WWII Camp Cooke 2.JPG

Tank crew members pose next to a Sherman tank in the field at Camp Cooke in Lompoc during training exercises in March 1944. World War II training exercises left many explosive ordnance devices (EODs) in the ground around Vandenberg Space Force Base that are still a source of concern.

As the Allied armies rolled across Africa and Europe in 1943, hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were taken and placed in local internment camps behind the battle lines that were set up in North Africa.

Considering that the duration of the war was unknown, something more had to be done with the prisoners. They could not all be housed and fed in the area in which they were captured.

The U.S. government decided to move its prisoners to a camp system developed in the United States. The rationale was that the Liberty ships bringing supplies to Europe were returning to the U.S. empty, so why not take the POWs back with them? They could be housed and fed in the U.S. where there was plenty of food and shelter rather than have to move the resources to them in already badly overloaded incoming ships.

After the outbreak of World War II, the Provost Marshal General’s Office was assigned the responsibility of dealing with the prisoner problem. In a very short time the organization put together a set of plans that appear simple when compared to the methods in use today, but the system worked.

There were to be five major POW camps in California located at Camp Cooke, in Lompoc, Camp Angel Island, Camp Beale, Camp Stockton and Fort Ord. The Camp Cooke POW camp was located at the present site of Vandenberg Space Force Base.

A branch of the Prisoner of War (POW) camp located at Camp Cooke, was set up at the Edwards Ranch/Goleta Branch Camp beside Highway 101, and located about nine miles west of Goleta. Activated Oct. 20, 1944 as an agricultural branch of the Camp Cooke POW Camp, it was designed to hold 250 German prisoners.

No lease agreement was prepared for the use of the land by the Army for housing the POWs. However, contracts were drawn between Army officials and local farm associations for the use of POW labor. These contracts were written for the duration of a particular crop harvest, and were renewed if follow-up work was necessary. The Branch Camp received its first prisoners in November of 1944.

Based on a description of the facilities on-site, the camp is estimated to have occupied less than 5 acres. The exact acreage occupied by the branch camp is unknown.

The Goleta Branch Camp was commanded by 1st Lt. Charles W. Small, and a 2nd Lt. Wilford O. Potter. The camp had 30 guards and six guard towers. Most of the prisoners were professional men (doctors, dentists, teachers and paymasters). Three were noted as being civilians over 50 years old.

The camp housed up to 302 POWs and they were engaged in contact labor, which included picking lemons and packing walnuts at the Goleta Walnut Exchange on Kellogg Avenue. The camp facilities consisted of six guard towers, a water tower, 14 Nissen/Quonset huts, a shower room, a combination kitchen/mess hall, a canteen, as well as an administration building, barracks, an infirmary and three tents used for recreation.

With the outbreak of war, the able-bodied farmers and farm laborers were pressed into service to defend their country. Without these people, the crops could not be planted and harvested. Therefore, a new source of labor was welcomed. The German and Italian prisoners who could do the work and generate income for the Army, were a ready solution to the problem. Their work paid for the camp facilities, returned a profit to the Army and actually cost the farmer less than regular ranch hands.

Since large prisoner of war camps could only place prisoners near a relatively small number of farms, the Branch Camp system was developed so that the labor could be located where it was needed. Due to the great importance of the branch camp to the state economy, and the large numbers and wide distribution of these camps, they were the center of importance.

Exposing the prisoners to the American way of life counteracted intensive brainwashing by the Nazi prisoners by giving many of the prisoner’s exposure to the American countryside, economy, farming and its people. In small camps American soldiers also got to know the prisoners better which is not as easily done in large central camps.

As stipulated in the Geneva Convention, each POW camp had to be inspected by a person from the Swiss government. The result of each inspection was a detailed report on the camp and the conditions found there at the time of the inspection.

Each branch camp was established as a stand-alone organization with a camp commander who was usually a captain in rank. Each camp had a German spokesman for the prisoners. All services were local but supported by supply trucks from Camp Cooke. The Goleta and Saticoy Branch Camps had small dispensaries, and a medical officer from Camp Cooke visited those camps regularly.

A serious problem with the early prisoners resulted from the extent to which they had been indoctrinated with Nazism. Many of the early camps had strong spy organizations within them that terrorized the prisoners and brought pressure on them not to work too willingly for their captors. A task system was set up by the camp commanders and attempts were made to enforce it, but it was resisted by some of the organizations in the camps. The Goleta Camp had work strikes for this reason.

War with Germany officially ended on May 7, 1945 when Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies in Reims, France, thereby ending World War II and the Third Reich. However, two days later, on May 9, Germany again surrendered.

It took about a year to get the former POWs back to their homes, and later some of them returned to the United States to live.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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