From Pensacola, Biloxi and Mobile, the 72-year-old story remains consistent. Venture west towards Grand Isle, Houma, Morgan City and even on into Beaumont, the details are almost identical and repeated along the entire Gulf Coast.
A priest, with a German last name or accent, signals German submarines or U-boats as they are called, with lights on the coast during the mandatory blackouts or via radio towers hidden in the church’s steeple or cemeteries. He meets the U-boats exchanging news and details of American troop movements and replenishes their supplies.
The priest is a traitor! A spy even! It’s an amazing tale, but it isn’t true … well not all of it.
U-boats did in fact torpedo and destroy nearly 70 American vessels in the Gulf of Mexico between 1942 and 1943. It got serious! German U-boats were in fact found, captured and sunk off many areas of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Nearly 20 U-boats in all were sunk during the same period.
On May 5, 1942, the first American ship was sunk by a U-boat and on July 10, just two and a half miles from the Caminada Bridge, the S.S. Benjamin Brewster met its demise from a U-boat’s torpedo. Nearly half aboard died from the initial blast while the remaining survivors perished in the fuel fires that burned on the surface of the water.
Grand Isle was chosen by the Civil Air Patrol as the first site to construct a base to launch air strikes to combat the constant threat of U-boat attacks emanating from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. The Louisiana Highway Department assisted and built a 900-foot runway along the beach. Coast Guardsmen even patrolled Grand Isle’s beaches with K-9s day and night for months.
The German-south Louisiana connection during WWII doesn’t end there. In 1943 with the U.S. draft in effect, many local sugar planters faced a severe labor shortage. Everything was considered from employing the parish’s high school males, bringing in workers from the cane growing islands of the Caribbean and even repositioning Mexican labor from the Southwest.
Neither of these options proved economical or sufficient enough to bring in the large sugar cane harvests typical of the Louisiana Sugar Cane Belt.
A radical idea was proposed by the American Sugar Cane League: use prisoner of war (POW) labor to harvest the tons of fall sugar cane crop. Regulations prevented building POW camps within 150 miles of any coast. Fear of a water escape, especially with the multitudes of U-boats in the Gulf, seemed a real possibility. The regulation was changed thanks to Louisiana’s senators at the urging of the American Sugar Cane League and Valentine Sugars.
Lafourche Parish began hastily constructing three camps – Valentine housing 167 laborers, Mathews an additional 218 and Thibodaux with a capacity to hold 621 POWs. The bulk of these laborers interred at the Lafourche camps were mostly German soldiers captured in Northern Africa from Hitler’s infamous Afrika Corps and not from submarines from the Gulf.
Edna Plantation, which was named after Valentine Marie Triche’s eldest daughter from her second marriage, sits on LA 1, directly across the bayou from the present day fixture and now shuttered Valentine Paper Mill.
In 1944, Edna Plantation’s 1,653-acre fall harvest was exclusively and timely performed by German POW laborers. The POW camp, with its two-story barracks, ten-foot fences and four guard towers, was constructed across the bayou on Highway 308 just north of where the paper mill is today. If you drive north on either LA 1 or 308, you won’t see any evidence that either existed. There is however a green, private street sign that reads EDNA PLANTATION RD … the only physical marker labeling the former plantation’s site.
The Articles of the Geneva Convention of 1929 ensured fair and decent treatment of all POW laborers. No work which was “degrading, unhealthy or hazardous” was to be performed by any POW. Also, the manufacture, maintenance or transport of munitions or weapons of any kind were also prohibited.
Inspections at the camps were conducted regularly by the Swiss legate (Switzerland was a neutral nation), the International Red Cross and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The reports generated by these inspectors allowed enemy governments to monitor POW treatment and exchange mail and gifts from their home countries, a guarantee outlined in the Geneva Convention. Another guarantee – POW health and well being.
Enter one of the few lower Lafourche physicians at the time, Dr. Guy Jones who was charged with the task of caring for each POW’s physical health at Edna Plantation.
“They referred to my father as ‘Honorable Doctor Jones’”, says Pam Patron, eldest daughter of the German soldier’s sole caretaker. She fondly recalls accompanying her father to the POW camp every Sunday after mass.
“I was twelve at the time, but I remember the Germans talking to us and sharing their apples,” she said. “Things were rationed for civilians, but not so much for the POWs. We (children) never went into the camp with my father, but talked with the Germans through the fence. They were all very nice to us,” she added.
“The Germans were forced into service,” Patron recalls. “They were very talented men – engineers, artists and mechanics. Many spoke English.”
“I still have a table in my house that the Germans made for my Grandfather. It’s a beautiful oak table with chairs,” says Jacques Folse, Dr. Jones’ grandson. “My grandfather, who passed away in 1974, always said they were displaced persons, not prisoners.
“They didn’t have to, but they gave him gifts like this all the time because they had no money, but respected my grandfather and how he treated them”, he added. “They wanted to show their appreciation and thanks.”
“Many of the soldiers wrote to my father after the war ended when they got home,” says Patron. “They never asked my dad for money, but my father would send shoes for their children. Dad was a kind and generous man,” she said. “He had a great respect and admiration for all people, regardless of their situation.”
Marc Kimball is a contributing writer for The Lafourche Gazette. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com.
This photo is of a Prisoner of War camp at Edna Plantation in Valentine.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, LA.
Posted on Fri, August 29, 2014
by Marc Kimball, Contributing Writer