One late summer morning Roger Lanse was driving from his Arenas Valley home to a tile job south of Lordsburg. The then-owner of a company specializing in contracted ceramic tile work, Lanse heard a series of urgent news reports on the radio. Someone was saying that two airliners had crashed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, that another plane had crashed in the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, and a fourth had plowed into a field somewhere in Pennsylvania.
Author Roger Lanse. (Photo by Richard Mahler)
"I was thinking it was a joke at first," Lanse confesses in a recent interview at his rural home. "Then I realized [the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001] was real."
Sadly, of course, it most definitely was. History was written that fateful day. And, as fate would have it, the incident planted the seed for a very different sort of war-related history project that has just borne fruit, almost a decade later.
"As I was going to my tile job," Lanse continues, "I went by the old Camp Lordsburg, which I had never seen before. This piqued my interest in writing about it."
What, you may be asking, was Camp Lordsburg?
Sixty-some years ago it was the temporary home for thousands of Italian and German prisoners of war, along with a small number of Japanese POWs captured in the Pacific Theater. Earlier, for a brief time, the sprawling facility on the eastern edge of Lordsburg had housed hundreds of Japanese-American internees brought from the West Coast.
"I was always interested in World War II," says Lanse, a slender 72-year-old whose sculpted features are framed by a trim white beard and short gray hair. "I was too young at the time to remember much about it. And I'd known the POW camp was there, but not exactly where."
The result of his original research and interviews, not only concerning Camp Lordsburg, but lesser-known POW camps scattered across southern New Mexico, is a 57-page book, self-published last month, detailing a set of intriguing events nearly erased from living human memory. In Lanse's World War II Prisoner of War Camps in Southwest New Mexico>, the author tells the fascinating story of how the Lordsburg facility — which oversaw smaller units at Fort Bayard, Deming, Hatch, Anthony and Las Cruces — brought the face of a distant war home to the people of our region for over three years. These camps were among the nearly two-dozen POW and internment compounds that operated in New Mexico, including facilities in Roswell, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and smaller communities of the eastern plains.
"There were 686 base and branch camps in the US during the war," the author explains. "Almost half a million POWs were housed in them at one time or another."
In New Mexico, thousands of POWs labored at everything from clerical and hospital work to construction projects and crop harvesting. They filled jobs — and were fairly paid — as a way to compensate for the shortage of employable men and women brought about by the war. Only a handful of family members, including children and the elderly, remained on thousands of our state's farms and ranches between 1942 and 1946.
"Many crops that would have been lost were delivered to market through POW labor," says Lanse, who himself grew up on a farm. "The farmer or rancher contracted with the US Army at each camp for POW labor." Some prisoners were paid on a piecework scale based, for example, on the number of pounds of cotton they picked. Others were employed at the prevailing minimum wage of $3 per day.
At Fort Bayard, where about 100 German POWs were ensconced, the captive men did cemetery maintenance, constructed walkways, maintained buildings, and worked as orderlies in the military hospital. One individual reportedly nursed an ailing fruit orchard back to health. Yet here, as elsewhere, little visible evidence of POW presence remains beyond some crumbling foundations. Lanse provides more than a dozen archival and present-day photos of various camp locations in his book, a product of many months of dogged investigation. Also included are some historic documents gleaned from long-forgotten files.
"I spent a lot of gas money," sighs Lanse, recalling numerous research trips to libraries, museums, government agencies and the homes of elderly individuals with first-hand stories to share of the POW camps. The latter included former guards and other employees, plus a few POWs themselves. The state-run Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces provided access to archived interviews it had conducted related to POW labor and agriculture. Other bits and pieces of information surfaced across the Internet, included Red Cross reports written in French and translated by Lanse that recounted visits to New Mexico camps. But "no one," the intrepid historian discovered, "had put all of this [material] in one place."
So why did Roger Lanse appoint himself to do so? He seems an unlikely candidate for such a complicated and time-consuming mission.
Born and raised in California's San Joaquin Valley, Lanse was barely six years old when the war ended. His parents, who raised grapes on a vineyard between Selma and Parlier, were not in the armed forces during the war, although his mother volunteered as a civilian "airplane spotter" and helped young Roger learn to identify the various aircraft passing overhead. Lanse has few other memories related directly to the conflict: "I remember the rationing... cheese arriving in our mailbox in little wooden crates... war stamps and bonds."
Amazingly, Lanse recalls looking out a kitchen window at dawn with his father and seeing faint flashes of light emanated by an atomic bomb test at what is now the White Sands Missile Range, some 600 miles southeast of the family farm.
"I remember everybody on the home front pulling together," he says. "We don't have that united feeling (about our wars) any more."
The impressionable child grew up to earn a 1961 degree in zoology from nearby Fresno State University, followed by 18 years of employment by state and federal fish and wildlife agencies. Lanse relocated eventually to New Mexico, where he worked as a tile contractor. When the physical toll of that career became too much — "It got harder and harder to pick up those heavy boxes" — he taught for two years at a Christian high school. He then moved into professional journalism last January as a staff reporter for the Silver City Daily Press. After conducting extensive research, he completed his manuscript during off-hours in an eight-month push that began last year.
"I've always been proud of the manner in which our country and our allies came together in World War II to repel those who would invade and subjugate us," Lanse writes in the preface to his new book, which shares tidbits of the author's own experiences along with the factual results of his detective work.
In New Mexico, that "coming together" included adjusting to the idea that 10,000 POWs would be placed in rural communities that had limited resources and were largely Spanish-speaking. It also meant the rapid outfitting of camps designed not simply to shelter, dress, feed, and guard POWs properly, but to keep them meaningfully occupied while preventing their escape. This was a tall order, and in retrospect the decision to ship prisoners here may seem counter-intuitive. After all, virtually all POWs were first carried to the East Coast by boat from Europe (a comparative handful were Japanese), then transferred by train across the mainland US.
"There were several reasons for setting up camps here," explains Lanse, noting that while 45 states accommodated POWs, along with the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, most facilities were in the southern tier of the Lower 48. New Mexico's advantages included a relative lack of military facilities and factories, along with low construction costs and the minimal need for heating and warm clothing during winter months.
Most camps were deliberately located in remote or agricultural areas, with some notable exceptions. In Albuquerque, for instance, POW crews helped build the state fairgrounds; in Santa Fe, Japanese internees were housed less than a mile from the downtown plaza, in an area now occupied by the Casa Solana subdivision.
But the camps were sometimes a tough sell even in rural communities. "There was some resentment here about how well the POWs were treated," according to Lanse. "Remember, things were not that easy here (for local civilians). There was rationing, there were shortages." And many families had members who had been killed or wounded overseas, or who were being held under adverse conditions on enemy soil. Yet all camps abided by terms of the Geneva Convention and observers from the International Red Cross visited each unit at least once.
All that remains of the former POW camp at Fort Bayard.
(Photo by Richard Mahler)
"But you have to realize that these guys (held in New Mexico POW camps) were imprisoned," Lanse emphasizes, adding that the captured soldiers were always monitored by armed guards and under lock and key. "For the most part the prisoners didn't cause any problems. There were a few escapes and a few guys were rebellious. Some guards were easy and some were hard. But all these POWs wanted to go home, even if they didn't cause problems."
After several years here, however, a number of POWs voiced the desire to live permanently in the US someday. Quite a few did return to become American citizens, while others have made nostalgic trips to New Mexico to see with fresh eyes the places they once lived and worked.
"Even during the war," says Lanse, some locals became friendly with the POWs and made them feel welcome, even bringing them extra food and treats. "People would visit through the fences and on occasion the prisoners would hold sort of yard sales of trinkets and other stuff they had made."
The cover of the new book bears a photo of three Italian POWs rubbing shoulders with a guard at Camp Lordsburg. The picture, obtained from the late Connie Saucedo, a civilian who worked at the facility, is adorned with signatures and well wishes written in Italian.
"I have included quite a few interesting anecdotes," says the author, "including some that are comical. It's a history of something that is going away as people pass away. It is actually already unknown to many people who live here."
Lanse laments the fact that there are so few physical remains of southwestern New Mexico's POW camps. A state historical marker near Interstate 10 testifies to Camp Lordsburg, but the site itself is on fenced private land — off aptly named POW Road — and not accessible to casual visitors. In his book, Lanse provides photos of an original barracks and wooden walkways at the camp that remain, all in advanced stages of decay. Well over 100 new buildings were constructed in 1942 for the facility, on land withdrawn by the government from ranching, but only two still stand. Here and elsewhere, some camp structures and equipment were moved after the war and found new uses on neighboring ranches or farms.
The Strange Case of Georg Gartner
The POW camp at Deming's airfield existed for only nine months, yet it was the setting for one of the most remarkable escapes in US military history. In September 1945, four months after Germany's surrender, a German prisoner named Georg Gartner (sometimes spelled Gäertner) went on the lam. Gartner reportedly was afraid of returning to a part of his homeland (Silesia) controlled by the Soviet Union after World War II. (A member of Germany's Afrika Korps, the soldier had been captured by the British in Tunisia in 1943 at age 23.)
Unlike virtually all other errant New Mexico POWs, this escapee was never found. The FBI kept him on its "most wanted" list for 40 years. During this time, Gartner changed his name to Dennis Whiles and supported himself by various means, first as a ski and tennis instructor and later as an engineer. He eventually married, but Gartner refused to tell his wife why he lived so secretively and insisted on moving to new locations regularly. Fed up after many years of this peripatetic lifestyle, she threatened to leave him if he didn't 'fess up. After her husband told him the truth, Mrs. "Whiles" insisted that he turn himself in to authorities. He did so in 1985, at age 64, in San Pedro, Calif.
Gartner was surprised that his crime of escape was formally forgiven almost instantly by the federal government, and he went on to become a naturalized US citizen. Bryant Gumbel interviewed Gartner on NBC's "Today Show" shortly after he resurfaced, bringing his bizarre story to the limelight, and shortly thereafter a memoir entitled Hitler's Last Soldier in America was published in Germany and the US. Gartner, now 91, retired and divorced, lives in Boulder, Colo. It is not known if he has visited Deming during the 66 years since his surreptitious departure.
"At Deming," says Lanse, "I never could find out exactly where (the POW camp) was. I know it was on the air base somewhere, but I just could not find anybody who could remember exactly where it was located. It was only operated for nine months, so I guess it wasn't long enough to make an impression."
Similarly, only foundations mark the sites of POW camps in Hatch and Anthony. The headquarters building for the Las Cruces camp, however, still stands on Melendres Street, across from the offices of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.
At Fort Bayard, the concrete foundation of a single building is almost the only physical evidence of its POW camp — the remains of a structure that once was surrounded by double fencing and patrolled by guards with shotguns. Located on a hill near the water tower, the ruin sits forlorn and unidentified, marred by graffiti. Previously a triage and infirmary, it was occupied by mostly young German conscripts — and a handful of uniformed Nazi officers — for just over a year.
"The reason the prisoners were brought to Fort Bayard," according to Lanse, "was specifically to work on the (National Veterans) Cemetery, in the hospital, and the grounds of the residents who lived there. They were orderlies, they were on crews that built roads, curbs and sidewalks. They painted houses." Some of their handiwork, such as concrete pathways and drainage channels, is still visible, including one crumbling slab signed and dated by a POW.
But Fort Bayard was an exception to the rule. Most other camps in New Mexico provided labor only to farmers and ranchers, who reportedly were delighted with the chance to employ these able-bodied men in the cleaning of acequias, repairing of fences, and harvesting of fruits, nuts and vegetables. In fact, the incarceration of many POWs was extended long after the war ended in order to complete New Mexico's winter harvest of cotton and pecans, although Camp Lordsburg itself shut down in mid-1945, with some prisoners transferred to other units. One would-be POW unit at an old CCC camp near Mangas Springs was nixed, apparently, due to a perceived lack of sufficient agricultural work in the area.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in this subject," concludes Lanse, even though members of the so-called Greatest Generation are steadily slipping away. "There are not many people still alive who remember southern New Mexico's POW camps and it is getting harder and harder to find information that is pertinent. But I've known since 9/11 that this is a subject I was going to write about."
Copies of World War II Prisoner of War Camps in Southwest New Mexico may be purchased for $15 each directly from author Roger Lanse via email@example.com or (575) 388-5022. Contact Lanse about any upcoming talks or book signings.
Richard Mahler is a freelance writer and tour guide based in Silver City. Learn more at www.richardmahler.com and www.silvercitywalks.com.
Those interested in Internet-based details about southern New Mexico's POW and Japanese-American internment camps are urged to check out the following: