Prisoners of War
By May of 1944, the Allies had turned the tide of the war in Europe. The Germans had been stopped in Africa, and Italy was mostly liberated from the fascists. The Normandy invasion was near at hand.
The victories abroad led to a common wartime problem: prisoners. The Americans had agreed to take on a proportionate share of surrendered German and Italian soldiers, and that meant housing and feeding them. In February of 1944, Stockton’s Ordnance Depot was listed for turning into a POW camp, and by May 1944, Lt. Colonel Norman Mott had been appointed to build and run the camp. Brigadier General R.S. Chavin managed the Ordnance Depot over Mott, and found many good uses for the inmates.
The first inmates to arrive were German soldiers from Italy and Africa in late May 1945. Colonel Mott was known to say “there is no loafing in this camp,” and the evidence supports his claim. Upon arrival, German prisoners were assigned to a work duty based on their skills. A cabinet shop, sewing room, cobbler’s shop, and garden were established.
The prisoners provided a considerable amount of free labor both for the ordnance depot and for the Stockton community: woodwork was produced for the depot, but also Stockton City Hall and the Bank of Stockton. The cobbler’s shop first produced new shoes for inmates but eventually started a pro bono service repairing the shoes of factory workers in Stockton. There was also an electricians shop, which was known to have helped rewire portions of the Port of Stockton.
The inmates were well treated. They were allowed to start an orchestra, which conducted free shows for the public, and were provided with sporting equipment, medical care, dental care, and freedom of religion. In one headline, they were referred to as “courteous to visitors, appear aloof.”
The POW’s were recruited to help during the 1945 agricultural harvest, with branch camps being built on Rindge Tract and in Vernalis to house soldiers working as farm laborers. Prisoners were paid 80 cents a day, paid in canteen coupons. Farmers on Rindge Tract, Victoria Island, Bacon Island, and Roberts Island, and in the area south and east of Tracy, all benefitted from the extremely cheap labor. The farmers also benefitted from not needing to provide housing for the POWs, which was often a challenge for smaller farm outfits.
Those POWs fortunate enough to be assigned to the Rindge work camp were allowed to enjoy the delta’s more privileged pleasure: swimming. The water was welcomed by the prisoners, who otherwise spent 14 hours a day harvesting onions.
A large contingent of German POWs would arrive after D-Day (June 6, 1945), and in 1945 another group of Italian POWs would arrive, with approximately 1,600 in residence over the course of the camp’s existence. The Italian POWs were put to work as road laborers working to pave streets in downtown Stockton and across San Joaquin County.
Camp life was certainly not idyllic, and at least on two occasions inmates escaped. On Sunday, June 24 1945, two German POWs named Peter Heinrichs and Helmuth Haase esscaped from the Vernalis camp and headed south, apparently hoping to make it to Mexico. They were caught in Fresno and returned for lockup. Then on March 28, 1946, Hugo Hedtheuer escaped from Stockton and was captured the next day near Tracy at Corral Hollow Road. Vernon Jeffries caught the escapee pillaging his garden herbs, and promptly brought the man to heel.
By June of 1946, the war was over and the POWs were relocated back to Europe. Stockton had done its part as a temporary stop for the captured Axis soldiers.