Serving the community since 1970

Stan Wilson gives lecture on Shafter's POW camp

Shafter Depot Museum curator and local historian Stan Wilson gave an informative and entertaining lecture on the German POW camp that was stationed in Shafter back during World War II. Wilson was at the Shafter Library and Learning Center on Thursday evening and gave the attendees an informative recount of the prisoners who served as labor for the local cotton growers in the area beginning in 1944. He said local cotton growers were worried about a labor shortage on their farms, due to the number of people who were being involved in the war effort.

In 1943, the American government opened up several prisoner of war camps in California. Camp Cooke was the main camp in California, on the site of Vandenburg Air Force Base in Lompoc.

By late 1944, there were three POW camps set up in Kern County. Lamont had a camp that housed 900 prisoners, while Delano had 750 prisoners.

A third camp opened in Shafter in December 1944 at Shafter and Los Angeles avenues, the current site of the Sierra Vista Mobile Home Park. The prisoners stationed in Shafter were bused here from a camp in Idaho.

At the camp, 600 prisoners of war worked as a labor force for the local cotton growers. They lived in a series of barracks, each room housing six prisoners. The facility had a kitchen, an activity room, a common room and showers.

Each prisoner was paid 80 cents per day, which was put on their books in script that they could use at the camp's canteen. Once they were sent home, they could turn the script in for a check.

The facility was surrounded by barbed wire and w as monitored by guards stationed in guard towers on the site.

When the project began, a goal was set for each prisoner to pick 150 pounds of cotton per day. The first month, the productivity was only at about 50 pounds per day. Also, the prisoners were forced to work to get their wage and food. If they chose not to work that day, they would not be given anything to eat for the day. After a month, the leaders of the prisoners' group organized a strike. As a result, the prisoners were fed only bread and water for several days. To deter the revolt, the outspoken prisoners who were against the guards and administration were transported to different camps.

According to Wilson, the majority of the camp prisoners were just men grateful for not being on the front lines and being treated as decently as they had ever been since the war started.

There were even friendships that were fostered during this time. Wilson said that his grandfather struck up a friendship with one of the prisoners that would go to his farm and pick cotton. Even after the soldier was sent back home, Wilson's grandfather received letters and gifts from Germany from his friend, Joe Durscht.

Wilson said that his grandparents even made a trip to Germany many years later and met Durscht and his family.

Wilson said that even though they were the enemy, the men for the most part were cooperative and contributed to the local economy with their hard work.

In 1946, the camp was closed, and it was uncertain what would be done with the facility. For a time, it was operated as a farm labor camp housing hundreds of local farm laborers and their families. In 1955, the site was demolished.

Wilson will be presenting another lecture on Thursday April 11, at the Shafter Library and Learning Center beginning at 6 p.m. The topic will be the History of California Agriculture in Kern County, Told in Postcards.

 

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