In the 1940s East Texas sawmills and paper mills lost many of their loggers to the armed forces fighting during World War II.
The problem was solved with a unique exchange.
German soldiers who had been captured in Europe were brought to the U.S. and conscripted as loggers.
Today, the unusual trade is remembered by five Texas historical markers placed near German POW camps at Alto, Center, Chireno, Huntsville and Lufkin. Two other markers will be placed later this year at San Augustine and Tyler.
The Germans came to East Texas through the efforts of companies like Southern Pine Lumber Company of Diboll, Frost Lumber Company of Nacogdoches, and Angelina County Lumber Company of Keltys, near Lufkin.
History, regrettably, doesn’t record many of the names of the German soldiers who came to East Texas, but most of them worked hard in the woods, felling trees, cutting them into pulpwood, and shipping them on railcars bound for the sawmills.
Some Germans, however, deliberately slowed down their work, believing that shortages of lumber would hurt the American war effort.
While East Texans struggled with the notion that the German POWs would escape and commit all kinds of atrocities to their families, there were few such events.
The Germans simply did their jobs and most were returned to Germany after the war. Some remained in East Texas; one even became the president of the chamber of commerce at San Augustine.
A few of the Germans escaped, but became lost and wandered back to their logging camps.
When a prisoner escaped at the Chireno camp, guards found him in a cow pasture holding a little girl, and the mother grew panicky. The guards discovered, however, that the girl had wandered into the pasture, where there were some bulls.
The escapee scooped up the child and when the guards raced toward the POW, he and the little girl were talking to nearby cows. The little girl told the guards. “He nice man. He show me cows.”
Author Mark Choate chronicled the story of the Germans in his excellent 1989 book, “Nazis in the Pineywoods.” Book is out of print.
Except for the historical markers, little remains of the old POW camps. In Lufkin, a gate bears an inscription scratched into the stone: “Rothhammer, 1944,” a reminder of a German who lived there.
(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of over 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)