Reflection on a POW camp

Published 6:01 pm Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A lifetime of experiences can collectively simmer into a soup of memories but some of those memories can stand out like soup bones.
One memory that stands out for Private First Class John A. Simms was his time as a prison guard in Pearl River County with the United States Army. About 50 years ago Carriere had a prison camp for German soldiers, where Simms served for about a year.
Years after his service he sent a letter to the Picayune Item to check on the county, a place where he only spent one year, and its post Hurricane Katrina status. Memories of his time here have lasted his whole life, so far all 88 years of it, he said.
Back in 1944 and 1945 he served as a guard at a prison camp called the Hillcrest Prisoner of War camp, named after the Hillcrest diary farm where the camp was located. The site was taken over by the Army and used to hold German prisoners. Now torn down, the old farm was located at the entrance to the Anchor Lake subdivision in Carriere. However when the camp was in operation there was not a lake in the area, Simms said.
After he was drafted into service with the Army it was discovered Simms had only one good eye. As a result Simms said he was assigned to guard duty. He considered himself lucky since that bad eye kept him from having to go overseas and fight in the war. After his time at the Pearl River County Prisoner of War camp he went on to serve at other prison locations across the country before he gave up military service to find other employment. He now lives in Mount Juliet Tenn. where he settled long ago to raise a family.
During Simms’ time at the Hillcrest POW camp the prisoners stayed in the dairy barns while the guards bunked in the adjacent house. The camp held about 300 prisoners who were watched over by 50 guards, Simms said.
In that decade Pearl River County was the leading producer of Tung nuts, which were used to make paint and other products, Simms said. Prisoners worked by picking up the nuts and making veneer furniture, among other products, and working in the army clothing store. In 1969 Hurricane Camille tore through the area and damaged the orchards of Tung trees, effectively ending the county’s Tung industry.
Simms said guarding the prisoners was easy since most of the prisoners were well behaved. Prisoner population of the camp stayed pretty much consistent and the only time prisoners were transferred to Camp Shelby was when guards thought one of the prisoners might be affiliated with the Nazi party. Even though most of the prisoners were on their best behavior they were guarded 24/7 by guards with guns in towers.
“They knew that nobody was going to shoot at them as long as they behaved themselves, and they behaved themselves,” Simms said.
During his time as a guard at the camp Simms said not one prisoner tried to escape, although one time a prisoner did get lost. That prisoner found a house where he waited for a guard to come pick him up.
Communication between prisoners and guards was difficult since the guards did not speak German. Simms did say however that there were more prisoners who knew how to speak English than there were guards who knew how to speak German.
Guards and prisoners got along for the most part, so much so that Simms said guards would exchange cigarettes for haircuts from the prisoners.
“Back then cigarettes were 25 cents a pack or so,” Simms said.
To relax during down time the guards would entertain themselves at the Picayune Canteen, then located in the historic city hall basement, Simms said. While there they were usually in the company of lovely young Pearl River County women.
“That’s my second home down there,” Simms said. “I’ve always thought a lot about that place.”
In his younger years, before his time in the military, Simms said he grew up about 30 miles east of Nashville, Tenn., and during the course of his two and a half years of service in the Army he visited and worked at many places. No matter where he went the time he spent in Pearl River County stuck with him.
“I never found a place I loved as much as Picayune,” Simms said.
His only complaint about his stay in Pearl River County was the mosquitoes.
After his tour with the Army he went back to Tennessee and worked in department stores and for a time he worked at a Dupont plant in Tennessee making cellophane. In Tennessee he married his wife of 57 years, and they had three boys. In April 30, of this year he lost his wife to a heart attack.
“Losing my wife is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Simms said. “I guess I’m here until I get called but sometimes I think I’m about ready to go.”
While his lifetime did not make him a rich man monetarily his memories tell him he had a good life, he said.

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