SS Columbus

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 invaded 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 seamen 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.

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.

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.