Today, you’re likely to find bikers, walkers and bird watchers at White Rock Lake, but decades ago, the site housed German prisoners of War during World War II. This year marks the 80th year since White Rock became a part of WWII history.
The P.O.W. camp was one of Dallas’ main contributions to WWII, said Steven Butler, a retired U.S. and Texas History professor formerly with Richland College and Collin College.
“This is an exceptional part of history – the history of Dallas,” Butler said. “To have part of Hitler’s army in our midst calls people’s attention.”
The camp spanned 15 acres and was the previous site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which was tasked with improving the land. In the 1930s, CCC workers lived in barracks near Winfrey Point, where the baseball and softball fields are currently located.
In 1942, the U.S. Army took control of the Dallas camp and began using it to train soldiers. A year later, the CCC’s barracks became holding spaces for prisoners because a camp in Mexia, Texas ran out of room.
Between 1943 and 1944, 395 German officers were detained there. The Dallas community had mixed feelings about living near a prisoner of war camp.
“Some were worried about the possibility of prisoners escaping but a lot of people didn’t give it much thought,” Butler said.
Since there was no enclosure around the camp, the prisoners had to build their own fence. The prisoners also worked at Fair Park, which was closed during 1942-45 due to the war. They were tasked with repairing uniforms and mess kits.
Sally Rodriguez, retired historian for the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, said property owners also hired prisoners to do yard work.
Once WWII ended, the prisoners were sent back home. Soon after, Southern Methodist University used the barracks to house their overflow of male students.
In 1950, the camp buildings were demolished and the lumber was used for other city projects. The only remnant of the camp is the fire hydrant located between the baseball and softball fields.
A lot of prisoners petitioned to stay once the war was over, Rodriguez said.
In 1951, Hans-Jochem Sembach, a former prisoner of war at White Rock Lake, wrote a letter to The Dallas Morning News asking for someone to sponsor him to get a visa so he could return.
“I am a German former war prisoner and was a reader of your newspaper,” Sembach wrote in a letter to the editor. “My finest period of war imprisonment was spent near you at White Rock…For me Texas is unforgettable with her great forests and plains and her bold yet honorable young men.”
Someone did eventually sponsor him because he lived in New Mexico years later, Butler said.
In 2006, a historical marker was placed at Winfrey Point denoting the Civilian Conservation Corps Company at White Rock Lake. Butler wrote the historical narrative engraved on the marker.
An excerpt of this historical marker reads: “On July 10, 1935, Army Captain Tom B. Martin began supervising construction of facilities near this site for a local camp…In February 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, the site transferred to the army…In 1944-45, the U.S. held approximately 300 German prisoners of war here.”
The history of the prison camp and the barracks are personal for Rodriguez, who is a Dallas native.
“If you grew up here, your parents brought you (to White Rock Lake),” she said. “It’s part of your personal history.”
Source : Dallas News