BRAGGS (AP) — Most of what Franz “Frank” May remembers from his year at Camp Gruber in the 1940s has long been demolished.
The prisoners’ barracks are now blank slabs of concrete.
An outdoor, concrete chess board is overgrown. The guard towers have been demolished, replaced by brush and trees.
But a stone and concrete drainage ditch that runs through the heart of camp still shows May’s handiwork.
It’s a reminder of his year here as a German prisoner of war that could still bear his footprints, he said.
Now 90, May got his first look at the camp since 1944 on Friday morning. Gruber was always a special place to him, a place he fondly and vividly remembered despite having been a prisoner here.
“It was always what I wanted to do — to come to Oklahoma, my second home,” May said of his return trip.
He wanted to come back to say thank you for the hospitality he received in Oklahoma and to see Oklahoma one more time.
May joined the German army in 1942 and was sent to the North African front. He fought there under the command of German Gen. Erwin Rommel before he was captured by British troops on May 13, 1943.
He was now at a crossroads with little input on the direction: head west to Great Britain and then on to America, or head east to Russia’s harsh prison camps.
“I had a lot of fears. We didn’t know,” May told the Tulsa World (http://is.gd/0Df6Og). “Everybody knows if you were captured, it was a very, very hard time. You most likely wouldn’t come back.”
He was sent west. He was taken across the Atlantic, arrived in New York and boarded a train to the newly constructed Gruber prison camp.
Camp Gruber had opened as an Army training camp in the spring of 1942 and quickly was bustling with activity, being designated home of the 88th Infantry. About a year later, it was designated as one of dozens of prisoner of war camps in the United States. The first prisoners arrived there in May 1943.
The camp itself was mostly barren, with rows and rows of wood-sided buildings lining sidewalks and roads, said Jennifer Kolise, the Camp Gruber cultural resources manager.
“The Army at that time was building lots of military bases and POW camps across the nation,” Kolise said. “They were using a temporary building style.”
The POW camp had a capacity of about 4,500 prisoners and did at times meet or exceed that number, she said.
May and the other POWs worked in agricultural fields surrounding the camp and even as far northwest as Tulsa County. Others, including May, worked in a rock quarry.
“And working in the quarry, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.
It was hard work, but it was work - something to keep them busy while being held during the war. For his work he would receive a ticket worth about 25 cents to exchange for goods at the canteen. Beer, chocolate, cigarettes and many other goods were available to the prisoners, he said.
The Germans there also worked to beautify the camp and create a nice life there, making the best of a bad situation, he said. They planted flowers outside the barracks, made stone monuments and fountains, and staged plays and movies.
“I was responsible for getting the light on the right spot,” said May, an electrician who was responsible for lighting the movies.
After about 12 months, May was transferred to five other prison camps across the country.
“Gruber was the best place I was,” May said. “For a prisoner, it was a very good time. Very fair.”
At the war’s end, May went back to Germany and then to Australia to work as an electrician for 10 years before returning to Germany, where he still lives.
May carried on, but the prison camp at Gruber did not.
It was closed in 1946 and mostly demolished. None of the POW structures remains, but signs of the camp can be seen.
The overgrowth and the fact that the camp is in a restricted area have helped preserve what remains, Kolise said.
Old bridges still cross ditches. Concrete foundations where the barracks used to sit are still visible among the shrubs and trees.
“It is still intact. It had integrity,” Kolise said. “We try to protect these cultural resources that are significant to the history.”
May often talked about his time at Camp Gruber, said his niece, Patricia Powers-Simonelli. To anyone who would listen, he would describe playing chess in Oklahoma, working in a rock quarry, and the kindness and hospitality he received.
For his 90th birthday in January, Powers-Simonelli - a New Jersey resident - went to visit May in Germany. They had a blowout party, and she and her husband gave May a card. In that card she wrote that they would take him back to Oklahoma to see the place he remembered so fondly.
“I wrote it in his 90th birthday card, and when he read it, he said, ‘Really? Is this real?’ ” Powers-Simonelli said.
Although not much remains of his time here, May said coming back and experiencing Camp Gruber more than 67 years after he was a prisoner is something he never thought would happen. When he read his niece’s card, he said, he was surprised and ecstatic.
“She said, ‘What do you think about going to Oklahoma?’” May said. “And I was always talking about Oklahoma, (saying), ‘It was a very good place. I would like to remember this place.’ And here we are. Look at that.”