AMERICA'S entry into World War II brought many changes to the home front. Northeastern Oklahoma felt the impact firsthand on January 8, 1942, when the Muskogee Phoenix confirmed a report naming the Cookson Hills as the site for a planned military cantonment. The complex would be named Camp Gruber in honor of the late Brigadier General Edmund L. Gruber, composer of "The Caisson Song." The camp was located on Highway 10, eighteen miles east of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Manhattan Construction Company of Muskogee was awarded the building contract, and a work force of 12,000 men began construction in February 1942. The production pace in the first month was so hectic that a building was completed every twenty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It took four months to build the camp, at a project cost of thirty million dollars.
When construction was completed in late May of 1942, the main post occupied 260 acres with 2,250 buildings. Included in the mass of buildings were a 1600-bed hospital, 479 barracks, 19 post exchanges,12 chapels, and various social and recreation centers. The camp had a central post office with three branches. At one time, the 88th division post office ranked fourth in the state for volume of business. Camp Gruber was a city within itself.
The vast parade ground was nearly two miles in length, and lined by barracks on one side. The barracks were painted white with green trim, and built off the ground. Other buildings in the complex had concrete bases. Gravel sidewalks linked the buildings, with the exception of the hospital which had a wooden sidewalk and covered walkway. The streets inside the main post were paved. East-west streets were lettered alphabetically; north-south routes were numbered. A bus service provided transportation within the camp, at a cost of five cents. A rail system extended tracks into the post, allowing easy access for loading and unloading of supplies and troops.
Civilian newspapers were available for the troops, in addition to the camp newspaper, The Gruber Guidon, which was published weekly. The Guidon helped acquaint the servicemen to the post and surrounding area. The camp had two officer clubs and three service clubs for enlisted men. Three guesthouses within the complex were available for spouses, families, or friends.
Physical recreation facilities were provided for all service personnel. Three swimming pools, a sports arena, twenty-four softball, and ten baseball diamonds were located throughout the complex. Camp Gruber soldiers, known as the "Huskies of the 173rd Field Artillery," played Service League Football with area colleges. Hunting restrictions applied on the post, but fishing was allowed on nearby Greenleaf Lake. The camp theaters brought the latest movies to the troops, who watched the films on wooden benches. The auditoriums were large; four theaters seated over 900 persons. Boxing matches and USO shows provided special entertainment. Famous visitors included actor Cary Grant, and Joe Louis.
Camp Gruber had its own celebrities. In civilian life, Private Arthur Johnston, 88th Division, 351st Medical Detachment, was the Hollywood composer of hits such as "Pennies From Heaven," and "Just One More Chance." Another notable soldier stationed at Camp Gruber was actor William Holden. Ironically, Holden was stationed at a camp where Americans held German POWs, but one of his most famous roles was as an American POW in Stalag 17.
Camp Gruber opened on May 21, 1942, with Colonel H.C. Luck assigned as post commander. The first infantry division at the new facility was the 88th. The division originated in 1917 at Camp Dodge, Iowa, and during World War I became know as the "Cloverleaf" division. On July 15, 1942, the 88th was reactivated at Camp Gruber under the division command of Major General John E. Sloan. The 202nd field artillery opened fire on October 5, 1942, and began training exercises. Private Lee Pray, Quartermaster Detachment, was already at home on the new post. Private Pray was training on part of his family's 1400 acres requisitioned by the U.S. government.
Extra security was necessary for a special visitor to Camp Gruber. Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived on Sunday, April 18, 1943, to watch the 88th division parade. After enjoying the parade, the President ate chili con carne and visited with the troops who were scheduled for deployment. The 88th division trained nearly a year at Camp Gruber. After additional training in Louisiana, the unit left Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for Europe.
Camp Gruber made local headlines on June 5, 1943, when the Muskogee Phoenix released an army disclosure of plans to establish a prisoner of war camp at Gruber. When completed, the facility had a capacity of 5,750 prisoners, with branches located at Bixby, Haskell, Morris, Okemah, Okmulgee, Porter, and Wetumka. In 1944, Glennan General Hospital in Okmulgee was added as a branch for the treatment of POWs. The prisoner camp was located across Highway 10 and one-half mile south of the U.S. complex. The facility had three main compounds, which were surrounded by double barbed wire fence; outside the fence stood guard towers. In the middle of camp was a central control tower. The post was equipped with a mess hall, showers, and a canteen, where items such as cigarettes and beer could be purchased. There was also a soccer field, chapel, and camp theater. Walkways and gravel roads ran throughout the camp.
The prisoner barracks were painted green and white, and had small windows. The quarters were heated with natural gas. Barrack walls were painted gray inside, and lined with homemade shelves. The beds were iron-frame, and some men had pictures of family or Adolph Hitler posted above their bunks.
Camp Gruber only housed German captives, veterans of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. The first prisoners of war were received May 29, 1943. Former Camp Gruber guard Theophiel Hecht remembered the night. "The first bunch we brought in came at night. We had to frisk them down. We were up all night and then they went to the showers. One guy escaped but we caught him. They were all counted."
The prisoners arrived by train and were then marched or transported by truck to the compound. After arriving at camp, the POWs were counted and told to throw their clothing into a big pile. The POWs were issued khaki uniforms with "PW" painted on the back, in addition to toothbrushes, soap, and other personal items. After a shower, the prisoners were allowed to eat. Meals consisted of roast beef, sauerkraut, potatoes, other vegetables, puddings, and tea. Boxes containing food items also arrived from Germany. The German people were fearful of American animosity toward the internees, but they were so well fed that a weight gain of ten pounds was not uncommon.
Under the 1929 Geneva Convention, POWs could be required to work, if that work was to benefit their captors. In turn, the captives were paid eighty cents daily. Camp Gruber POWs worked in two areas. Farmers in need of help used them to harvest crops. During December 1943, more than 4,000 acres of spinach were harvested in Muskogee County. Prisoners also worked at a rock quarry located three miles from Camp Gruber. The POWs walked to the site. For security purposes, traffic along Highway 10 was stopped for thirty minutes before and after the prisoner working hours.
The stonework was used for several camp projects, and the prisoners were allowed to use the rocks for crafting artwork in the prison compound. Miniatures produced were: the Brandenburg gate, a six foot square stone mosaic map of Africa, a tank destroyer, a Black Forest mill, and other intricately detailed works.
Sundays were a day of rest, and the prisoners played soccer. Every Sunday, a Swedish Red Cross representative visited the camp. Camp Gruber personnel were not allowed to search the Red Cross car. The captives were well treated. Theophiel Hecht later recalled an incident where an American sergeant was punished for "mistreatment" of the prisoners.
"We were coming back from the rock quarry and the prisoners were chanting and causing a commotion. The guards were getting nervous. The sergeant in the command car stood up, took out his pistol and fired one shot into the sky. The prisoners all jumped." He said, "I made a mistake, I shouldn't have done that. He was reported and they busted him down to a private. That's how we treated the prisoners."
The guards who had prison duty were called "Military Police Escort Guards" and took classes in jujitsu to assist with prisoner control. Prisoner attitude was initially arrogant, and they rebelled in their own way. Kurt Trummer, a former German POW, recalled a Sunday afternoon in the compound, when "down went the American flag, up goes the Swastika."
Some of the men tried to escape. Theophiel Hecht related an incident where a prisoner sneaked away from his job at the rock quarry. He decided to return to camp, but the guard, not believing he was a POW, told him to go home. The German replied that he would like to go home, but he lived too far away. After checking with the main post, the guard let the prisoner in.
On July 14, 1943, the 42nd Infantry Division was reactivated at Camp Gruber under the division command of General Harry J. "Hollywood" Collins. Like the 88th division, the 42nd had a history of World War I service. General Douglas McArthur, its most famous member, gave the division its nickname when he claimed, "The 42nd Infantry Division stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other." Basic training began in October 1943, but constant transfers and replacements hampered the division's progress. In July 1944, officials at the War Department notified the division commander that intensive training and preparation for overseas duty must be completed within six months. Several months later regiments of the 42nd were restricted to Camp Gruber on November 11, 1944. Troop trains left Camp Gruber for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey on November 13, 1944. The next stop was Germany.
Soldiers with "bunk fatigue" alleviated their boredom with a trip to Muskogee, which became a "home away from home." Victory Bus Lines provided transportation to and from the camp. In 1942, a one-day fare was 34 cents, round-trip was 61cents. Once in Muskogee, a soldier had the choice of five movie theaters, numerous eating places, a skating rink, Red Cross facility, and other activities which were less wholesome in nature. Emile Bonagera of the 232nd field artillery later recalled, "You had to go buy moonshine in Muskogee to get a real drink."
Muskogee adopted the troops at Camp Gruber and took them into their hearts and homes. Earlene Salyers remembered her childhood, when soldiers filled the house at Christmas. "They were here by themselves and Daddy [Sergeant Robert Crane] brought them home with him. You hated the thought of them spending Christmas alone."
Because of the increase in population, Muskogee had a housing shortage. The city did not seem to mind and was alive with constant activity. Soldiers were seen everywhere. Salyers also remembered, "Little boys saluted the soldiers, and the soldiers were always giving candy to the kids. They didn't have a sugar ration. Everyone tried to be nice to them, because you realized they were fighting that war for you."
Deployments were hard on both soldiers and civilians. When the 42nd Division was deployed, the first wave left the camp by train, but the second wave left by truck convoy in December 1944. "When the 42nd left, people lined up and down the streets, and everyone waved. Soldiers sat on the hoods and fenders of the transports and tossed candy and little American flags to the kids. It was hard to see them go, very hard, because you knew a lot of them personally, and you knew a lot of them wouldn't be coming back. A lot of people cried that day."
Service at Camp Gruber was not confined to combat soldiers. The infantry divisions did not completely evacuate the post, since some soldiers and units were permanently stationed at the camp. Drilling and training of all types were conducted at the post. Sergeant Robert Crane worked in the motorpool, 1881st Medical, and trained ambulance drivers. His daughter recalled, "He came from a farm and could drive anything. A lot of those boys came from places like New York and didn't know how to drive. He had to teach them. " In addition to men training for combat, Camp Gruber had a WAC detachment. The unit was unique, for its members were black.
Civilian employment at the post began during the construction phase and continued into the war. Area residents occupied a variety of jobs inside the camp and supplemented the military in areas such as the post office, dental clinics, motorpools, laundry, and the post exchange. During the war, Camp Gruber was the largest civilian employer in eastern Oklahoma.
Water supply became a problem in 1944. Greenleaf Lake, created by a dam built on a small creek, provided the water supply for Camp Gruber. In 1943, the post experienced a water loss of 6,000,000 gallons daily. There was obviously a problem with the dam, but the leak could not be found and continue to drain the water supply. Heavy rainfall in 1943 helped counter the water loss, but the next year was very dry. The drought conditions and water leakage nearly dried up the lake. Lieutenant Colonel Hal C. Horton, executive officer at the camp, was duck hunting one winter morning when he spotted a flock of ducks swimming in open water; however the rest of the water in the area was frozen over. Colonel Horton reported the site and the leak was promptly plugged.
A tense moment in Camp Gruber's history came at the military trial and court-martial of five German POWs. The men were indicted for beating fellow prisoner Johannes Kunze to death on November 4, 1943. The incident had occurred at the Tonkawa prisoner camp, but the trial was held at Gruber since it was under provost marshal jurisdiction. Court-martial proceedings began in closed-door session on January 17, 1944. Fear of trial publicity and prisoner of war reaction throughout the country called for an element of secrecy. Former camp guard Theophiel Hecht recalled, "Everything in the camp was hush-hush [during the trial]. Only certain ones went in there." The five were found guilty and sentenced to hang. The executions were carried out on July 10, 1945, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In January 1945, the 36th Army Corps Headquarters were transferred from Fort Riley, Kansas to Camp Gruber. The corps commander at Camp Gruber was Major General Charles H. Corlett. On April 22, 1945, disaster again struck Muskogee, in the form of a tornado. Army ambulances from Camp Gruber helped transport the injured to area hospitals. The city suffered a water shortage following the tornado, and the army pumped water from the Arkansas River to supply the area.
German prisoner morale dropped as the war went on. The captives were denied access to outside news but tried to get information through other means. Theophiel Hecht recalled one of those ways. "One guy was an electronics whiz. He made a ham radio. He couldn't send but he could pick up a German broadcast. Of course, they thought all of our stuff was propaganda. In the end, they started to realize things weren't so good."
May 8, 1945 was VE Day in Europe. After three years overseas, Camp Gruber's Third Infantry Division would be returning stateside. The 86th "Black Hawk" was initially stationed at Camp Howze, Texas, when activated on December 15, 1942. The youthful age of its corps earned the 86th a new name - "Kid Division." The division was in combat for forty-two days and was the first allied division to cross the Danube. While in Europe, the "Kid Division" served with four different American armies, and liberated over 200,00 allied prisoners of war. After serving in the European campaign, the 86th was to report to the new division home at Camp Gruber. Retraining for the Pacific theater was scheduled to begin soon after the unit arrived at Camp Gruber on July 22, 1945.
Muskogee citizens were anxious to welcome the division home, and numerous festivities were planned. The August 6th bomb at Hiroshima changed those plans, and orders were issued for the 86th to proceed immediately to the West Coast. After a two-week stay, the division departed Camp Gruber on August 7, 1945.
The infantry divisions returning to Camp Gruber compiled a remarkable record of service. Like the "Kid Division," the 88th "Cloverleaf" acquired a new name during World War II. After breaking through a German resistance line at Santa Maria, the 88th encircled the retreating troops. Blaine Greer remembered the episode afterwards, "Nazi Sally came back on the radio whining that 'those blue cloverleafed devils are after us again.' So from then on we were tagged the nickname - 'The Blue Devils.'"
"The Blue Devils" were the first allied troop element to enter Rome on June 4, 1944. The 88th saw 344 days of combat, and casualties were high (15,173 dead, wounded, and missing). The men of the 88th were awarded numerous military honors, including two Congressional Medals of Honor.
December 1944, was the last major German offensive on the western front. The 42nd "Rainbow" Division went into combat during the Battle of the Bulge. By April 1945, the unit was in Munich. Some German troops were so impressed with the 42nd, they though of them as part of Roosevelt's "Rainbow SS." Ironically, it was the "Rainbow SS" that liberated the notorious Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945. A patrol from the 42nd was also responsible for the capture of SS General Von Oberg, the "Butcher of Paris." The division was in combat for 114 days.
Emile Bonagera, 232nd Field Artillery, recalled a story about a friend during the war, "He was captured in Germany. He persuaded a German fraulein to help him. She said she would, providing that he got a letter to her son -- a POW in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. He got away, safe and sound, and threw the letter in the ditch."
Camp Gruber closed the prisoner compound in May 1946. The highest number of POWs confined at the camp, 4, 702, occurred on October 3, 1945. During the camp's three year history, eight men escaped. They were quickly recaptured, or turned themselves in. The former captives did not return immediately to Germany; some were sent to work in war-ravaged countries to help repair damages. Food, clothing, and shelter shortages were prevalent in Europe. To prepare them for conditions at home, POW rations were cut in May 1945. The prisoners thought the Americans were being cruel.
Mary Dill, of Wagoner, Oklahoma, became acquainted with several prisoners while working at Camp Gruber. After the war, she corresponded with them, sending clothing and "care packages" to the former captives and their families.
Not everyone felt kind toward the Germans. Upon their return to Camp Gruber, angry American troops shot and smashed the POW stonework. Tensions were particularly high after hearing of numerous German atrocities to allied prisoners.
Camp Gruber closed at the end of the war, and dismantling the camp began. The buildings, with few exceptions, were sold or donated for civilian use. The remaining concrete foundations are consumed by grass, but represent the magnitude of the camp in its prime. The prisoner compound no longer has buildings, and the area is overgrown with thicket. Salvaged stonework, and a drainage ditch inscribed "PW 1943," are the only visible indications of the German prisoners of war.
Camp Gruber reopened in 1977, for reserve and active unit training. In 1988, the National Guard Air Assault School was opened. The school is the only air assault training facility for the National Guard, and is rated number one of all air assault schools in the nation.
by Janet Allen
Muskogee's Regional Heritage Center
Museum Hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday - Saturday