It was another of those times where I’m traveling alone and, as if predestined by the sages of the Texas back roads, I meet someone with a new story to send me off of my planned itinerary. His name was Bobby Jack Middleton.
Bobby Jack and I had just finished a tour of the recently restored train depot on Highway 6 in Hearne. A 38-year veteran of the Union Pacific railroad, he knew enough back stories to could fill volumes about working the rails and the local history of Hearne, Calvert and the surrounding towns.
As I was walking out the depot door to my truck Bobby Jack asked, “Have you ever heard of Camp Hearn?” I had not. In a strong Texas drawl he gave me the quick version of Hearne’s contribution to the World War II war effort . . . a prisoner of war camp known as Camp Hearne – home to captured members of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps.
Bobby Jack’s directions were the best. “Go just up the road about a mile to the new Love’s Truck Stop and take a left,” he said. “Then go another mile or so and it’s on the left . . . you can’t miss it.” He was right.
I drove into the site and parked next to the only other vehicle in the gravel lot. There in the grass sat a full sized reproduction of an original barrack surrounded by concrete slabs where once other such buildings had stood. It was wood framed with sliding windows for ventilation and black tar paper on the outside walls.
The heat inside was stifling as I walked in, but the temperature didn’t seem to bother my guide, Melissa Freeman, as she talked about the camp’s opening in late 1942, it’s 5,000 person capacity and that there was once enough barbed wire around the Camp to have stretched from Houston to Chicago and back again two times.
She then led me into an adjoining room. It was air conditioned and filled with vintage photos and artifacts unearthed at the 290-acre site by researchers from Texas A&M University. Glass cases displayed POW uniforms and German mess kits, remnants of personal hygiene items, buttons, bottles and books, Nazi insignias and more.
One piece, a German canteen, had been artistically etched by its owner to depict his journey from the Fatherland to Tunisia, and then after his capture from North Africa to New York and eventually Hearne, Texas.
For more than an hour Melissa entertain me with her stories. She explained how Rommel’s own orchestra had been captured by the Americans and brought to Hearne. Image the locals being treated to classical and jazz tunes by professionally trained German musicians every weekend among the scrub brush and guard towers – well, it happened at Camp Hearne between 1943 and 1945.
She then told me about the Camp theater that was built by the German prisoners so that they could stage their own “way-way- WAY-off-Broadway” performances. With actresses unavailable, men played both the male and female parts in these productions.
Never would I have suspected that Hearne, Texas played host to thousands of German combatants throughout much of WW II. Neither would I have suspected that a chance encounter with a retired railroad man would have sent me on an adventure where history was played out, and still lives today for anyone who turns left at the new Love’s Truck Stop.
Visit www.camphearne.com or call 979-814-0733 for more information.