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Gods of War Smiled on Him

German POW Who Came Back to Santa Barbara


Thursday, October 20, 2011

IN LOVE WITH CALIFORNIA: Ortwin Holdt might have become another frozen German corpse on the Russian front.

Instead, rather than waiting to be drafted and likely sent to the Eastern Front slaughter, Holdt, 18, volunteered to become a radar operator. The gods of war stationed him on a French Riviera beach where invading Yanks captured him in 1944 and shipped him to Santa Barbara County to pick lemons.

Barney Brantingham

Here, and at other POW camps doing farm work, “He fell in love with California,” his wife, Inga, told me this week. Many, perhaps most, Santa Barbarans have no idea that German and Italian prisoners were housed at Camp Cooke, now Vandenberg Air Force Base, or that about 200 prisoners lived in a sub-camp west of Goleta, near Dos Pueblos Ranch, working in the fields between 1944 and 1946.

Most of the Germans who lived in Quonset huts behind barbed-wire fences had been in General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and captured in North Africa, according to published accounts. Many were hard-core believers in Hitler’s “master race” theories. They’d been captured during the height of Germany’s wartime victories and had no doubt that Germany would win the war, according to accounts.

I wasn’t able to speak to Holdt, now 87, at his Carpinteria home because he’s recovering from recent surgery. But I was able to trace his odyssey from his East German town to Southern California, where, upon his return years later, he graduated from UCSB, worked in electronics, and was active for many years as a Boy Scout leader.

As a boy, Holdt loved to tinker with radios and other electronic gear, so when war engulfed Germany, he parlayed his skills to become a radar operator.

When the Allies invaded southern France, his commander raised the white flag of surrender and soon Holdt found himself on a ship headed to the U.S., then on a train to California. With agricultural workers away in uniform, thousands of POWs were put to work harvesting lemons, walnuts, cotton, and other crops.

Holdt eventually found himself at Camp Cooke doing agricultural work. “He was treated very fairly at the camp,” Inga reported. After hostilities ended, he was shipped to England and put to work in the fields of Wales due to its postwar labor shortage and not released until 1948.

By the time he got back to Germany, the Cold War was heating up and his hometown was in Russian-controlled East Germany. He wanted no part of that, his wife said. He longed to return to California. By the time he sought a U.S. visa, the Korean War was raging. So he headed to Canada and caught a train to the West Coast, his only sustenance a loaf of bread and some baloney, Inga told me.

After they met, married, and had a son, Eugene, they headed to Santa Barbara County, where Holdt worked at the Ratel electronics plant in Goleta.

“He’s a true American,” Inga said. “I don’t think you’d ever meet anyone who loves this country more than my husband.”

Santa Barbara Museum of History docent Norma Jungjohann will give a talk at the museum on Thursday, October 26, about “Santa Barbara in World War II.” The talk, open to the public at 10:30 a.m., will focus on the Goleta prisoner of war camp, Camp Cooke; Holdt; and the internment of Santa Barbarans of Japanese descent.

POLO IN PARADISE: Polo may be the sport of kings, but the non-royal price of a movie ticket will get you into one of the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club matches (next season because the last game was held this past Sunday). General admission is only $10, club president Wesley Ru told me. (Champagne is extra.) Sunday’s match celebrated 100 years of Santa Barbara polo.

KULTURE IN PARADISE: Even if you didn’t get to the polo match, there was plenty going on to take your mind off politics. Friday night, we had a choice between the Carol Burnett tribute at the Lobero and the Camerata Pacifica concert at the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall. Sue opted for Camerata. Franz Liszt’s thunderous music was great, and nimble-fingered soloist Adam Neiman’s witty commentary was of good stand-up-comedy quality. Saturday night, Joseph Fuqua and Jamie Torcellini teamed in outrageously funny style at Ventura’s Rubicon with The Mystery of Irma Vep, appropriate to Halloween. On Sunday afternoon, conductor Gustavo Dudamel invaded the Granada with the L.A. Philharmonic, which we didn’t chuck the last polo chukker in time to catch. But that night we did catch Ensemble Theatre’s Underneath the Lintel, Tim Bagley’s stunning one-man performance of Glen Berger’s play. It’s about a library book returned way too late, a quest to find the loanee, the Meaning of Life, etc.

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