Returning to Gainesville
Some POWs had such fond memories of Camp Howze and Gainesville that they, or their children, returned to Gainesville decades later. These return visits were enthusiastically received by the people of Gainesville, reflecting the warm feelings that characterize the historical memory of the Camp Howze POWs' relationship with the surrounding area for both the former POWs and residents of the greater Gainesville area.
Wolfgang Weber is an example of a POW who was held at Camp Howze and chose to return and visit in the 1970s. He stated in a letter that he was at Camp Howze from 1945 to 1946 before he eventually was sent back to Europe. After this, he chose to return to the United States, which then led him to visit Camp Howze. When he visited he even spoke to a farmer who worked the land where Camp Howze had been. At the time, the farmer mentioned that Weber had been the only POW to return. However, since then, other former prisoners of war have returned to Gainseville to visit.
Lorens Hartl (no relation to Friedrich Hartl) was one example of a POW who returned to Camp Howze. Interned at Camp Howze in 1944-45, Hartl remembered his time there so fondly that in 1989, at the age of seventy-seven, he returned to Gainesville on a visit. Hartl spoke no English and was accompanied by his bilingual grandson.
In 1944, Hartl was a young German farmer who had done his best to stay with his family and avoid the war. However, the war situation grew desperate enough for the Nazis that Hartl was drafted with the simple ultimatum “fight, or be shot.” Hartl was quickly trained and then immediately deployed to defend Normandy from the Allied invasion. Before he had been in the field long, Hartl was wounded and captured. After being transferred between several different military hospitals, Hartl wound up at Camp Howze, where he would spend the rest of the war.
Hartl’s remembered life at Camp Howze as being “very pleasant” for the German POWs. Many German soldiers, including Hartl, had been forced into military service. As a result, these soldiers did not feel like they had lost any freedom by being transferred from German control to American control. Many POWs were actually grateful to the Allies for removing them from the front lines of the war.
Hartl, being wounded, was not required to work. However, Hartl was grateful enough to the Americans that he voluntarily worked anyways. There was no shortage of recreational activities for the POWs either. Hartl’s personal favorite was the POW theater troupe. The POW theater troupe, adorned in clothes donated by the women of Gainesville, put on shows for other POWs and the occasional curious US officer.
After Hartl was released from US custody, he struggled to reunite with his war-displaced family. It took Hartl over two years, and the help of the Red Cross, to finally track down his family in a refugee camp in Austria. Hartl and his family relocated to Frankfurt, where they were finally able to live peacefully. But Hartl never stopped thinking about his time in Camp Howze, half a world away. In fact, as he grew older, Hartl only thought and talked about Camp Howze more and more. Twelve years after he retired, he finally made the pilgrimage back to where he had made so many memories more than four decades earlier.
Not all POWs who remembered their time at Camp Howze fondly were able to return to Gainesville before they died, but that didn’t necessarily mean that the story of their relationship with Camp Howze and Gainesville was over. Friedrich Hartl Sr. (no relation to Lorens Hartl) was a German POW who was interned at Camp Howze from July 1944 through April 1946 (POWs were not freed immediately when the war ended). Although Hartl Sr. had been interned at multiple European POW camps before he was transferred to Howze, he only talked about “the American one” after the war. Hartl Sr. had been thoroughly impressed by both the comfortable conditions at the camp and the kindness of the people of Gainesville. After the war, when knowledge of the brutal conditions that German POWs had had to endure in Soviet camps, Hartl Sr. became even more grateful for the treatment he had received from the Americans.
Hartl Sr. told many stories about his fond memories of his time in the American POW camp to his children, including his son, Friedrich “Fritz” Hartl Jr. Hartl Sr. wanted to return to the camp, and Hartl Jr. wanted to accompany his father and see the place where he had somehow made such happy memories during a terrible war. The only problem was, Hartl Sr. couldn’t remember the name of the camp (which, unbeknownst to him, had been completely dismantled after the war). Hartl Sr. died of a heart attack in 1983, but his son continued to search for the camp.
Eventually, with the help of the children of another POW who had been at Camp Howze with Hartl Sr., Hartl Jr. was able to identify the place where his father had spent the last years of the war. In 2007, sixty-one years after his father had left Texas, Hartl Jr. returned to Gainesville. When informed of the impending visit, some Gainesville residents prepared a formal reception and tour of the former campgrounds for Hartl Jr. Hartl Jr. gave a speech in Gainesville, relaying the story of his father’s time at Camp Howze and his subsequent efforts to return. Hartl Jr., and expert woodworker, gave a handcrafted wooden box to Gainesville’s Morton Museum as a token of his immense appreciation for the kindness that the people of the city had shown to both him and his father. As of 2022, the Hartl box is still in the possession of the Morton Museum.