By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
Frank Mays was a prisoner the first time he stepped on Oklahoma soil. Almost 70 years later, he’s made his way back to Green Country.
Mays was 21 years old and a corporal in the German military when he found himself at Camp Gruber in 1944. His unit was fighting in South Africa when they surrendered to British soldiers.
“We had three units,” Mays said. “One was captured by the Americans. The other was captured by the British. So that just left us, alone.”
Mays is celebrating his 90th birthday by visiting Camp Gruber for the first time since he spent 12 months there as a prisoner of war. The Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center is hosting a POW/MIA Remembrance ceremony today, and Mays will be briefly recognized. Mays also will tour Camp Gruber today for the first time since his time as a prisoner.
His niece, Patricia Powers-Simonelli, surprised Mays with the trip after listening to stories about how much he enjoyed his time at Camp Gruber.
“He would talk about the atmosphere and how well they were treated there,” Powers-Simonelli said. “I thought, at 90, he may think the trip from Germany to Oklahoma would be too much, but he was very excited.”
After surrendering, Mays spent four weeks with other prisoners of war on a ship bound for New York. Food and water were sparse, and Mays said the POWs rigged up a system to distill sea water, just to have something to drink.
After four weeks in the bowels of the ship, Mays said they reached New York. The prisoners were allowed up to see the Statue of Liberty, but were quickly shuffled back below deck.
“We were all very excited to see land and know we would be off the ship soon,” Mays said.
When the POWs landed, they boarded a train headed for Oklahoma.
While at Gruber, Mays said he worked as an electrician as well as in the camp’s quarry.
“They would give us big rocks,” Mays said. “And we would have to break them down.”
The prisoners were given 25 cents each day as pay. Money, Mays said, he spent on things like soap and cigarettes.
“One day, for our hard work, they gave us each a bottle of beer,” Mays said. “It was very nice.”
Mays said the guards at Camp Gruber were always fair to the prisoners — “it was sometimes not even like we were prisoners,” Mays said.
After Mays’ stay in Oklahoma, he was sent to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and finally Tennessee before returning to Hamburg, Germany.
Mays said he lived in Australia for 10 years in the 1950s, because he was concerned Germany wouldn’t recover from the war.
“I wanted to come to America, but no one could sponsor me,” Mays said. He needed someone to ensure he would never be unemployed and on welfare.
After 10 years in Australia, Mays returned to Germany. In 2005, he made his first return visit, to stay with Powers-Simonelli in New York.
“I was so happy to see the Statue of Liberty again,” Mays said. “I was so happy to return.”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or firstname.lastname@example.org.