German prisoners of war tilled Madera’s soil
Madera County Historical Society From December 1944 to February 1946, German prisoners of war, like these shown here in Murdock, Neb., were shipped to Madera, detained in camps, and used to work on local farms. The late John Sordi remembered transporting some of the prisoners in a pickup truck to work in his vineyards. He recalled that they were “real nice fellows.”
When the Southern Pacific train pulled into the Madera depot on Dec. 28, 1944, the curious crowd of 50 Maderans gathered on the platform for a closer look.
Equally inquisitive were the occupants of the railroad cars as they pressed their faces against the windows looking out.
A few weeks earlier these passengers had been part of Adolf Hitler’s army. Now they were prisoners of war who had been brought to Madera to do farm work.
The war in Europe had turned on the Germans in June of 1944, and the number of prisoners taken by the Allies as 1945 approached had skyrocketed. At the same time, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley were facing an economic crisis. There was a serious shortage of farm laborers, so somebody decided to bring the German prisoners to America to fill the gap.
It was about 3:15 in the afternoon when Madera High School buses pulled up to the depot, and 50 U.S. soldiers began to unload their prisoners. Each of the guards took charge of a prisoner and lined them up on the platform and boarded them on a bus. Then they went back for 50 more.
It took about an hour to unload the 200 German prisoners from the train and onto the school buses for the ride to the R.L. Poythress ranch, six miles west of Madera. It took two trucks and seven trailers to haul their equipment to the camp, not far from the Bonita Gin.
At that time, two groups of farmers, one from the Bonita District and the other from the Ashview-Alamo district, had negotiated terms by which they could use these prisoners of war to harvest their crops.
R. L. Poythress became the liaison between the farmers and the Army for one prisoner-of-war camp to be located on his ranch near the Bonita Gin. Homer T. Mitchell, manager of Producer Cotton Oil’s Ashview Gin, had been named labor coordinator at the other camp. In a short time, German POW camps would also be set up in Chowchilla, and Firebaugh for the purpose of alleviating the local farm labor shortage.
Although the POW’s performed some work in the vineyards, most of the time they were used in the cotton fields. Farmers using prisoners of war labor were required to pay the Army 52.25 per hundredweight, and the prisoners would receive 80 cents per day. The remainder went to the U.S. Treasury to help pay the general cost of their maintenance in this country.
The prisoners received their wages in coupons, which could be exchanged at makeshift stores on the ranches for extras such as tobacco, soap, writing paper, and soft drinks.
There were few reported conflicts between the prisoners and their new “employers,” however, there was one instance of refusal to work.
On Jan. 23, 1945, The Madera Tribune reported that the forced laborers on the Poythress Ranch refused to go to the fields. As a result, the prisoners were given the “usual cure of limited rations and ‘enjoyed’ a hike to make up for the difference in lack of cotton output.”
The “sit-down” presumably ended in short order.
As a general rule, the farm labor experiment proved successful. By October 1945, there were 1,250 POWs in Madera County, and the local authorities attempted to ameliorate the prisoner’s situation.
At a meeting in the Aragon Hotel, Madera’s Rotarians were told that the Germans were working in the fields, harvesting crops, driving tractors, etc.
The guards had devised a variety of games to keep the men “healthy and contented.” The speaker denied that the Germans were being pampered, but “the military has found that when the men are happy their work efficiency is increased.” He told of some intracamp games and the formation of camp medical units for the prisoners.
For a year and a half, the German prisoners of war labored in Madera County agriculture. Even after the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich in May 1945, the prisoners continued to come to America. Then in 1946, it all came to an end.
In February, the German POW programs in Madera, Chowchilla, and Firebaugh closed. Firebaugh shut down first, then Chowchilla, and finally Madera.
At their zenith, they had collectively held 1,624 foreign “farm workers.”
I don’t know how long the POW barracks stood after the camps closed, but it is interesting to note that the Germans did leave their mark in a special way. The guard tower in Chowchilla was moved to the high school football field from where the games were announced for a long time.