|In August of 1939, the SS Columbus, third largest and one of the most luxurious vessels in the
German merchant fleet and the 13th largest steamship in the world, set sail on a 12-day cruise to the
Mediterranean just days before Germany was invaded by Poland. Along with passengers, it carried
567 seamen, including nine women stewardesses. Its Captain, Wilhelm Daehne, received orders on
August 27 to return to Germany or sail to a neutral port as all German boats at sea would be
considered combatants by nations declaring war on Germany, including England. The USA was not
at war with Germany yet. The SS Columbus took its passengers to Cuba, and immediately set sail to
Veracruz, Mexico, but was tracked by U.S. warships of the "Neutrality Patrol", who broadcast her
position which allowed her to be caught by the British warship HMS Hyperion 300 miles off the
coast of Virginia on December 19th. Daehne scuttled the Columbus and the crew took refuge on
their life boats until they were picked up by the American ship Tuscaloosa and sailed for New York.
|Once in New York, British intelligence tracked their movements. The German sailors assumed they
would be returned to Germany but the British blockade made that difficult since Britain refused safe
passage to German men of military age. The still neutral US considered them distressed seaman
paroled from the German Embassy, arranging for them to go by military train from Ellis Island, New
York to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay in search of a ship to take them home. The women were
interned at Gloucester City, New Jersey. Part of the crew found a way to return home in 1940 via
San Francisco, Japan, the Soviet Union and Siberia. The rest, now 410 men, were still awaiting a
plan for their return home fifteen months later. With war fever mounting, US officials moved the
men to an abandoned CCC camp at dreary Fort Stanton, New Mexico.
|Captain Daehne, a World War One veteran and expert role model, maintained his position as leader
and he and his men made an immense effort to turn the barren camp into a small paradise. Together,
they built and rebuilt the camp. The men were allowed two sodas or beers each day. They could
send and receive mail. They set up small shops for the ship's barbers, tailors and tradesmen, and
organized a first rate kitchen and dining room for the men, operated by the cooks and stewards from
the Columbus. They built tennis courts, groomed soccer fields, built a recreation hall and library, and
constructed a swimming pool. They created gardens and the officers were allowed to build personal
living quarters. America's first internment camp was a shining success. They even hosted a four day
mini-Olympics when the work was completed and later operated a driving training course.
|Their status as government guests allowed them liberty to hike and visit the nearby town. Local
Border Patrol officials organized a rodeo for the seamen and local citizens in 1941. On December 7,
1941, this all changed with US entry into the war. The Columbus seamen at once became alien
enemies. Crews from three ships of the Hamburg-Amerika Line soon joined the original detainees
and the camp's population reached approximately 650 seamen, eight captains and 60 ships' officers;
the remainder were deck, engine, and steward's department sailors. Many of the men were over the
age of 50 and some older.
|German seamen from seized merchant freighters and tankers were also interned elsewhere, such as
the 200 sent to Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota, another old Army post and former CCC
Camp. After war was declared in the US, Ft. Lincoln soon interred civilians as well and served as the
largest male internee camp of the War, with barbed wire fences, guard towers, bright lights, dogs and
harsh INS guards. If caught attempting to escape, internees,were punished with 30-days in the camp
stockade. In April, 1942 nearly 500 Germans stayed here.
|By March, a mere three months later, the camp became a prison with a strict curfew, a high fence
surrounding it and guard towers which the men helped build.As the government started sending other
internees to Fort Stanton, it would end up as the most repressive security of any of the US
internment camps. Over the next three years, other German merchant seamen also joined them as
well as civilians which the government considered "Nazi sympathizers". Once the war was over, they
were allowed at long last to return home...if they were lucky enough to still have a home. The last of
them left Fort Stanton on August 27, 1945.