If you’re driving on the 101, just south of El Capitan, look towards the ocean and you may see this old wooden structure. Believe it or not, it is the remains of a water tower from a prisoner of war camp. Most folks have no idea, but Goleta had Nazi soldiers living and working right here in our backyard.
During World War II, there were many POW camps in California for captured German and Italian soldiers.
The Goleta location, on Edwards Ranch, was a branch camp for the bigger POW camp at Camp Cooke, which is now Vandenberg Air Force Base. While the camp in Goleta was for German soldiers, Camp Cooke also housed Italian POWs, that were reportedly brought into town for meals at Mom’s Italian Village!
The camp operated for 14 months, from October 1944 until December 1945 and housed about 250 prisoners. Most of them were professional men from General Rommel’s elite Africa Corps. Many were hardcore believers in Hitler’s “master race” theories and they had no doubt Germany would win the war.
Newspaper coverage of the camps and public knowledge were intentionally limited until the end of the war, in part to comply with the Geneva Convention and in part to avoid the fear of an enemy presence in such large numbers.
While most citizens living near camps accepted the prisoners’ presence, the government received hundreds of letters each week protesting their treatment.
Many demanded that the POWs be immediately killed, an understandable sentiment given the regular casualty lists in American newspapers.
It was enclosed by an eight foot wire fence topped with barbed wire and it had guard towers with machine gun mounts. But the prisoners were given a fair amount of freedom and often they were used as laborers on nearby farms.
Since most able bodied men were gone to fight the war, California had a shortage of workers on the ranches and elsewhere. Locally, they were put to work harvesting lemons, cotton, walnuts and other crops. They also processed walnuts at a packing house on Kellogg Avenue in Goleta. Many of the POWs fell in love with California and would return after the war to spend the rest of their lives here.
Gil Garcia, whose father often supervised German crews on local ranches, remembers once going with him and a German crew to pick walnuts. His father had to explain to one POW several times how to use a tool to knock the walnuts off the branch. The Nazi soldier took the tool back and uttered something in German in an angry tone. The guard told Garcia he said, ” I never thought a brown man would be telling me what to do”.
Later, at lunchtime, his father was warming his burritos on the embers of a fire, and offered one to the soldier that had made the comment. He liked it so much, he became very friendly to Mr. Garcia. Word soon got around the German crew about the delicious burritos and he would have to bring extras to pass around! That taught the younger Garcia a life lesson he would never forget.
Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll remembers her father hiring some prisoners to help in his lima bean fields at Refugio. They came with a couple of guards. A while later, her father came in the house and sat down, obviously shaken. He told them one of his regular ranch hands, whose son had been killed in the war, came home to find the Germans working in the fields. He had been drinking in town and was enraged to see Nazis so close to home. He went to his small house by the barn and came back with a rifle. Walking up to the POWs he said, “You killed my son and I’m going to kill you!”.
After some calm talk and reasoning, Hvolboll’s father took the rifle away from the man and walked him back to his house.
Many of the former POWs reported being treated “Very Fairly” at the camp, enjoying three square meals and the mild climate. One soldier was quoted as saying the best day of his life was when he was taken prisoner! Things could definitely been worse. Many of their comrades ended up as frozen corpses on the Russian Front.
After the war, the camp was used as housing for ranch workers. Don James remembers living in one as a small boy. They lived in a small hut right below the water tower. Accommodations were modest. There were three rooms in the 50 foot long hut; A living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. No bedrooms, so they slept on the couch or the floor. The camp was still surrounded by barbed wire, and he remembers playing with other kids in the guard towers. He would take the bus to Ellwood School.
These are sketches by Don James of how it looked when he lived in the camp.
Don James and his family lived there until 1954.
In the United States at the end of World War II, there were over 425,000 prisoners of war. The camps were located all over the US. Here’s a link to a page that has some interesting info about escapes and riots in some POW camps.
Some cities have commemorated the former POW camp sites with historic markers.
But the site of Goleta’s POW camp is still little known and rarely acknowledged by our local officials. Most of the camp was destroyed, leaving only the water tower.
Given that it is an important part of our history, and the treatment of the prisoners was nothing to be ashamed of, maybe one day Goleta will officially acknowledge the presence of this historic site before the old water tower is gone and forgotten.
Sources: Sally Cappon, Justin Ruhge, Barney Brantingham, World and Military Notes.com, John and Debra McRoberts, Oregon History Project, Mrs. E.C. Barnes, Bureau of Reclamation, Aroostook County Historical Museum, US Army Corps of Engineers, Mark Sanchez, Patti Gutshall