Camp Hearne is usually a quiet area, with a set of wooden buildings and the skeletons of prison barracks from a time forgotten.
But on Saturday, the historical site in Robertson County came alive with the sounds of 1940s-era big band music and live gunfire from antique military rifles as the Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center hosted the annual “Remembering D-Day” living history event.
During World War II, Camp Hearne served as one of hundreds of locations across the United States where captured Nazi soldiers were imprisoned by the American armed forces. What remains of the prison camp has been transformed into a museum, with surrounding grounds open for history lovers to explore. Each year, the museum’s staff hosts an event in June to honor D-Day, during which more than a dozen historical reenactors and memorabilia collectors pitch green canvas tents and chat with visitors.
Jim Holder, a resident of Bastrop, spent 26 years in the Army, serving two tours in Vietnam. For the past four years, the retiree has been collecting original military vehicles. On Saturday, he stood wearing a Vietnam-era uniform next to a 1953 Willys M38A1 Jeep, the vehicle decked with all manner of authentic period Army equipment and storage vessels.
“My main focus is to stay off the couch, because that’s how you die when you retire,” he said.
Holder had to teach himself how to restore vehicles such as the Jeep. More than $7,000 and four years of work later, Holder has the Jeep — probably used by a rancher or forest service agent after the Vietnam War — repainted and renewed. He now takes the Jeep to parades and historic events, and he often shows off his vehicle and its attached items alongside some veteran friends who also collect vintage military pieces.
“When I was still active I didn’t have problems with PTSD because I was still doing stuff, but when you retire it hits you harder, because it’s new and you’re doing something different,” he said. “But getting together with other veterans and doing things does help. ... I find that veterans, when they come up to look at our [collectors’ items], they remember maybe using that item or working on it, and they remember the good things. And that’s really great to see.”
Dieter Bruecknee of College Station and his wife, Wilma Hill, arrived at the camp because they wanted to spend time reflecting on the German prisoners once held there. The couple are German nationals born during World War II. They moved to Texas in the 1970s and are interested in learning all about Texas-German history.
For Bruecknee, being at a prisoner-of-war camp in 2019 is a unique experience, as his father fought for the Axis powers during World War II.
“I lost my dad in Russia in 1943,” Bruecknee said. “At least he wasn’t a prisoner there. Russians weren’t nice to them in the prison camps there.”
Bruecknee said Americans have good reason to celebrate D-Day. As a German child alive when D-Day occurred, and with a father killed in combat as a Nazi soldier, Bruecknee said he has a perspective of the historic invasion that is different than most Brazos Valley residents.
“What we have to celebrate as Germans is that the Nazi Reich came to the end,” he said.
Former soldier Matt Ware, who served as an American prison guard over Camp Hearne while it was in operation in the 1940s, made a short appearance Saturday morning to talk to museum staff and visitors about his experience with the prisoners.
Ryan Smith, a staffer at Camp Hearne, said he feels so grateful to be able to speak with people like Ware and Heino Erichsen, a former German soldier and Hearne prisoner who attended the Remembering D-Day event in 2016.
“To meet [Erichsen] and [Ware], and these men I spend all my time reading about, researching. To meet them and hear this stuff directly from them and not some professor or a book — it’s almost a starstruck feeling,” Smith said. “There is nothing like meeting a guy who has actually been there. I can’t describe what it feels like.”