By Robert Lanier
Monday, August 13, 1945 was another hot Memphis summer day. It was a special day for more reasons than one, however. The morning newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, headlined unconfirmed reports of Japanese surrender. The next day the top of the front page read, “War Over, Tokyo says; Our Terms Accepted.” In perhaps the only useful act of his life, Emperor Hirohito had decided that it was time for his people to stop committing suicide, and ordered a surrender. It was the day everyone in America had hoped for the last three years and eight months. Memphians celebrated in various ways. Many of the men on my street, including my father, went outside and fired their guns into the air. The whole war was over at last. The Germans had surrendered unconditionally over three months earlier.
The surrender of Germany in May had not meant instant return of all enemy prisoners of war, however. Not only were we technically still at war with Germany until a peace treaty was signed, but labor shortages here and caution against guerilla warfare in Europe decided the government to delay their repatriation.1 Japanese soldiers generally did not surrender and had to be killed, so almost the only Japanese imprisoned in this country were Japanese-American citizens or residents from the West Coast, some of whom were confined in Arkansas. There was a German POW (prisoner of war) prison camp in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, and non-officer prisoners were often assigned to various jobs in the area to make up for the manpower shortage caused by the war. American men were in the armed forces in huge numbers. On the day in question, one of the German prisoners, Sergeant (Feldwebel) Heintz Heimman, captured as part of the Afrika Corps in North Africa, was assigned to work at a cotton compress in West Memphis. He could see the Memphis skyline across the river and decided that he wanted to see Memphis for himself. Ordinarily German prisoners wore plain work clothes without markings, except for giant “PW” letters painted on them, but this day Heimman changed into his tan military uniform. Apparently he was not guarded very carefully, for he made the long walk across the river on the eastbound pedestrian walkway provided on the side of the Harahan Bridge, which also carried train tracks and auto traffic. He emerged near the Municipal River and Rail Terminal Interchange Yards, where river freight was transferred to rail cars, near West Virginia Street. From there, it was but a short walk north up Main Street Memphis.
By now, it was about 1:45 in the afternoon and he was no doubt thirsty. Heimman spoke perfect English and ventured to try to buy some beer, presumably at one of the small beer “joints” like the Green Beetle on South Main. Unfortunately for him, he had only tokens or “skrip”, which was issued to pay prisoners for their work, and no American money. No merchant would take those as payment, and apparently did not even recognize or report the fact that there was a Wehrmacht soldier in their midst. It was wartime. The naval base at Millington, just north of Memphis, produced numbers of uniformed men, including tan-uniformed Marines, walking the downtown streets on pass or leave. Perhaps it was not so strange that another such uniform was not scrutinized very carefully. Heimman proceded north on Main, taking in the sights. Some American servicemen noticed him, but even foreign military such as British or Canadians were not unknown to the base. It was not long, however, before a civilian, Harry Baldridge, manager of the Hotel Peabody’s Skyway restaurant and ballroom, looked more carefully and noticed the swastika insignia on the German’s uniform. He ran for police patrolman W. M. Williamson who was stationed at the corner of Main and Union streets and reported what he had seen. The two men jumped into Baldrige’s car, which was parked on Main, and started after Heimman, who was soon apprehended without resistence. He was taken to the police station where he was turned over to the custody of the naval Shore Patrol, who were in charge of military arrests.
Sergeant Heimman was lighthearted and laughing as he told the Shore Patrol in his perfect English that he was not trying to escape and had merely wanted to see something of Memphis. He said that he was very satisfied with his POW camp. He had apparently been excused from picking cotton. When asked why he had come in his German uniform, he replied that he very sensibly wanted to be sure that he was not shot as a spy. The arresting authorities seem to have gotten the impression that the German was a paratrooper because he wore an emblem with wings and a swastika. He may, indeed, have been a fallschirmjäger (paratrooper), but the fact that he wore an emblem of an eagle clutching a swastika did not prove it, as all German uniforms had such an emblem above the right breast pocket. Paratroopers were part of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, but their chest emblem varied little from that of the army or navy. Further evidence of the Shore Patrolmen’s befuddlement came when they reported that, although the German gave them the name of his home city of about 250,000 on the Rhine, (about the size of Memphis), they could not “interpret” it.2
Probably few Memphians today know that not only Arkansas and Mississippi housed enemy prisoners of war during 1943-46, but the Armed Service Forces Depôt, known to Memphians simply as “the Army Depôt,” housed hundreds of captured Germans and Italians. Built in early 1942 for a different purpose, the facility on Airways Boulevard first housed 250 Italian soldiers in early 1944 as a branch of the prison camp at Como, Mississippi. It was surrounded by a double wire fence, topped by barbed wire and guarded by 50 soldiers. More than 70 camps were located in the Mid-South, and eleven in Tennessee. Around the first of May of 1944, 300 Germans took the place of the Italians in Memphis, as Italy had switched sides in the war. German infusions ended in October, when it seemed that the war was all but over, but picked up in February, 1945, after the Battle of the Bulge. On the Airways complex there were eventually four buildings as barracks and 50 tents, housing almost 2,000 prisoners. Most of the Memphis prisoners worked at tasks around the depot, but those at surrounding camps might be used in the cotton fields or at jobs such as Heimman had in West Memphis. Arkansas housed 41 POW camps. Until the German surrender in May, 1945, when it was discovered that American POWs had been treated pretty severely and Jews and others exterminated, the Germans had better food than in their own army and reasonably comfortable quarters. Some Memphians even supplemented their rations. The revelations of cruelty resulted in more Spartan fare for the prisoners. The last Memphis prisoners were sent home on June 5, 1946.3
During the war, Memphians were aware that there were enemy prisoners in their midst. But none anticipated a brazen interloper like Heimman. That may be what preserved him from more severe consequences from his stroll.
Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection.
1 Hazel Wages, “Memphis Armed Service Forces Depot,” 52 Tenessee Historical Quarterly, (1993), p. 29.
2 “P.O.W. Takes Stroll on Main, Wearing Swastika and Wings,” The Commercial Appeal, August 14, 1945, p.11; “German Soldier is Caught on Main!” The Memphis Press-Scimitar, August 14, 1945, p. 11.
3 Wages, op. cit., passim; “Beans, Blankets and Barbed Wire,” Wikipedia article, anonymous; Bill Carey, “Former German soldier recalls life at Crossville POW camp,” The Tennessee Magazine, July, 2015, p.14.