By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History
Camp Gruber is best known as a training base, with the 88th Infantry and the 42nd Infantry receiving instruction there before shipping overseas. Construction of the facility near Braggs was completed in early May 1942 by Manhattan Construction Company. By May 21 of that year troops were in training at the camp that was the size of a small city. President Franklin Roosevelt made a surprise visit to the base in 1943 to inspect the troops before they departed to war in Europe.
But Gruber was also used as a prisoner of war camp with a capacity for 5,750 men. The prison camp was located across Oklahoma 10 from Gruber and was surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence with several guard towers. Camp Gruber also ran satellite prisoner camps at Haskell, Okmulgee, Morris, Porter and other towns, usually at the local armory.
War prisoners were housed in the rural heartland of the United States to make escape more difficult. All the prisoners sent to Camp Gruber were Germans from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Any attempt to return to Germany would certainly be futile from rural Oklahoma.
Gruber’s first prisoners arrived by train in May 1943. They were processed, given a shower and issued khaki uniforms marked with a PW on the back. They lived in barracks and slept on iron frame beds. Meals were simple fare of beef, sauerkraut, potatoes, vegetables and bread. But most of the prisoners, who had suffered the depravations of war, actually gained weight in the prison camp.
Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war could be required to work, and the Germans were put into two types of jobs. Some worked in the fields or orchards of area farms; others worked at a nearby rock quarry. They were paid 80 cents a day, and they could shop at the prison canteen where their money usually went for cigarettes.
The prisoners worked six days a week, but Sunday was a day of rest. The Germans would often spend the day playing soccer, an unheard of sport in the United States back then. Some of the prisoners did attempt to escape, but none were successful. One man managed to sneak away from the rock quarry, but apparently soon realized the futility of his escape so he returned to the camp and a guard let him back in.
The prisoner of war compound was closed in May 1946, having seen as many as 4,700 prisoners at one time. Many of the prisoners were not immediately returned to Germany but were sent to sites throughout Europe to help with rebuilding the war-ravaged countries. The camp was dismantled, and little of its early buildings remain to remind us of the dual role Gruber played during the war.
Reach Jonita Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.