It seems that most everything I thought I knew about this subject was inaccurate, but I did enjoy learning the real story and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
There were two main POW camps in Arizona during World War II. One was at Florence and the other at Papago Park in Phoenix. The first prisoners to arrive were Italian POWs in May of 1943 who would come in on troop trains that came in the night. They all wore heavy coats with a big “P” on the shoulder.
When Italy surrendered in early September of that year, the Italian prisoners were shipped out to seven additional branch work camps established in Arizona, and one was at Safford. It was advised that an attempt was being made to utilize all prisoner-of-war labor then available; otherwise these prisoners would be sent elsewhere, and if that occurred, they would not be able to return. When onion harvesting began and cotton picking started, the labor situation was expected to become critical, and farmers were urged to use the POWs so as to keep them locally.
The camp was described in a local news article as being a mile south of town on Courthouse Street, and this confused me because I never knew we had a Courthouse Street. It was when I pinpointed the exact location of the camp that I realized Courthouse Street was actually the street running in front of the courthouse, which was Eighth Avenue. The camp was located just past the canal across the street from the old meat-packing plant at about 24th Street. My uncle, LaVon Hancock, upon return from the war as a bomber gunner, remembers the camp as being distant from Safford at the time with very little housing south of Relation Street. The camp location is still vacant land although surrounded now by housing.
Doris Montierth recalls as a young girl, playing at her cousin’s house at Eighth Avenue and Relation and seeing heavy trucks hauling men at the end of the day and asking who they were and being told that they were Italian POWs going to the camp.
The initial POW farm labor was first reported locally in May 1944. The camp was surrounded by a short barbed wire fence that was used more to keep the cows out than the men in. The Italians were said to be a happy lot, singing and laughing most of the time in the camp.
Randall Lindsey remembers horseback riding near the camp as a teenager and seeing the men living in tents. The Safford camp eventually held around 150 men and an additional 250 men sent to a satellite camp on Mount Graham located on the right before Angle Orchard. The men on the mountain would cut firewood for all the campgrounds and would leave huge piles along the road for anyone to use.
Bill Lewis recalls his father supplying laundry cleaning services to both camps when he was a youngster and seeing the tall piles of wood.
A local story in September 1944 told of two German POWs among a group of Germans who were from Papago Park and who were billeted here overnight on the way to another camp. One was Herbert Fuchs, and the other was Karl Frenzel, both 21. Since the low barbed wire fence was still in place, these two decided to escape, but both were soon back in custody. If you have ever heard of the “Papago Park POW escape” that occurred on Christmas Eve 1944, you would appreciate that Fuchs was one of the 25 who escaped then as well. The funny part is that on that night, an unusual and rare winter rain and cold weather in the desert occurred. Fuchs, muddy, wet, and cold was the first to give up among the 25. He said he did not want to miss out on Christmas dinner.
It was during this time frame in late 1944 and early 1945 that the Italians were being repatriated to Italy, with many of them agreeing to stay in the United States and work in camps aiding the American war effort, and they were being replaced by Germans.
In October of 1944, our camp was being renovated and improved to house the new German prisoners. Buildings originally used at the local CCC camps a decade earlier were moved to the camp and converted into a mess hall for soldiers and officers. A post office exchange building, a commissary, a hospital building and officers quarters, as well as large shower rooms, were erected. All of the officers, enlisted men and prisoners continued to sleep in tents, with six men to a tent. A regulation fence was added in conjunction with the original barbed wire fence, and guard towers were placed at each corner. Powerful search lamps and floodlights illuminated the camp at night. The prisoners ate regulation army food but were allowed to fix favorite home dishes occasionally.
Dick Bingham recalls his father picking up some of the German men, who would assist in moving lumber and cement bags in town. Mr. Bingham had admiration for the mostly blond Germans, who would work without shirts and who all seemed to be muscled and almost like supermen. They seemed friendly, although few spoke other than German.
Rex Barney’s family used some of the German men to pick cotton for them. They would come in big, open, heavy trucks and would pick along with the usual workers. Mr. Barney thought the cotton quota per day was 200 pounds. The farmers would usually supply the men with lunch and would pay them 50 cents an hour, plus the POWs could make 4 cents a pound for cotton picked. I have seen where, elsewhere, the POWs were paid as much as 80 cents an hour. I assume this depended on the location and what type of work was being done. The prisoners were paid in camp coupons that they could use to buy such things as tobacco but not cigarettes. They would improvise with whatever was at hand to smoke the tobacco. They could also use the coupons to buy candy and other personal items at the commissary.
One German remarked, “Hitler was wrong. He promised me I would march through the U.S. of America. I did! I marched, but I had to drag a cotton sack behind me.”
Henry Clifford Sr. told me that after he returned from the war in November 1945, he was to be the one who weighed the cotton sacks for the prisoners at the end of the day, and many of them would argue that he was not paying them for the full weight. He told them he would not cheat them and for them not to try to cheat him. They thought they should be paid for the weight of the sack as well as the cotton, he explained. Many would show up with only 25 or 50 pounds for the day. Mr. Clifford also remembered that one of the guards told him that he was only issued three bullets for his M-1 Garand rifle. Some of the guards would keep the bullets in their breast pockets so if rushed by the men, they would only get the empty gun. He figured he could not stop two dozen prisoners with three bullets anyway.
Not by any means were all the Germans “hardcore Nazis.” Most were draftees who had little enthusiasm for Hitler or the war. They were content to sit the remainder of the war out in sunny Arizona. Many made lasting friends, and some wanted to stay or return someday to America.
It was the Agricultural Extension Service of the University of Arizona that was in charge of placing the POWs in areas of the state based on agricultural needs.
Despite having more than 425,000 POWs in 511 main and branch camps in America during the war, only 2,222 tried to escape, and I could not find any instance where any American was harmed by them, although many items were stolen during the escape attempts. Most headed for Mexico from southern camps in the United States. A very few prisoners did escape to freedom but none from Arizona.
Fifty thousand a month were returned at war’s end, with the last leaving July 22, 1946, from Camp Shanks, N. J.
Nothing now remains of the POW camp in Safford except fading memories.