In my latest travel book, Santa Barbara Know It All, I ask in a quiz at the end of the book if World War II prisoners held in POW camps here in Santa Barbara were used in harvesting local grapes, and other crops. It’s not a trick question, because it’s actually true. Then, I heard about this book German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California and its very detailed account of the exact POW camp I referenced - Camp Cooke, located in Lompoc, and now part of Vandenberg Air Force Base.
June 16, 1944
The first train load of WWII German prisoners arrived at
Camp Cooke in Santa Barbara.
After the men reached various camps across the US they were processed, given new clothes and then put to work in the fields picking everything from sugar beets, cotton, to tomatoes, grapes, etc. As POW Adolf Kelmer mentions, "It was surprising to me that we were paid for our labor. The money had a significant buying power in the camp at canteen. We bought cigarettes, sweets, toilet articles and many other things that for a long time had been unavailable to us in the German army. "
This book chronicles 14 people - not necessarily prisoners, not even Germans - but human beings like you and me. It follows the ups and downs, the tedium of prison life, the private dreams and hopes of men living in a confined environment, and the aftermath of the war that placed them there. Werner Blanck summed it up best after Camp Cooke closed and he was released. "If I could have stayed in California when Camp Cooke was closing in 1946 I would have done so. I liked the country and the people. Looking back on my military service and my time as a prisoner of war in America, I learned that there could be no justification to use force against another. I see no reason why disagreements between nations cannot be settled peacefully."
A read of this book will restore your faith in humanity, and given our current global conflicts, we all need to know that throughout history there are good people, quietly making the world a little better; be they prisoners, guards, or simply people caught up in a global conflict not of their own making.
German Prisoners of War at Camp Cooke, California
Jeffrey E. Geiger
Jeffrey E. Geiger