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How This Woman Helped Teach German Prisoners to Love America

A 99-year-old who guarded German prisoners in Texas during World War II found common humanity in the midst of war

spinner image Betty Sharrer poses for a portrait in front one of the many paintings she has made my German POWs during WWII. Betty and her husband, Bob, ran a POW camp in Texas for the US military during the war. CREDIT: Nick Hagen for AARP Bulletin
Nick Hagen

I was in a school play in Detroit before the war. I was 16. My girlfriend and I got on a bus one day. I was holding my costume, and the bus lurched. There was a young man sitting there, and the skirt hit him in the face and he said: “Look out there, redhead.”

My friend and I went to the back of the bus and sat down, and she said: “Well, he was sassy.” That’s how I met my husband, Bob. In December 1941, I was living with my parents and working at Bell Telephone in Detroit as an operator. I was at the switchboard. It was a Sunday morning. Somebody said: “Pearl Harbor was bombed.” 

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In February 1943, Bob and I were married. Bob had been inducted into the Army. I made my dress, and Bob cleaned my dad’s shoes and his dad’s shoes and his dad’s car. The jeweler asked: “Child bride?” And I said arrogantly: “No, I’m 19.”

When Bob went to Texas. He had to go into the hospital and was there when his unit shipped out. The Army didn’t know what to do with this one leftover man, so they said: “Well, let’s put him in a prisoner of war camp.” He was sent to Camp Swift near Austin and put in charge of 3,000 German prisoners. 

“Welcome to America,” Bob would say when new prisoners arrived. “You did not start this war, and neither did I. We are victims of war and we have some big decisions to make.” 

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I could hear the buzz of voices, and then Bob said: “I can swear at you. I can yell at you. Or I could treat you with respect if you agree to treat me with respect and obey my orders. If you agree, we can make this camp clean and peaceful. Everybody will be well fed. We might even enjoy some of our time. What do you think?” 

In unison, those kids would raise their left arms in the air and holler, “Ja.” 

One day, on a routine bed check, Bob found two young fellows with their beds turned upside down. One kid had made a paintbrush, and then he had taken some toothpaste, colored some of it with beet juice and some of it yellow, and some he made green by using weeds. The kid was making a painting on the bottom of his Army cot. 

spinner image a photo album with black and white pictures
An old album showing pictures of Betty Sharrer, her husband Bob and Camp Swift during WWII.
Nick Hagen

The other kid was hiding something, and Bob said: “Show me what you’ve got.” He had stolen a dull knife from the kitchen, and he had a stick and was carving a dog. The next day, Bob sent me out on an Army Jeep, which was against the law — civilians were not supposed to ride on Army vehicles — into Austin. I bought paint, brushes, canvas, stretchers and a carving set. Those kids were so thrilled to have something to do to hone their skills. 

They treated me like their big sister. I made shirts, blouses, aprons, pillowcases and clothes for their babies, so that they could send them back to their families back in Germany.

One day a general came along and stopped in front of me and said: “What makes this camp peaceful?” I said, “Let me show you.”

I took him into the mess hall. Bob had given those kids the privilege to paint on the walls. They had painted life-size horses, cowboys wearing American Stetson cowboy hats, Texas blue bonnets. On a table were carved horses and dogs. 

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That general turned to me and said: “You bought them carving tools?” I replied that I had. “How many escaped with carving tools?” he asked. I told him none of them. “They do not want to escape,” I explained. “As long as they have to be prisoners in America, they prefer to be in this camp.” 

We were told that after that, changes were made in all POW camps across the country. Bob never shot anyone. Nobody ever shot at him, but I think he absolutely helped to save some lives. I had my 99th birthday this year. I still drive my red Impala Super Sport around Saginaw, Michigan. Bob passed away in 2012. 

I remember when our grandkids decided to give us a big party to celebrate our 60th anniversary. 

The pastor asked Bob if we should renew our vows. Bob replied: “No. I meant it the first time. Why do you suppose it lasted 60 years?”

spinner image a black and white photo of a man and woman
A photograph of Betty Sharrer and her husband Bob in his 1st Lieutenant’s Army uniform. They were married in 1943.
Nick Hagen

As told to Alex Kershaw. Kershaw is a journalist and author of several New York Times best-selling books on World War II, including The LiberatorThe First WaveThe Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter. More information about his work can be found at A version of this story appears in AARP's October issue of The Bulletin.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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