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WORLD WAR TWO PRISONER OF WAR LONG UNDERWEAR FOUND IN STORAGE AT FORT SAM HOUSTON, TEXAS – VERY SCARCE POW ARTIFACTS:  During the first months that the United States was involved in World War Two, an estimated 2,000 prisoners of war (POW) were brought to the U.S.  By the fall of 1942, the need to relieve the overcrowded POW camps overseas caused the US to create a regulated internment program.  The immediate effort transported some 50,000 POWs held by the British in North Africa to the US and confined in camps at major military posts, reactivated Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and at civilian facilities such as race tracks and fairgrounds. The flow of POW's from Europe and the Pacific continued to grow as the war progressed, and with it the need for additional larger and more specifically planned facilities. 

So it was that Fort Sam Houston, located on a substantial reservation of land on the northeast side of downtown San Antonio, Texas, came to house one of the largest of these POW camps within the continental United States, housing over 4,000 Austrian, German, Italian and Japanese prisoners.  Once located north of the present boundaries of the Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery, no vestiges of the camp remain – the last buildings and foundations giving way to the modernization of the post.  While most of the prisoners were repatriated to their home nations at the end of the war, 144 soldiers who died in the camp are interned at the National Cemetery, each grave marked by the standard marble headstone one sees in any military cemetery.   

As the internment system developed, the US military custodians and the civilian populations surrounding the camps recognized that the prisoners represented a valuable manpower pool and finding activities to occupy their time was in the best interest of good order in the camps.  A program was launched allowing the POW’s to volunteer for employment at business, manufacturing, and agricultural operations local to the camps.  The civilian concerns paid $1.60/hr. for each POW, half of which was retained by the government for the cost of feeding, housing, transportation to the job site and guarding the prisoners in these work parties and the other half was held on account for the prisoner.  A limited amount was paid to the POW each month in camp canteen script to prevent the internees from building a stock of US currency which might be used to aid an escape attempt, with the balance of his pay held in trust which was paid to them when they were repatriated at the end of the war.   A significant number of prisoners returned home with a considerable nest egg as the result of this work and savings program.   

Whether within the confines of the camp, engaged in work parties around the surrounding military post, or on one of the civilian employment crews, the POW’s clothing was well marked with a large “PW” on the front and back of the shirt or jacket, and often on the pants and hats as well, again to inhibit any attempts to escape.  As their original uniforms wore out the POW’s were issued obsolete US Army working uniforms such as the blue dungaree shirts, trousers and hats of the 1930’s, as well as underwear, socks and footwear.  In hot climates such as south Texas even the cotton dungaree shirts would be uncomfortable and it is likely the POW’s stripped down to their underwear shirts, necessitating that these long handles be marked “PW” as well.   

When the war ended and the POW’s were repatriated to their home nations, or in the case of some, were allowed to remain in the US and establish lives here, they had no further use of this “PW” marked clothing.  While one would expect that most of the used clothing was destroyed once it was turned in, apparently like so many other things the army decided some of the marked clothing was worth keeping, at least some small quantity of it, in anticipation of a future need.   

In the late 1960’s Ft. Sam Houston was demolishing a stand of World War One and Two vintage barracks and warehouses in preparation for new construction projects.  In one of these buildings a small long-forgotten quantity of these suits of long underwear was found, each bearing at least one “PW” stencil, and some so marked in several locations on the suit.  A local collector who had contacts on the post became aware of the find and being a forward thinking individual and one that recognized history when it passed through his hands, he retrieved the cache of these suits from the trash heap.  I recently became aware of their existence and was able to buy all that remained of the original find to offer here. 

Each of these suits is full form and while showing evidence of having been worn, is free from any serious wear or damage.  There are a few stains, some paint splatters, but overall they are in wearable condition.  Most are complete with all the buttons down the front, but some are missing some of the buttons.  The suits are marked in what appear to be one of two standard, and very intentional, styles of “PW” and the marking is applied without any apparent difference in the size or degree of wear of the suit.  There are those which are painted with a broad, bold “PW” in black paint on both the front of the chest and the center of the back – and in one case, an additional stencil on one buttock.  Then there is a second pattern of marking with the "PW" applied in a reddish orange paint, which in most cases are marked in only one place – front or back of the upper body.  Why the difference in the marking styles is something that is lost to history, but I suspect there was a reason.   

The discovery of this cache reminds me a man I met years ago who through research had determined that the parachutes used to resupply the besieged US troops in the Bastogne pocket during the Battle of the Bulge were dyed light blue.  From what he told me, this was a unique use of that color for parachute silk, chosen at that time so that the chutes wouldn’t be glaringly visible to the Germans against the sky as they came to earth, but in turn, the blue would be visible against the snow when the US soldiers fanned out to retrieve the equipment pods.  Armed with this information, he made a trip to Bastogne and went door to door looking for these chutes in spite of others telling him that none of them would still exist.  In fact, he located and was able to buy numerous examples of this blue silk - full chutes and   individual panels, as well as some that had been fashioned by the local residents into curtains, furniture drapes, bed sheets and covers, dining table cloths and in at least one case, a wedding dress.  He put them on the collector market and before long they were all gone.  Not sure what this has to do with long underwear, but it’s a great story nonetheless and ought to be shared.   

I have a few of these suits and when they disappear into private collections I am certain there will be no more to be found as this is a case of a single source.  Certainly this would be a unique addition to a World War Two collection and a representative artifact from a very interesting, and significant, chapter in the history of the war.  I have a suit of each marking pattern listed below with accompanying photographs.   

 

NO. 1  POW SUIT - BLACK STENCIL:  The suit of long underwear listed here is in very good condition despite the evidence of having been worn.  There are no significant wear points and all of the buttons are present.  As can be seen in the photos, it is stenciled with the bold, black “PW” front and back and the markings are still very legible.  The suit is clean with no residual dirt or body odor, and the cloth is still very strong with no deterioration.  (0323)  $150 

 

NO. 2   POW SUIT - RED/ORANGE STENCIL:  The suit of long underwear listed here is in very good condition despite the evidence of having been worn.  There are no significant wear points and all of the buttons are present.  As can be seen in the photos, it is stenciled with a bold, reddish orange “PW” on the back, superimposed over a second "PW" stencil in the same color, but a smaller font.  The markings are still very legible.  The suit is clean with no residual dirt or body odor, and the cloth is still very strong with no deterioration.  (0331)  $150 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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