worked a few jobs and then joined up when the last war started.” He again swiped the cold beer bottle along his sweating forehead. “I ended up in France in ’18 and that’s where I got this when I wasn’t even 20 years old.” He was pointing to his moribund left arm. “Got a little too close to where a mortar shell landed.”

Tindall tilted the creaking, sagging chair against the wall of the house. He was now looking skyward. “Ya’ know I hated being in a war. And it wasn’t just the crap and the mud and the rats in the trenches, and being dirty and hungry all the time. I hated having to shoot at people and trying to kill ‘em.”

Jurgen gave a knowing nod and a soft reply. “I liked it not either.” No sooner had he finished that sentence then he cursed himself silently for having botched its wording. He knew his command of English was good and getting better all the time, but he wanted perfect fluency, because his father expected it. Even after the death of Professor Ernst Walthern in a fire-bombing raid during a visit to Hanover a few months before, Jurgen continued striving for that perfection.

Resolving silently to do better and promising his father a renewed effort, he listened to the rest of Tindall’s story.

“We’d sit in them damn trenches,” the Texan went on, “and sometimes us and the Germans would only be a hundred yards apart – a few times even less than that – and we could see each other – I mean each other’s faces! I remember there was one fella over there – we’d eyeball each other once in a while. We even waved at each other a coupla times but didn’t fire. We coulda blown each other’s heads off but we didn’t fire.” He leaned forward, his girth bringing the chair back down to the floor of the porch with a thud.

“Ya’ know, I never forgot that fella. I used to wonder about him. I still do. Ya see, I liked huntin’ and fishin’ and thought, well maybe he did too. And maybe – if we weren’t here in this damn war – we coulda gone huntin’ and fishin’ together – and maybe drink some beer after. But here we were in this lousy mess and we’re supposed to try and kill each other.” He took a final lusty pull on the beer bottle, drained the content, then set it down next to him and wiped his mouth on his right shirt sleeve. “Never made a lick ‘o’ sense to me. And ya’ know what? You kinda remind me of that guy.”

Now it dawned on Jurgen. He had wondered why this tall, portly American tried to befriend him so quickly. It had become clear: Jurgen Walthern was the ersatz version of the enemy soldier in the opposing trench years ago with whom Tindall imagined going hunting and fishing. He kept that thought to himself, however, as both men looked up to contemplate a single engine airplane droning overhead. It ambled along, with wings swaying to and fro, appearing to be crawling through the sky.

“S’pose that‘s one of ours? Or yours?” Tindall asked. They laughed loudly for a few moments, before Tindall spoke again. “You want to go back to Germany when this is over, right?”

Jurgen nodded. “Of course. I want to finish my degree, and there is Sigreid. We’re writing frequently and talked of getting married, once I can get home when that sewer rat Hitler is gone. I’d like to help make Germany a better place. But for now I have to face certain realities.” With that, Jurgen reached into a pants pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper. On it was written the name Frau Zelda Walthern and an address in Munich. He handed it to Tindall. “In case you find out something has happened to me, please write my Mutter, uhm, my mother,” he corrected himself. “Otherwise, it might take months, maybe even years for her to find out. I much want to avoid that.”

Tindall looked confused. “But, why are you so worried about…?”

Jurgen cut him off. “Look, there’s tension in the camp between the Nazis and the rest of us. Even commandant McPherson isn’t aware as to how bad.”

Can’t ya tell Elmer Davies when he comes back to let the higher ups know about it?” Lamar asked.

“That still might not be enough. I think there is fear the guards could be overpowered by the rioters, so the camp command doesn’t want to get them involved. The trouble would take place inside a barracks to attract less attention.”

Perhaps, Tindall thought, the relatively quiet atmosphere surrounding the camp may have been misleading. Many Hiram people – out of contempt or indifference to the presence of enemy prisoners in their midst – preferred to pay little or no attention to what went on there. Tindall had driven past the barb-wired compound several times and slowed down once in a while to peer at the activity inside. There was very little evidence of the tensions that apparently existed deeper within.

He had seen prisoners doing yard work, tending to gardens or kicking around a soccer ball. Once he saw a German sculpting a statue. The prisoners had constructed ornate working fountains on the grounds, and even built a theater where they produced concerts and performances. Sometimes Lt. Col McPherson himself, and his retinue of staff officers, would occupy front row seats. One day, from a distance, he watched an orchestra of prisoners rehearsing, probably for one of the productions. Damn fine musicians, some of them Krauts, he thought.

As those visions replayed, he wondered some more. How bad could things be in there?

The distinctive engine whine and grind of an approaching jeep got louder, rousing Tindall back to the moment at hand. Elmer Davies pulled up in front of the house, his shirt unbuttoned, untucked and his pistol belt on the passenger seat. He didn’t even get out or kill the engine, simply summoning Jurgen with an arm motion. “C’mon Fritz, let’s git goin’,” he hollered.

The German turned to Tindall. “Thanks mien freund for, what you Americans call…your hospitality, Maybe we’ll see each other again.” The two shook hands. Jurgen turned, double-timed it to the jeep and got in. The vehicle then sped off.

Several days later, Tindall again sat on the front porch wicker chair contemplating yet another cloudless and sweltering afternoon. It looked as though nature had added an extra tincture of parched earth coloring to the Texas midsection.

The complete absence of activity about the camp had become conspicuous. On most mornings, trucks and buses would roll by carrying PWs to their jobs in the vicinity. Now, they were nowhere to be seen.

He fanned himself with a folded newspaper. Only a few minutes before, he finished reading a fleeting two-paragraph account of a recent “riot” at Camp Hiram in which two PWs were killed. Other than mention that the trouble was “quickly quelled by guards,” details were few.

He remembered Jurgen’s description of the struggle between the pro and anti-Nazis. Did he know somethin’ was gonna happen to him? Was he gettin’ in fights with them Nazi-lovers?

Again, the familiar gear-grinding noise announced an approaching jeep. Elmer Davies was again at the wheel. He left the engine running but jumped out and ran up to the porch, obviously in a hurry.

They talked only long enough for the soldier to relay some information. Then Davies turned and walked briskly away.

Lamar Tindall bit his lip, then let out a sigh. Feeling for the slip of paper in a coveralls pocket, he rose from the chair and went inside.

There was a letter to write.

John Maes is a retired journalist living in Austin, Tx. A native of Chicago, he writes short stories, short fiction and creative non-fiction. He can be contacted at; [email protected], 224-659-4585.  The above material is copyrighted and anyone wishing to reprint, excerpt or redistribute pieces, or the entirety of this story, is asked to contact the author for permission.

White Cemetery Iris In Bloom

[Hearne, TX – April 3, 2022]

For a very short time each Spring, White Cemetery Iris bloom along roadsides and pastures throughout our County. 

At Camp Hearne, a WWII prisoner-of-war camp located outside of Hearne, Texas, our white irises are special.  Eighty years ago, the largely German POWs were encouraged to “beautify” their environment and amuse themselves rather than complicate their confinement with riots and/or escapes.  So, they built theaters, band stands, fountains with running water, miniature castles and patios in their open spaces between the barracks and latrines.

Adding flowers and shrubs was the obvious next step.

POWs returned from their assigned work duty in the local fields with Cemetery Irises to replant around their new “home.”  These resilient bulbs are still multiplying and blooming throughout the prisoner confinement areas of the Camp.  Many patches of Irises are now in bloom, but don’t wait too long to see them.   They seem to show their white petal foliage for only a short period of time.  The leaf fans remain among the underbrush year around until their next annual debut to welcome in the Spring.

It is a good time to visit the Camp Hearne Historic Site.  Our trails are a bit rough, but certainly interesting.


11AM -4PM

What is a Living History Event?

Chances are you have at some time in your past, “re-enacted” a historical event – possibly in school or church.  Perhaps you were a shepherd in a Christmas pageant or playacted the part of George Washington in a skit.  “Re-enacting” a historical event or character is just that, performing a role or acting.

Living Historians are a bit different.  Certainly, their passion for history shines through. They study history beyond textbooks to develop a vivid impression of a person – common citizen or well-known hero – who is dwelling in our not so distant past.

According to The Alamo’s website,
Living historians tend to be associated with museums and historical sites that specialize in interpreting the past through a format that allows visitors to visualize the past through the use of their senses. Living historians can also be dedicated private individuals who volunteer their talents and services to historical sites and as such are a valuable resource.

The term “living history” refers to a method of interpreting the past through the use of a person or persons dressed in period clothing. The technique is usually enhanced by having the person or persons use period tools and engage in period activities.

So, what can you expect at one of Camp Hearne’s Living History Events?  You can expect to visit with living historians, view traditional exhibits, inspect military vehicles & gear and hear lots of storytelling.  Saturday, June 3, 2023, will be a wonderful way to experience military history and learn more about a Central Texas town’s home front contributions to the war effort.  You can even walk the ground that was shared by German and American soldiers…just on opposite sides of the fence.

Camp Hearne is proud of our Living Historian and Re-enactor partners.  Hope you will join us June 3, 2023, 10am to 4pm.