Camp Hot Springs
To alleviate overcrowding of German and Italian prisoners of war (POWs) in Great Britain and the rest of Europe, the United States assisted its Allies by transporting around 425,000 POWs to the United States. Approximately 500 POW camps were located across America, and Arkansas accepted its first POWs in 1943. Eventually, the state took in about 23,000 German and Italian prisoners, mainly from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
In 1945, the U.S. Army designated a portion of Lake Catherine State Park as a prisoner-of-war camp and identified it as Camp Hot Springs. The compound seems to have been located on what later was known as Picnic Hill. It was one of thirty-three branch camps, or side camps, from the larger Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). The camp—located about sixty miles from Camp Robinson, twenty miles from Hot Springs (Garland County), and fifteen miles from Malvern (Hot Spring County)—proved to be an adequate site for a POW branch camp.
Camp Hot Springs opened on March 15, 1945. At first, prisoners worked mostly at the camp. Later, and in addition, they worked off-post at the Redistribution Center in Hot Springs, which included four hotels: the Arlington, the Majestic, the DeSoto, and the Park. Hot Springs was considered a Redistribution Center for this area of the United States, a place established to give returning soldiers, many of whom traveled straight from the front lines, the opportunity for rest and relaxation (R&R) before being discharged or reassigned. Additionally, the POWs also worked at the Army and Navy Hospital, maintained lawns on Hot Springs National Park property (such as Bathhouse Row), labored on county roads around Lake Catherine State Park, worked at the state park, and constructed a baseball field in Hot Springs.
On April 14, 1945, a report from Camp Joseph T. Robinson stated that some of the prisoners in the Hot Springs camp worked in Malvern at the Acme Brick Factory, only fifteen miles from the camp. An additional report stated that the Hot Springs camp “was established in connection with a contract entered into with the proprietors of a brick kiln” in Malvern. This was not unusual. During World War II, the American labor force had dwindled as many Americans joined the military or went to work in defense plants. Workers were needed in areas such as farming, non-defense-related industry, and forestry. The government decided to use the POWs to help take up the slack. The War Department’s War Manpower Commission (WMC) and the Food Administration rescued many farmers and businessmen by allowing them to pay current local wage rates to the POWs. A POW received eighty cents a day, in scrip, for his work. The remainder of his salary went to the government to assist in the support of the prisoners.
All the Arkansas branch camp POWs lived in tents except in Victoria (Mississippi County), West Helena (Phillips County), Stuttgart (Arkansas County), and Jonesboro (Craighead County), where the prisoners lived in permanent buildings. There were no permanent buildings at Camp Hot Springs.
The camp population fluctuated, varying from a recorded high of 213 on May 8, 1945, to a low of 137 on August 16, 1945. The camp remained in operation until the summer of 1946, when the last of the Germans had been repatriated.
In 1999, Hot Springs resident Orval Allbritton interviewed a German World War II veteran who had been held at Camp Hot Springs. Dr. Felix R. Gabriel, a former member of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), had returned with his wife to visit Hot Springs. After the war, Gabriel had earned a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna, Austria. As a POW, Gabriel had worked at the brick factory in Malvern and as a dishwasher at the Arlington Hotel. He said he liked it there because he could eat American food.
Allbritton asked Gabriel if the prisoners were well treated. “Well treated? Ja. If I think I would be in Russia it would be horrible; there [Hot Springs], it was wonderful,” declared Gabriel. He said that soldiers with rifles always guarded them, but that nobody tried to escape: “We were not crazy!” He continued, “And every day a soldier came with us in the city with a rifle and watched us after the work in the hotel or the Acme brick factory; the soldier came and went with us in the truck to the camp.”
For additional information:
Duren, Don. “Camp Hot Springs: German Prisoner of War Camp, March 15, 1945–Summer 1946.” The Record 52 (2010): 143–154.
Pritchett, Merrill R., and William L. Shea. “The Afrika Korps in Arkansas, 1943–1946.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 37 (Spring 1978): 3–22.
“Public to Have ‘Pre-Opening’ View of Lake Catherine Park.” Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, March 23, 1941.
Rhodes, Larry, and Orval Allbritton. “Lake Catherine P.O.W. Camp—A German W.W. II Veteran Remembers.” Greater Hot Springs Senior Edition, Sentinel-Record, 1 and 6. November 1999.
Scully, Francis J. Hot Springs, Arkansas and Hot Springs National Park: The Story of a City and The Nation’s Health Resort: Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1966.
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