Heart of Louisiana: Camp Ruston

Heart of Louisiana: Camp Ruston
Published: Nov. 15, 2017 at 12:47 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2017 at 4:04 PM CST
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(WVUE) - The design of these two overgrown, dilapidated wooden buildings has an old but familiar military look. Inside, the deteriorating walls give no clue of what was here when they were built more than 70 years ago. They were part of a hospital unit of a sprawling prisoner of war camp near the north Louisiana city of Ruston.

"Camp Ruston was one of the largest in the United States. It reached a peak population of about 5,000 POWs," Wesley Harris said.

Harris is an author and local historian who has researched the WWII POW camp.

Reporter: "When you first heard that there were Germans being imprisoned in POW camps in the Ruston area, did you find that a bit far-fetched?"

Harris: "It kind of surprised me. I had no idea growing up that that had happened."

Most of the prisoners at Camp Ruston came from North Africa and were part of Rommel's Africka Corps. But a few others were crew members from the U-505, the only German submarine captured by the U.S. Navy.

"And almost all of them used the same phrase that living at Camp Ruston was like a vacation - they would much rather be at Camp Ruston than in the deserts of North Africa. Or on U-boat being attacked by a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Many of the POWs were allowed to work as laborers in the Ruston area.

"With all the men gone to war, though, there was no labor force to pick the cotton and operate the saw mills. The prisoners were basically rented out," Harris said.

The library at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston has a collection of artifacts from the POW camp. There are the remains of a model castle, one of the popular pastimes of the prisoners. They built other models and created paintings of scenes back in their homeland.

"They were encouraged to really explore their creative efforts and abilities," said Nolan Eller. "In fact, there was choirs, there was an orchestra. On display we have a doll house that was created entirely out of materials that were found at the camp and in fact the shingles of the house, actually shoe leather.

When WWII ended, the prisoners were sent home to Europe.

"Prisoners could not stay, but there were many, many that were interned at Camp Ruston who emigrated to the United States at some point afterwards," Harris said.

By mid-1946, Camp Ruston was empty, its buildings abandoned. These decaying structures are nearly all that remains at the camp site.  They make you wonder what it was like during the war years, when thousands of soldiers captured on the battlefields of Africa and Europe were temporarily part of the landscape.

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