How They Lived
(1) These men are taking time out in the rest room, a place that held injured or sick prisoners for up to 24 hours. The photographer seems to have taken the picture quickly upon entering the room, as is suggested by the fact that the men in the front are looking at the camera but the ones in the back are not. Note that most prisoners are doing little else but remaining quiet or conversing, while one is reading. One piece of art decorates the wall, most likely done by a prisoner. Finally, there seems to be an abandoned game of chess in the foreground. The room is neat and organized, a characteristic of German prisoners that the American guards noticed in the very initial moments of prisoner internment.
(2) Prisoners prepare bread for the camp. Notice the white painted boards mixed in with the splendidly plained ones, and the different tools on the back wall, in particular the hacksaws. It also appears something is cooking on the stove--was it a gumbo, or something more native to the Germans? On a light note, of the two men preparing the food, it seems the man with the longer hair should be wearing the hat!
(3) Two prisoners are deeply engaged in a game of chess. Equally engaged is the onlooker to the left, grinning at a potential move he sees, perhaps, or maybe just grinning because he knows the camera is on him. What one may miss with a simple cursory glance is that there is more than one audience member here. Notice the two men standing in the background, and given this fact, there could have been one other person sitting to the right of the photo, off camera.
(4) These men are engrossed in prayer at a Lutheran worship service, which occurred every Sunday. In fact, some camps held multiple Lutheran services. Faith was a prevailing part of the prisoner of war experience, sometimes causing divides. There were many Catholics, another group Hitler aimed to destroy, and they were allowed the dignity of holding their own services as well.
According to American guard James Strubb, "a priest visited the camp in Houma to see if his services were wanted. The C.O. [commanding officer] had the German Sgt. assemble his men and asked those who were interested to take one step forward, All who did were in their 30s and 40s. The younger men stayed in place and were then dismissed. After that the priest asked for altar servers and all who were Catholic stepped forth. The priest came weekly to the camp and eventually the younger men also began to attend" (Schott Papers, Folder 2-34).
It is a testament to America's adherence to the stipulations of the 1929 Geneva Convention that prisoners of war were afforded such freedom of worship.
(5) These men appear to be practicing music on the piano, likely for a play, given the prop located on the right and other indicative photographs in the archives not collected here. For instance, the man facing the camera with his hand on his face is pictured elsewhere sitting at a drum set. Notice the grand nature of the piano; it is one of many indications of the value America placed on amenities in the POW camps, a reality that angered some tax-paying Americans and American soldiers in Europe who were not nearly enjoying pastimes to this degree.
(6) This group of men are hard at work on writing a play. Is the man in the middle, with the pen, the lead writer? What is it the reader on the right is looking for? And what has made the reader on the left smile with delight?
Of other importance here is the Catholic artwork in the background, produced by POWs themselves. It is documented in the archives that one of the sources of division in the camps was religion, albeit not as violent a one as politics. One can wonder if, Lutherans for instance, balked at or perhaps even joked about these openly Catholic works. Perhaps it gave them all something to laugh about while they continued to wait for their freedom.
And perhaps they didn't even care.
(7) While at least one of these prisoners is smiling for the camera, it is well documented that some POWs who worked in the fields complained of the extreme south Louisiana heat and proliferation of mosquitoes. POW labor, for all intents and purposes, saved many American farmers' crops. See the "How They Were Needed" papers for the intricate politics involved in putting these men to work.
(8) Men drop dirty clothes into huge washing machines. Notice how this German prisoner's shoes shine. Also, the letters on the men's uniform spell "PW," which has of course over the years evolved into the more accepted "POW."
(9) This prisoner is spending his free time drawing. One could buy art supplies from the canteen with credits earned from labor. The body of art the men left behind, expressed in paintings, drawings, and sculptures, is prodigious and shows incredible craft. One can wonder if this man was a consistent artist before the war or if the duldrums of camp life ignited a desire and passion he never knew he had.