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Story of Garden Grove’s POWs Gathers Dust

Times Staff Writer

There are no remnants of the prisoner of war camp in Garden Grove that once housed more than 1,100 German soldiers near the end of World War II.

The 15 acres near the intersection of Garden Grove Boulevard and Palm Street are now home to a strip mall and tract homes.

There’s not even a plaque marking the spot.

Local history books haven’t been much better in preserving the stories of these prisoners of war, among the nearly 400,000 German soldiers brought to the United States to harvest crops and perform other labor with American men fighting overseas.

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“The general public would be very surprised to find out about the German POWs,” said Betsy Vigus, a volunteer with the Orange County Historical Society. “If you look at a lot of history books on Orange County, you don’t find it mentioned it all.”

But Dennis Leslie, a 76-year-old history buff, is trying to drum up interest in the German POWs before their story disappears.

He’s developed a free, hourlong presentation about the prison camp to give at schools, historical societies, service clubs -- anyone who will listen. But so far, he’s received little interest.

“I sent out letters to all Orange County school districts, but no one has called,” said Leslie, adding that he hasn’t had much response from local historical societies, either. “There’s nothing about this in their history books.”

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Leslie, who lives in Garden Grove with his wife, has a personal interest in the German POWs. As a teenager, he worked for the Pullman Co. and traveled on trains with the prisoners, still in their uniforms, from Chicago to Southern California.

Germans were sent to work in 46 states, although of the 500 or so camps, most were in rural areas of the south and southwest. Ten thousand POWs were sent to California to work on farms.

The German POWs in California represented 10% of the wartime workforce that included 75,000 Mexican guest workers, 1,600 Jamaicans and an undetermined number of Chinese students, Filipinos and Navajo, according to an official with Citrus Growers Inc. The worker shortage got so bad that Orange County farmers bused in housewives from the Pasadena area to help with the harvest.

“Fruit here was just spoiling,” Leslie said.

Leslie, who had relatives fighting in the war, said it was intimidating riding with German soldiers in the packed trains. And he vividly remembers a meal at a diner outside Omaha, Neb., where the kitchenless train had stopped.

It was a bitter cold winter day. The restaurateur agreed to serve the German POWs soup, apple pie and coffee, but the African American soldiers were forced to eat K-rations on the sidewalk.

“I said, ‘These are the guys who are killing our guys in the Battle of the Bulge!’ ” Leslie recalled. “But the owner wouldn’t serve our guys.”

The Garden Grove camp was set up in 1945 by Citrus Growers Inc. About 600 POWs arrived in 1945 and 500 came in 1946.

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They lived in five-man tents at the low-security camp, policed by military guards and dogs. The rural setting, filled with citrus groves -- 75,000 producing acres -- made escape difficult. They also wore easily identifiable prison uniforms, with a “P” on one leg and an “W” on the other. The initials were also on the backs of their shirts.

“The farmers would have turned them in or shot them,” said Leslie. No successful escapes were reported, but Leslie said that one German escapee hid for three weeks in the home of a willing local woman.

Not wanting to rile the locals, the U.S. military discouraged most news stories about the prisoners, and they were largely left out of books about World War II.

“They didn’t want to get the neighbors up in arms,” Leslie said. “People protest now about a Wal-Mart going in. Imagine if it were enemy soldiers.”

But there were a few short articles in the local newspapers, including an item that appeared in the Garden Grove News on March 16, 1945:

“Residents of the district need have no fear of the prisoners. They ... are not of a dangerous type but rather are men who were farmworkers at home and who would rather be working here than idle behind barbed wire.”

Compared to German soldiers captured by Russian forces, the prisoners in Orange County had a relatively easy life. They needed to pick 36 boxes of oranges each day, a task the fastest among them could complete by noon.

The Germans spent the rest of day smoking cigarettes and spending the 90 cents they made each day at the military store.

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Some POWs built gardens and put a fountain outside their tents. Another made a violin out of a scrap of wood. He used horse-tail hair caught in barbed wire fences for strings, according to an oral history of a citrus farmer, George A. Graham, given in 1972 for Cal State Fullerton’s Oral History Program.

At night, they were taught English, watched movies and gave performances on a makeshift stage.

“They’d laugh and talk and we’d associate with them to the extent that the Army would allow us to,” said Graham, who estimated the average age of the prisoners at 18.

On many Sundays, Protestant and Catholic church services were performed in German. They also received packages from the Red Cross.

After the war, the German POWs were taken to the Santa Ana Army Air Base, the present-day site of the Orange County Fairgrounds and Orange Coast College.

They worked as cooks, mechanics and janitors, according to Edrick J. Miller’s “The SAAAB Story: The History of the Santa Ana Army Air Base.” The military’s first priority was getting American GIs home, leaving some Germans here until 1947, according to local accounts.

Interest in the German POWs in America has flared in recent years, spawning the occasional book, including “Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State: German POWs in Florida,” published in 2000.

Though no one has tracked their numbers, some of the German POWs stayed in the U.S. after the war, sponsored by relatives living here or by farm owners impressed by their work.

Others sent back to Germany soon returned.

In another interview that is part of the Cal State Fullerton collection, Josef Biela in 1972 talked about working the groves in Orange County as a German POW and vowing to return someday and buy a house overlooking those same fields. Seven years later, he did.

“If somebody would have told me in 1946 that seven years later I would come back and be the owner of these three orange trees in my backyard, I would have felt this impossible,” he said.

Leslie, who ran burlesque and vaudeville theaters in Chicago and later the landmark Port Theater in Corona del Mar, said he believes the German POWs in Orange County are a fascinating tale that should remain part of our history.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A German POW’s Typical Day

5:30 a.m.: Reveille.

6 a.m.: Breakfast, clean up.

7 a.m.: Trucks take teams of 25 prisoners and an armed guard to orange groves, including ones in Anaheim, what is now Villa Park, and Garden Grove.

7:30 a.m.: Workday begins. Each prisoner is assigned a quota of 36 boxes of oranges.

Noon: Lunch, usually bologna sandwiches, fruit and coffee. If prisoners fill their quota early, they are driven back to camp.

4:30 p.m.: End of workday.

5 p.m.: Showers, change clothes.

5:30 p.m.: Dinner.

Evening: Classes available in English, history, art and literature. Also, movies and performances by prisoners.

10 p.m.: Lights out.

Source: Interviews and related material from Cal State Fullerton’s Oral History Program and Douglas W. Jacobson.


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