Just People Like Us

In 1940s Southern Oregon, prisoners of war were more welcome than US military of color.

German POW George R. Sorg, with painting at Camp White. Courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society

On February 2, 1911, the Medford Mail Tribune reported that all but 173 of Jackson County's 25,756 people were white, listing the others as “56 negroes, 5 Indians, 84 Chinese, and 28 Japanese.” Noting that this demography reflected that of the state as a whole, the story concluded, “Hence Oregon leads the states and is politically, as well as racially, a white man's country.”
     That regional racial identity was reinforced in the years leading up to World War II. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Jackson County, and Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass were widely known as “sundown towns,” communities where unofficial policies and even signs on telephone poles made it clear that nonwhites, especially African Americans, should be out of town before sunset or face dire consequences. Mentions of African Americans (often called “coloreds”) in the Medford newspapers in the 1920s and '30s usually referenced entertainers, shoe shiners, chauffeurs, porters, poker sharks, and dice players—people on the margins of the community.

      In 1940, when city leaders were lobbying for a military training camp to be built in the area, only five black people lived in Medford. Not everyone in the community supported bringing such a massive facility to the area, especially the orchardists and ranchers who occupied the land where the camp was to be built and would be forced to sell their land. According to George Kramer's definitive history, Camp White: City in the Agate Desert, some suspected those opposing the camp of initiating rumors that “the proposed camp would be occupied by Negroes” to boost opposition. A spokesman for camp proponents dismissed those rumors as a joke but still felt the need to officially deny them.
     The camp proponents won out. Camp White sprawled across seventy-seven square miles of scrub desert, orchards, and pasturelands north of Medford, from the shadow of Table Rock almost to Shady Cove. Named after General George A. White, a commander in the Oregon National Guard who died two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the camp trained soldiers of the Ninety-First and Ninety-Sixth Army Infantry Divisions. At its center was a cluster of more than 1,300 buildings. In the early 1940s, it was the second largest “city” in Oregon, with a peak population of almost forty thousand. At the time, Medford's population was about eleven thousand, and only about thirty-six thousand people lived in all of Jackson County. In urging the army to locate the camp—referred to as a “cantonment” in those days—near their city, local leaders hoped it would help the area recover from the Depression and spur future growth. It did.
     African Americans were among the soldiers who came to Camp White, though the exact number is hard to find. At the end of July 1942, before the camp was officially dedicated and soldiers were just beginning to fill the barracks, the Medford News reported a total of 208 black soldiers at Camp White, members of a “housekeeping detachment” transferred from Fort Lewis in Washington. Even that number caused problems in the community. That News story was headlined “Colored Soldier Entertainment Is Knotty Problem,” and said, “Most Medford soft drink places, beer parlors, and restaurants have refused to serve the negro soldiers.”
     “There was quite a group of colored fellas,” recalled Ann Corum in Common Land, a history of Jackson County published by the Southern Oregon Historical Society (SOHS). “It was really quite a thing to see so many blacks because Medford was known as the town where the sun didn't set on blacks.”
     Both military officials and community members tried to address this problem. A separate—segregated—recreation hall was established for African Americans, and the United Service Organization developed a list of establishments that would serve them. General Charles H. Gerhardt, the commander of the army's Ninety-First Infantry Division, the first troops to be trained at Camp White, issued an ultimatum to Medford merchants stating that if they did not serve black troops, he would declare the entire city off-limits to all his troops.
     Alfred and Helen Carpenter, a prominent local family, held entertainment and swimming parties for African American soldiers at their country home, the Medford News reported, and “[n]umerous groups of townspeople helped with the entertainment.”

In all the interviews [Kramer] did, no one remembered even one African American soldier's name. It was like they were never there.

     “There were lots of blacks that were stationed at Camp White and they were welcome at our house,” says Virginia Westerfield, a Medford resident and teacher, in an oral history recorded for SOHS. “My neighbor next door was from Alabama and she said she had no objections against blacks, but she couldn't be seen with one.”
     The Camp White Museum—located in the Veterans Affairs Domiciliary in what used to be the camp's hospital, the last remaining facility from the camp—has no record of how many black soldiers served at the camp and not one testimonial from any black soldiers about their experiences at the camp. In a footnote in his history of the camp, George Kramer notes that in about half the interviews he conducted, former soldiers stationed at the camp were surprised to hear that any black soldiers had served at Camp White. In all the interviews he did, no one remembered even one African American soldier's name. It was like they were never there.
     And little changed in Medford. In 1946, the Southernaires, an African American singing group, had to plead with their audience, which had just given a rousing response to its performance, for a place to stay. Private accommodations were arranged. Even as late as 1963, the statewide branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sought assurances from the Medford City Council that blacks were indeed welcome in the city.


After the Ninety-Sixth Division, the last troops to be trained at Camp White, left in April 1944, some of the vacated space was filled by German soldiers who had been captured in North Africa. Camp White was one of at least three POW camps in Oregon (the others were in Benton and Umatilla Counties). According to Kramer, the prisoners' quarters were “spartan but comfortable.” Two rows of barbed wire and sentry posts with specially trained military police surrounded the converted barracks. Locals had concerns about security, especially when prisoners went off-base for work details, but authorities reassured them that POWs would be clearly identified by their clothing and would always work under “adequate military guard.”
     The Germans, whose numbers would grow to almost two thousand, were definitely prisoners. They were subjected to a controversial secret reeducation program to make them more open to American values in the hope that they would spread those values when they returned home to postwar Germany. A few tried to escape but were quickly recaptured. Guard dogs patrolled between the rows of barbed wire. But according to John Fahey, who led the reeducation effort at Camp White, “the Germans cut holes in the inner wire and made pets” of these ferocious beasts.
     Some of the POWs came to find life at the camp somewhat enjoyable, according to Kramer. Prisoners augmented the diet of typical army food by baking “fresh hot bread and other goodies” that even some of their American captors enjoyed. A group of Germans tended a twenty-five-acre vegetable garden in fertile soil on the banks of the Rogue River. They published a weekly journal called Heimat (“Homeland”).
     POWs also worked in local orchards and farms. The Rogue Valley had experienced severe labor shortages since the outbreak of the war because so many young men had gone off to fight. When Camp White was a training facility, American soldiers helped bring in the harvests. When they left, the POWs become the next source of labor, picking pears, peaches, and tomatoes in Jackson County, hops in Grants Pass, and later, potatoes, onions, and cotton around Klamath Falls and in Northern California.
     Many of the prisoners welcomed the work. It was like “a vacation from the war,” one former POW told Kramer. And members of the local community began to accept and even build friendships with the captured enemy soldiers. Local churches and service organizations donated musical instruments and sporting equipment for the prisoners and supplies for building a crèche in the POW compound during Advent of 1944. The prisoners put on an art show for Christmas, showing approximately four hundred paintings and pencil sketches. Invitations were sent out to the general public. When Ashland historian Joe Peterson gave talks about the Camp White POWs in 2015 for SOHS, a half dozen or so people brought paintings by prisoners that had been kept by their families for seventy years.
     The last POWs left Camp White in May 1946, shipped back to Europe via Seattle and New York. After the war, according to Kramer, many Rogue Valley residents maintained contact with former POWs. At least three former prisoners eventually returned to live in the United States, including one, Heinz Bertram, who returned to Medford and opened an upholstery store—in a building that had been moved from Camp White.
     In the early 1990s, Kramer had the opportunity to interview three of the former POWs who'd come back to America. Gerhard Wagner settled in California; when asked to summarize his experience at Camp White, he said, “We had a lot of fun.”
     In a 2015 interview for an Oregon Public Broadcasting story about the POW camp, ninety-year-old Zee Minear talked about working with the Germans on her family orchard, which had hundreds of acres of pear trees. She said the Germans were hard workers and her family became close enough to them that they cried together when the POWs told stories of the hardships of the war on themselves and their families. They grew so comfortable that the American soldiers guarding the Germans didn't even load their guns.
     “I always say,” Minear explains, “they were just people like us.”

On June 1, 1942, as construction at Camp White was nearing completion and soldiers were beginning to arrive, thirty-eight people of Japanese ancestry from Jackson County—thirteen families from Medford and one from Eagle Point—boarded buses with the belongings they were able to carry, to be transported under military guard to a detention center in Tulelake, California. Twenty were native-born American citizens; eighteen were “aliens.”
     Though their numbers were small, Japanese people had a long history in Jackson County. Unlike the marginalized and ostracized African Americans, they seemed to have been accepted to some extent by the community.
     In a 1994 letter to SOHS, Judy Takahira tells of the issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) who came to the Medford area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, calling them “our pioneers.” Her mother and father, whose work on the railroad brought him to Medford, opened a restaurant, the Jewel Cafe, in the early 1900s. Takahira tells of other Japanese families—the Kamikawas, Fujimotos, Nakagiris, and Saitos—opening laundries, boardinghouses, and other restaurants and working in local hotels. During the Depression, Takahira writes, her father “never turned a hungry person away—if they could not pay he would … say—when you have it … you can pay.”
     Virginia Westerfield, in her oral history, says of the early 1940s, “I went to school with some Japanese kids and they were very American.” She tells of a neighbor, Natalie Parker, in her early teens, whose best friend was Japanese. “They were the cutest couple. Natalie was red-haired and pale and this gal was typical Japanese, and they were almost inseparable.”
     On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor—“a shock and traumatic event,” Takahira writes—a Mail Tribune story was headlined, “Local Japanese Stunned by War; Pledge Support.” Kazu R. Maruyama, the twenty-three-year-old son of the recently deceased “leader of the [Japanese] colony,” was waiting in line when the US army recruiting station opened that morning, the story reported. His colleagues from his work at American Fruit Growers sent a message of congratulations and a pledge of complete support.
     Two days later, the Mail Tribune urged all citizens to be calm. “The hot-headed, so-called 120% patriot, who directly or indirectly urges any sort of illegal punitive actions, against any law-abiding citizens in this community, whether his skin be white, red, yellow or black, represents a very real danger to this community and to any effective defense effort.”
     But the US government decided that it could not distinguish Japanese aliens from American-born Japanese and ordered 112,000 civilians of Japanese ancestry living in Western states to report for evacuation to detention centers. The government incarcerated relatively few people with blood connections to Germany (about 11,000) or Italy (less than 2,000), the other enemies of the United States in World War II, and almost all of these individuals were foreign-born.
     Natalie's best friend was among those evacuated. “It was such a tragedy when their family was shipped off, too,” Westerfield says. “It was just kind of senseless, but I suppose … there may have been Japanese that were, you know, underground, so everybody had to suffer.”
     Judy Takahira was also on those buses. “There were no ‘hate' incidents, on the contrary most of our neighbors and friends were very supportive,” she writes. “I remember at the time of evacuation, some of them coming up and telling me they wished we didn't have to go. Also that year, as a history project, I copied the whole Constitution by hand. To this day some of my classmates remember that.”
     Takahira, Natalie's friend, and the other thirty-six Japanese residents from Jackson County, including families of young men who had joined the US army, were sent to the Tule Lake Relocation Center, a label considered euphemistic by more recent historians. The Mail Tribune's story about the evacuation did not mention any of the names or report any reactions from the evacuees. It did say, “Friends were present to witness their departure,” but like the African American soldiers at Camp White, Japanese Americans had lost their identity and their voice—because they “looked like our enemy,” in the words of Congressman Mark Takano in a speech to Congress last year.
     In Tule Lake Revisited: A Brief History and Guide to the Tule Lake Concentration Camp Site, authors Barbara Takei and Judy Tachibana say the camp prisoners did their best to be self-sufficient, improving their barracks, organizing school and church activities, and carrying on customs around events like weddings and births and deaths.
     “But underneath the superficial appearances of normality,” they write, “inmates struggled with anger, despair, fear and anxiety. Camp life was monotonous, rife with exasperating and petty discomforts. There was drinking and gambling and prostitution and occasional physical altercations when tempers flared. A former inmate, Toko Fujii, recalled the desperation and anger in seeing people ‘fight like dogs over the … scrap lumber that lay scattered in piles by the authorities. I couldn't believe it, that we were reduced to fighting amongst ourselves for lousy pieces of wood.'”
     The despair within the camp at Tulelake was also apparent to other observers. Toward the end of the war, German POWs from Camp White were bused to Northern California to work in the potato and onion harvests. Many of them were dropped off at the farms without guards, ate lunch with their employers, and often returned with new clothes or fresh-baked pies to their relatively comfortable quarters at a former Civilian Conservation Corps Camp not far from the “austere black-tar-paper barracks that imprisoned Japanese civilians,” according to John Fahey, the reeducation leader from Camp White who accompanied the POWs.
     “Several of the former POWs I interviewed thought it was another POW camp when they drove by [the Tule Lake Concentration Camp],” says George Kramer in a recent interview. “They were stunned when they found out that those guys behind those bars were American citizens.”

“Camp White hurled the Rogue Valley into the modern era,” Kramer writes in his history of the camp. After the war, most of its buildings were sold off and cleared away, and the infrastructure the camp left behind served as the underpinnings for an industrial development that came to be known as White City, whose motto is “Proud Past, Promising Future.” White City helped drive postwar industrial growth, powering an economic boom for Medford and Jackson County. Medford's population grew by more than 50 percent between 1940 and 1950. A new energy and optimism flourished. But despite all the change and turbulence and unmistakable progress, the racial character of the region hadn't changed. Today, 92.6 percent of Jackson County residents identify as white, and only 0.8 percent identify as African American.
     “None of the black people who the war brought to the Rogue Valley stayed. They all left and never came back,” Kramer says. “Medford could slip back into its prewar comfort zone.”
     Judy Takahira, who had been sent to Tule Lake and later to a camp in Topaz, Utah, returned to Medford after the war to finish high school with the class of 1946. She was the only Japanese American in the school that year. She describes those who were incarcerated with her as “model American citizens even though they were denied the legal right until after World War II.” Eventually she moved to Southern California.
     The stark contrast between the treatment of enemy soldiers who were white and European and the treatment of American citizens who were black or Japanese—who were “friends, neighbors, colleagues, partners, patients, customers, students, teachers,” as Lawson Inada says in his poem “Legends from Camp,” but who were nevertheless called “coloreds” or “Japs”—is inescapable. The World War II experience around Jackson County and the coincidentally appropriate naming of the community that grew from the remnants of Camp White make easy targets. But similar stories played out and continue in other parts of Oregon and across the United States.
     The State of Black Oregon 2015, a publication of the Urban League of Portland, includes the story of Julie Grey, a self-described “little, small black woman,” who runs a construction company in Jacksonville, about five miles west of Medford. She says her company has succeeded despite “a good old boys atmosphere” in the local business community, but it's difficult for most black-owned businesses. Local initiatives to support minority- and women-owned businesses may have lofty goals, she says, but there is no political mandate to meet them. She came under attack from white supremacists when she and other concerned citizens stood up to them at a local rally. She says that was an isolated incident and most of the community is supportive and friendly. Still, she is considering moving to someplace like Portland with a larger black community. “Interactions with other blacks is something you can't replace,” Grey says.
     Like Grey's neighbors who stood up with her against the white supremacists, people in Jackson County in the days of Camp White—people like the Carters and Virginia Westerfield—demonstrated acts of courageous kindness in the face of community-wide racism and government persecution. Even the openness of the community toward the German POWs showed the sort of kindness that we proudly claim as part of the character of Oregon. Kindness is a profoundly powerful virtue.
     But that kindness didn't give an identity to the black soldiers at Camp White or protect Japanese citizens from being imprisoned. Kindness alone didn't build the kind of community that felt welcoming to people who were not just like the white majority, a place they might want to call home.
     “Acknowledging that legacy and finding ways to bring it into the daylight and into open conversation is an important first step,” says Alex Budd, an organizer in the Rogue Valley office of Oregon Action, an intercultural movement for justice. “That doesn't fix the problem. But it's a bit of a prerequisite for more fundamental changes that need to happen.”
     We know what happens to those who don't learn from history. In November 2015, Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, called for the creation of a national database of Muslim Americans. Senator Ted Cruz, Trump's chief rival, recently called for law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” Now, Budd says, Southern Oregon's small Muslim community “seems to be pretty wary of being put in the spotlight or having any unnecessary attention drawn to themselves for fear of threats and intimidation from the community.” In the face of these dangers, Oregonians of goodwill must go beyond personal kindness, beyond awareness and learning, and actively fight the racist legacies in the state's history. No one should be the quiet friend who stands by and watches as people are excluded by a fearful community or a demagogue who's decided that “they” are not sufficiently like “us.”


Belonging, Civil Rights, Community, Government, History, International, Laws and legislation, Place, Politics, Power, Race, Public Policy, Divides, Global and Local


1 comments have been posted.

Thank you for an excellent article! By the way, my mother’s foreign-born German American uncle on the small Maryland farm next door to my immigrant grandparents’ was one of those imprisoned for being Garman-American, leaving his pregnant wife to run the farm. Why? Before the war broke out he’d gone to the German Embassy in DC to see if he could get some money sent from my great-grandmother to help send his boys to college?when they were so poor during the Depression. Plus a German accent, and a view of a tributary to the Potomac. But they let him out after six months and before that used him as an interpreter with the German POWs. My mother’s family was more fortunate because her father was Swedish-born.

Ingrid Peterson | September 2020 |

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