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 600 POW camps in the United States for captured German and Italian soldiers. The War Department decided to detain them in the U.S. to relieve the fighting forces in Europe and provide labor for American farmers.In 1944, the existing Camp Cooke near Lompoc, now Vandenberg, was designated as a camp for German Prisoners of War. Construction of a separate fenced area was built in a corner of the camp. A few months later, POW’s started arriving. Under Camp Cooke, 16 smaller branch camps were established that put prisoners closer to where they were needed to work. Camp Cooke also housed Italian POWs, that were reportedly brought into town for meals at Mom’s Italian Village!The Goleta location was built on Edwards Ranch near Naples. An existing worker camp was modified to be secure enough to hold prisoners.
The Edwards camp operated for 14 months, from October 1944 until December 1945 and housed about 250 prisoners. This shot is from 1944, before it had been modified for the POW camp.
Most of the POWs were professional men from General Rommel’s elite Africa Corps. Some were hardcore believers in Hitler’s “Master Race” theories and they had no doubt Germany would win the war.
The Nazi troops had endured very difficult conditions in the deserts of Northern Africa and most were starving, filthy and desperate. Many were captured by French or Algerian soldiers, and they were abused, starved or used as slave labor by their captors. They were relieved to be turned over to American troops that followed the rules of the Geneva Convention, which ensured they would at least be kept warm, clean and fed.
As you can tell by the smiles, most of these war weary young men felt like they hit the jackpot when they were put under American command. They probably knew they would soon be showered, deloused, clothed, and fed all they could eat.
Most of them had been starving for years due to the limited supplies available to the German soldiers.
In Germany, the troops traveled on freight trains like livestock. In the U.S. they were loaded onto comfortable passenger trains and they watched through glass windows as the wide open spaces of America passed before their amazed eyes. They were stunned by the size and wealth of the United States.After spending time in temporary camps in Arizona and Idaho, they were taken to the brand new facility at Camp Cooke, and then trucked to the branch camp at Edwards Ranch near Goleta. The majority of the prisoners were happy in their new camp, and were happy to work on the nearby ranches.
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 good treatment. Many demanded that the POWs be immediately killed, an understandable sentiment given the regular casualty lists in American newspapers.
This aerial photo shows the camp when it was in use, just south of the highway. Prisoners here were fed generously, offered religious services, classes in English and other topics, and they received excellent medical care if needed.
They also enjoyed a sports field for soccer, a phonograph, a radio, a library, a small theater, ping pong tables and they were allowed to swim in the nearby ocean on a regular basis. Occasionally, the guards would join them!
It was enclosed by an eight foot wire fence topped with barbed wire and it had guard towers with machine gun mounts. Technically, they were prisoners of war, but many developed friendships with their captors and were treated with respect. The camp grounds were landscaped by the prisoners with flower boxes, bushes a vegetable and a fruit garden. A Red Cross inspector reported, “The camp looks like a garden. We have never seen a camp decorated with as much taste and love of nature.”
The prisoners had a variety of past times available to them. They painted, did wood sculpture, had a theater group and even formed an orchestra! Many of them said later they didn’t feel like POW’s at the Edwards Camp.
But they did have to work. 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. Most of the prisoners enjoyed the hard work, and sometimes the farmers would provide them with a homemade lunch.
The prisoners were given instructional booklets made by the University of California to help explain the details of agricultural work in German.
Called an “Emergency Farm Labor Leaflet”, it gave detailed instructions of how to properly do the work required.
This booklet gives detailed instruction on properly picking lemons.
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.
Some local farmers established friendships with the POW’s that came to work for them. This painting was done by a German POW and gifted to the Rutherford family’s ranch manager at Refugio, Virgil Buck. His son, Curtis Buck, remembers his dad going to pick up POWs at the camp. If he needed more than 2, an armed guard would go along. Buck remembers they loved iced tea, and he recalls seeing them warm up tortillas on a fire for lunch.
The Germans were paid for their work with coupons they could spend as they wished in the camp store, that sold a variety of items.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.The POW camps were closed in June 1946 and the prisoners turned over to the European armies who put them to work in their countries until their troops could return from war duties. Some prisoners did not return to their countries until the early 1950s.
Years later, some still reminisced about the warm summer sunsets overlooking the Pacific. Many of the POWs fell in love with California and returned after the war to spend the rest of their lives here.
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. The sign states “US Army- Los Gatos Canyon”, the name of the canyon nearby.
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.
For more information about this topic, featuring fascinating first hand recollections of the prisoners themselves, we highly recommend this book- German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California: Geiger, Jeffrey E.: 9781620067505: Amazon.com: Books
Sources: Sally Cappon, Justin Ruhge, Barney Brantingham, World and Military Notes.com, John and Debra McRoberts, Oregon History Project, Mrs. E.C. Barnes, Wikipedia Commons, Bureau of Reclamation, Aroostook County Historical Museum, US Army Corps of Engineers, Shiawassee District Library, Kurt Gunzel, Canadian War Museum, Mark Sanchez, Patti Gutshall, Texas Coop power.com, Aliceville Museum, Military Museum.org, Curtis Buck, NorthwestGeorgiaNews.com, National Archives, Jeffrey Geiger- German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California
Categories: Goleta History