Enemy Alien Civilian Seamen during WWII
by Shirley , daughter of such a seaman
We know that in addition to the Columbus crew, a significant number of German civilian seaman working for an American company, Standard Oil, on ships built in Germany, but registered to Panama, were the first civilians interned in the United States during WWII. The seamen were detained for technical immigration violations, such as, overstaying their temporary 60 day visas. The violation of immigration laws is basically the justification to detain any immigrants and nationals deemed appropriate by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Why did the DOJ want to detain the German seamen as early as 1939? Were any healthy German seamen of military age actually ever repatriated? If so, were the seamen repatriated according to the degree of Nazism they possessed? Or were those not sympathetic to the Nazis repatriated and the seamen whose allegiance questionable were interned? The significant question is just what records/facts "showed allegiance to the enemy"? Was it merely the fact that they were natural born citizens of Germany? "allegiance to the enemy" versus "natural born citizen" if they are one and the same certainly suggest different accounts.
Research validates that the determinants for incarcerating the seaman were nationality, and the strategic importance of the vessel or materials being shipped during wartime. The individual seaman was not a target for his belief systems, rather the circumstances that surrounded his employment was the determining factor in his incarceration. In other words, it did not matter who the individuals were on the vessels, or what they believed. The consequences of their incarceration would have been the same, regardless of their belief systems. However, their length of incarceration may have been influenced by their beliefs. Interestingly, of the 179 seamen interned before December 7, of 1941, 125 were paroled by November of 1943.1 Most worked in the community on railroads, farms, as mechanics, plumbers helpers, carpenters etc. Ironically, the men who were initially deemed dangerous lived and worked with the families to which they were paroled.
German seaman removed from Standard Oil vessels in 1939
August 1939, German seamen were removed from ships across the Western Hemisphere. In Canada and Britain (and her territories) the civilian German seamen who were removed from their ships were immediately interned. In the US German crews were removed only from Panama Transit Company (PTC) tankers, owned by Standard Oil Company (SO) of New Jersey. SO replaced the German crews with either British or American crews. Of course, the difference in treatment between countries, was because unlike Canada and Britain, the US could not legally intern the seamen since it had declared its neutrality in the war.
It is not apparent, however, how and who made the decision in 1939 to remove the German crews from their ships in American ports. For the Standard Oil seaman, the removal of the crews was put forth as a company layoff. Most newspapers reported that the seamen were removed to prevent potential sabotage at sea and that the seamen would be repatriated at the earliest convenience.
According to the seamen, they were informed by Standard officials their dismissal was because of conditions in British ports. They were told that since German crews would be banned from British ports it would make it impossible for Standard Oil to fulfill their contracts of delivering petroleum products to Britain. Clearly, the general impression given is that the removal of the crews from their ships was an action of the private employer for business considerations. Further study is needed to determine whether the government requested or collaborated in the discharge/dismissal of the crews.
Influence of Oil Routes in 1939
By examining the petroleum routes of 1939, a large percentage of SO tankers operating in the Western Hemisphere delivered oil to European ports from either the Dutch West Indies or Mexico. For example, in 1938 Standard Oil signed a major contract with Britain for the delivery of aviation fuel from the Lago Oil Refinery in Aruba. Interestingly, the contract stated that the aviation fuel had to be produced outside of the United States because of the isolationism that was prevalent in the US. Evidently, when the US government imposed a tax on imported crude, Standard Oil of Indiana sold their interest in the Lago Oil Company to Standard Oil of New Jersey. SO of New Jersey was in a position to compete in the global market because it, unlike SO of Indiana, was organized for global competition because it possessed marketing outlets around the world.
The Lago Oil refinery would become most important in the war effort. When the US entered the war, this refinery was expanded and became the largest oil refinery in the world, as well as a major producer of petroleum products for the Allied war efforts.
( paragraph taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lago_Oil_%26_Transport_Co_Ltd.)
Obviously, it made strategic sense for Britain to immediately cut off oil supplies to Germany in the now imminent war. How would Britain accomplish this fete given US neutrality? Definitely, it is realistic to speculate that Britain, having a large oil contract with Standard Oil, exerted pressure on the company to fulfill the contract. How probable is it that Britain demanded crew changes on the SO oil tankers coming out of Aruba? Edwin Drechsel, an industrial relations manager in SO of Venezuela, wrote the following:
"New York evidently doesn't trust the crews and are replacing them with Americans, shipping the Germans home from Trinidad. I have four passengers on one of these ships waiting in Guinea for a new crew to come. The whole camp now is being patrolled by Americans rather than Venezuelans, at the docks. By August 31, 1939, the German crews of sixteen of the twenty-seven ESSO (SO) ships so manned had been taken off. Most of these ships were built in Germany. It was a way for ESSO to get earnings blocked during the 1930's depression out of the country."
Additionally, one can find the following passage in "Ships of the Esso Fleet in WWII" written and published by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, about the changing of the crews:
(p336, From "Venezuela with Love" by Edwin J. Drechsel, Creative Arts Book Company 2002)
"At this time in the narrative it may be of interest to mention the changing out of the German crews on the Panama Transit Company ships. The procedure of crew change was easy when the ships were in American ports. By 31 August 1939, the German crews on 16 of the 27 ships had been replaced. However, for vessels held in foreign ports the procedure was completed with some difficulty. Three of the difficult crew changes will be mentioned. . . . On 3 September 1939, when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, the 1930-built F.H. Bedford, Jr. was underway from Buenos Aires in ballast to Aruba. The ship arrived on 15 September, and a problem with the crew change began. It was decided to send American officers with a cook and steward from New York, on the ESSO New Orleans, and the rest of the unlicensed crew on the Grace Line ship Santa Paula. The Netherlands government authorities at Aruba refused to permit the German crew who had been relieved to land there without a guarantee from the owners to arrange for their prompt departure. As a result, the Germans were kept on the tanker, while the Americans stayed on shore. A solution that was satisfactory to all concerned was finally arrived at when the local representative of the United States Department of State received authority to issue transit visas to the Germans. On 22 November 1939, they were repatriated, via the Grace Line Santa Rosa to New York. At New York the German crew boarded the 1928-built, 601-ft, Italian interned ship Vulcania and sailed to Lisbon, under War Shipping Agency (WSA) orders. In 1947, the ship was returned to Italy."
Perhaps, some healthy skepticism should enter into Standard Oil's account of their own history. Clearly, the Standard Oil company was interested in presenting history to their favor. Although, much of the information may be correct there are a few significant differences verified by the diary of one of the seamen (Oesterle) who was onboard the F.H. Bedford Jr. when the crew transfer occurred. According to Oesterle's daughter, Alexandra, the diary confirmed:
- The German crew was permitted to go land twice a week.
- The crew had to promise US officials that they would not stay in the US before they were given the permission to travel.
- They planned to go with the Italian vessel Vulcania but it was decided that it was to dangerous for the Germans. Only the chief engineer, who was a Swiss, went this way.
- The rest of the officers (I have no information about the whole crew) went on the Santa Rosa to New York and then by train to San Francisco to board the Japanese liner, Asama Maru.
Fortunately, Ms. Oesterle provided the writer with the passenger list from the Santa Rosa. This allowed verification of the seamen. Seven of the men listed on the first class roster of the Asama Maru were on the first class roster of the Santa Rosa (Wesselhoeft, Gotke, Plucas, Hartwig, Oesterle, Grimms, and Jackowski), five officers that were on the Asama Maru but not on the Santa Rosa (Groth, Schroeder, Kruger, Bohsack, and Heino) must have been from a Standard Oil/Panama Transit Co. tanker other than the F.H. Bedford Jr. Of course, none of the eight non-officers who were (removed from the Asama Maru, namely, Gnirs, Dankowski, Kaemper, Kaselau, Lege, Hartmann, Wantcke, and Rupprecht) are on the first class passenger list of the Santa Rosa. Although they are missing from the roster, it does not necessarily mean they were not either on the Santa Rosa or crew members of the F. H. Bedford Jr., because it was customary for non-officers to travel in second or third class rather than first class.
Missing on the Santa Rosa roster is Hermann Groth the highest ranking officer (ship captain) removed from the Asama Maru voyage. Interestingly, it appears that he was not the Captain of the F. H. Bedford Jr. But even more interesting is that documents from the German archives, reveal that five men from the F. H. Bedford Jr. were incarcerated at Ft. Lincoln, ND, including August Regge, the Captain of the F. H. Bedford Jr. The obvious question was why was Captain Regge not on the Santa Rosa with his men? and why was he not on the Asama Maru? Certainly, these aberrations are worthy of tracking down because they may be revealing.
It is doubtful that the German seamen were ever advised or knew that an agreement was made between the US and the Italians not to transport German nationals to Europe.2 Rather, they were instructed that Italian vessels would be unsafe for travel for German seamen. It does make one speculate what if any negotiations were occurring diplomatically between Germany, the US, and Aruba regarding the fate of the crew of the F. H. Bedford Jr., particularly since the seamen were granted temporary visas by the State Department to sail to New York City, New York. This raises the question, why were the German seamen not shipped directly from Trinidad to Germany. It is highly likely that when the F. H. Bedford crew left Trinidad they were instructed they would be repatriated on Italian liners once they arrived in New York City, New York. But when they arrived in New York they were informed it was too dangerous to go by Italian liners. Why was the US determined to gain possession and control of the seamen by bringing them to NYC from the South American ports, particularly when a State Department Italian travel ban existed for German men of military age? Although, the State Department claimed it was "too dangerous" and the diary of Karl Oesterle states the F.H. Bedford crew was "forbidden" to travel on Italian vessels the US insisted on bringing the crews to the US. The F.H. Bedford Jr. crew traveled from NYC via rail to Los Angeles (12/31/1939) to board the Asama Maru (1/3/1940). It appears other SO crews from South American ports may have sailed to San Pedro via two Japanese passenger liners - Buenos Aires Maru and Argentina Maru.
Political Climate in the US 1939 - 1940
The mood of the country was to stay out of the European war, only three percent of the American populace favored involvement. Thus the political climate in America did not support the internment of the seaman. Any actions perceived by the public as entanglements to the European war had the potential to affect the presidential election of 1940. Although the Roosevelt administration was interested in assisting England, the political climate would not allow the administration to openly support the war.
In September of 1939, the German civilian seamen in the US were technically allowed freedom from government incarceration; however their mobility was limited because their passports were confiscated by their employer Standard Oil. Perhaps, the men did not protest this arrangement because they were promised quick repatriation and SO was paying each a stipend, as well as providing housing and medical benefits.
Like censorship, it appears that the Roosevelt administration was successful in obtaining voluntary cooperation with the oil industry similar to their arrangement with the press/media industry. Consequently, the degree of government involvement in Standard Oil's actions regarding their crew transfers, appear to be voluntary. Certainly, the government was trying to give the impression that they were not involved in SO crew transfers. Yet, in 1940 documents reveal the government was involved in SO's refusal to release a passport to seaman (Ahrens) who was granted "voluntary departure" by the INS. Ahrens, a crew member on the oil tanker, Clio, was granted "voluntary departure" status by the INS, however, when he tried to depart the country he was denied his passport by Standard Oil. He was instructed by company personnel at SO Rockefeller Center offices that they had been ordered by the government to refuse him his passport. Obviously, without a passport he could not depart the country. Once interned he reapplied for "voluntary departure" but it was denied in October of 1941 because "it was impossible under the current circumstances".
Therefore, the method used by the government to temporarily prevent the repatriation of the seaman was to collaborate with private employers to lay off the German seaman, while controlling their mobility by providing an incentive for their employer, Standard Oil to retain their passports. Standard Oil was required to have a surety bond of $5,000 for each of the foreign seamen. The bond requirement was implemented in the Neutrality Act of 1939 (section 10c, passed on November 4, 1939). Worthy of note, is that a paper trail maintained by a private employer instead of the government is very difficult to track, perhaps that was the intention.
Neutrals transporting German seaman of military age
On September 3, 1939 Italy declared itself neutral. Interestingly, according to the NY Times effective immediately, the State Department had made an agreement with Italy to ban travel by German nationals on all Italian vessels leaving US harbors.3 Secretary of State Hull, according to a TIME article, imposed a transatlantic ban on travel requiring Europe-bound US citizens to submit their passports for validation.4 The US travel ban announced that only those traveling on "imperative business" would be approved for travel. Additionally, passports of returning passengers from Europe were confiscated upon their arrival.
Italy became the primary transporter of American refugees leaving Europe. Coming west to the US, Italian ships were overflowing with passengers, in fact the ships were so full cots were set up to accommodate the extra passengers, meanwhile going East the ships were almost empty.5 Italy increased their fares by 50% -- they were accused of war profiteering. Passengers were required to pay in cash -- in US dollars only. Americans were outraged at Italy for taking advantage of the American refugees. Italian liners justified the higher fares because the traffic was in one direction. Supposedly, the Italian liners lost money on the homeward bound voyages. It is important to note that all Italian liners did stop in the British Gibraltar control zone for inspection, including mail censorship. Italy did not challenge Britain's control zones in 1939 however, they did later.6 Often in the articles of the time it is suggested that travel across the Atlantic was very dangerous during the period labeled the phony war. Although danger lurked, why was it not dangerous to travel eastbound but not westbound? Wasn't it more likely that Americans were not traveling primarily because of the transatlantic travel ban? If safety was an issue, why the adjustment by Italian liners to the travel ban in December of 1939, allowing German women and children to travel from US ports to Italy? It seems, it was only too dangerous for German seaman of "military age" to travel, perhaps the danger was because of neutral liners agreements with the US State Department to not take on German men.
On January 14, the crew of the Columbus that were of military age were taken to the railroad station in Jersey City to board a train.7 The seamen were being sent to Los Angeles where they would board Japanese liners to travel to Japan, across Siberia and return to Germany. Four days after the majority of the Columbus crew leave for LA, fifty-seven members of the crew beyond military age set sail on the Italian liner Rex on January 18, 1940. These 57 were old men, women, and boys, not subject to military commandeering.8
Unknown and unrecorded in most historic accounts, another voyage was taking place around the same time as the Columbus cross country transfer. On December 31, 1939, a couple weeks before the Columbus crew's rail journey, forty German Standard oil seaman leave New York by train to LA for the purpose of repatriation on Japanese liners.9 The news articles across the country mix the details of the two voyages making it challenging to confirm the facts of each by media accounts. Often the men in both parties are referred to as "Nazi seaman" and a distinction is not made between the two groups. Trying to keep the set of facts straight becomes important to understanding the impending Asama Maru incident that cements the fate of the distressed seaman.
The Asama Maru incident
As early as January 4, 1940, the Los Angeles Times was reported - "Forty German seaman cross country to catch ship here . . . 40 seaman arrived from NY to sail tomorrow at 7:00 am on the Asama Maru". The Asama Maru was a Japanese passenger liner scheduled to travel from San Pedro, CA, to Japan with a stop in Hawaii.10 The men from the Columbus had not even left NY yet. The article further reported the men had 83 parcels being checked aboard the Asama Maru. Also reported, "the reason for secrecy was because the men were citizens of a combatant nation, which constitutes contraband and can be taken off a neutral ship by an enemy vessel . . . the Nazis will be in constant danger of their freedom while en route to Japan."11
Certainly, military men of belligerent nations can be removed from neutral vessels. However, no clear precedence suggests that civilians of belligerent nations can be stripped from neutral vessels and interned. The Standard Oil seamen had many complexities to their status. They were German civilian nationals, on German built tankers, re-registered to Panama, shipping for a foreign subsidiary of a private American Company, Standard Oil. Since ownership of their vessels was American, and the nation the ship was registered to was Panama obviously both were neutral in the war.
Although the newspapers give the impression the men aboard the Asama Maru are from the Columbus, in fact they are Standard Oil sailors released by the company to return to their homeland. US Commissioner of Immigration, Rudolph Reime, states that Nazi sailors would be allowed the regulation 60 day leave granted foreign distressed seaman and they would be required to leave the country voluntarily or be deported. To reiterate, it has been confirmed the men boarding the Asama Maru, were from the F.H. Bedford Jr. and it is presumed that the other SO men onboard were from South American ports. What has been confirmed is the crew of the F.H. Bedford went to port in Aruba shortly after the war broke out (9/17/1939). They began an odyssey to the US on November 22, 1939 after receiving their American visas on November 16, 1939. Next they embarked on a train to travel to Los Angeles on December 31, 1939. Then on January 3, 1940, at San Pedro, CA, the men boarded the Japanese liner Asama Maru.12 It is worthy to note that other SO seamen coming from South American ports most likely would have also needed temporary visas.
Why were these men chosen to be repatriated and not those who had been idled since late August 1939? It appears that higher media visibility, just like with the crews of the Columbus, might have influenced the selection of these particular seamen for a repatriation attempt. Furthermore, the other seamen apprehended in American ports in late August 1939 had surpassed their 60-day temporary visa restrictions in the US, thus placing them in violation of immigration laws and subject to seizure. If the objective of the US was to prevent repatriation of all German Standard Oil crews or other seamen of military age, they needed to find a way to permanently detain the crews coming from foreign ports in the Western Hemisphere. Many would view the Asama Maru incident as an orchestrated event to do just that.
The Asama Maru incident occurred thirty fives miles of the Coast of Japan. A British Naval Cruiser, the Liverpool, fired two shots across the bow of a Japanese passenger ship, the Asama Maru. British Naval personnel boarded the Asama Maru and removed civilian German seaman secretly being repatriated to Germany. The British Navy had been ordered to stop 3 ships in the Atlantic and remove all German seaman aboard the ships.13 (It would be interesting to know the identity of the other two ships). The Brits in compliance with their orders stop the Asama Maru first and remove 51 German seaman. The Brits claim the seamen are highly skilled naval technicians and crew members from the Columbus, a scuttled German ship sunk off the New Jersey coast a few months earlier.
The Japanese captain protests the British action stating that none of the men are in the German military -- all are civilians. In addition, none of the seaman are former crew members of the Columbus.14 "On what legal grounds is the Asama Maru being detained' protested the Captain. All of the Germans were civilian seaman from Standard Oil Tankers or it's subsidiaries the Captain claimed.15 The Japanese were highly indignant at the insult by the British to Japan's national honor and pride, particularly so close to it's shoreline. (Captain Wantanabe was removed as the captain of the Asama Maru according to an article in the LA Times on 3-10-1940. It was also rumored that Wantanabe committed hari kari because of his besmirched honor as a result of this incident.)16
The British Navy becomes very concerned regarding the immediate negative reverberations and condemnation of world opinion as the incident is broadcasted around the world. Concern grows that the Japanese Navy is sending ships to seize the Liverpool. The Liverpool scuttles her plan to intercept two other ships on this date and takes the quickest most direct route to Hong Kong. Although many American newspaper articles erroneously publish the "secret" voyage of the Asama Maru was transporting "Nazi" seaman from the scuttled Columbus passenger ship back to Germany, it wasn't.17
After considerable negotiations the British release all but 21 men. The 21 men retained are of military age and in good physical health. The men are initially taken to a girl's boarding school in Hong Kong (LaSalle University) and interned from January 28 to April 21, 1940. In June of 1940 a group of men are released including the Captain, he responds to press inquiries. He states he does not know why he and others were released or why others continued to be held. He comments that four of the men being held had patents, perhaps that led to their further detention. In checking with the patent office in Germany, four of the men in fact did have patents.18 (none of the patents were significant to national security and the list of the four inventors and inventions are available for review)
Dr. Robinson Duff, a Chicago physician, who as a passenger observed the incident, said the British list to remove the men seemed to have been better prepared than the ship's passenger list.19 New York Times 1/22/1940) Additionally, Chester Dunham a passenger on the Asama Maru confirms the full account of The Asama Maru Incident of January 21, 1940 at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/ecagrs/C%20G%20Dunham.pdf
Unfortunately, the seamen from the Asama Maru spent the next 6 years in confinement. After their incarceration in Hong Kong, they are transferred to Diyatalawa internment camp in Ceylon on the SS Narkunda ( April 21 - May 3 voyage to Ceylon, May 3, 1940 - February 24, 1942 incarceration). A consolidation of the entire Diyatalawa camp occurs they cross on the M/S Irwin on February 25, 1942 to Hanushkodi, southern most station in India where they take a train to Madras (2/27/1942) arrive in Delhi (2/29/1942) and arrive at the Dehra Doon Camp on March 3, 1942. On their arrival at Dehra Doon camp their watches, rings, tools and money are confiscated. March 6, 1942 they leave Dehra Doon for overseas heading for Halifax, Canada on the SS Cameronia, (voyage June 7 - August 4, 1942). After their arrival in Halifax, they take a train to New Castle Camp at Petawawa arriving on August 6, 1942. May 7, 1946 marked the end of the imprisonment for the civilian Standard Oil seamen who were captured from the Asama Maru when they were returned to Germany.20
Consequences of the Asama Maru incident
After the incident, immediately Standard Oil announced that it would cancel all future plans to repatriate the seaman. Neutral vessels operating in both the Pacific and the Atlantic were virtually closed off to the repatriation of the German seamen.
It is obvious by this passage on September 4, 1939 that the US State Department recognized the British actions regarding the Asama Maru were a violation of international law:
"Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and British Ambassador to the U.S. Lord Lothian have "off-the-record talk" (at the former's request) concerning the brief detention of U.S. passenger liner Santa Paula the day before. Lord Lothian is informed that Santa Paula's captain had been asked "to give formal assurances whether there were any German passengers on board, the implication being that if the captain had not given such assurances, the officers of the cruiser would have boarded [Santa Paula] to search for German passengers and possibly might have taken some off." Undersecretary Welles goes on to say that "any act by British cruisers affecting American ships in waters so close to the United States involving possible boarding of them and taking off of civilian passengers would create a very highly unfortunate impression upon American public opinion at this time and was something undesirable in itself, since if civilian passengers actually had been taken off, such act would be clearly counter to international law." Lord Lothian agrees and promises to "take the necessary steps to prevent occurrences of this kind from happening."
Neutrals role in repatriating German seaman of military age
Prior to the Asama Maru incident, the only article uncovered that suggests Standard Oil seaman were being repatriated is a December 2, 1939 NY Times article that suggested that Standard Oil seaman are sneaking back to the Reich by way of Portugal (NY Times, Stranded Seaman Slip Back to Reich, page 2)21 The same article however suggested they were traveling in small groups of 2 or 3 on Italian liners to Lisbon. Why would this have even been reported in the NY Times if secret repatriation was being attempted? How did these Standard Oil seamen obtain access to their passports from SO? Most likely they were seamen removed from ships in South America. Perhaps, a few isolated incidences occurred where German seamen actually made it back to Germany but usually when investigated further there were extenuating circumstances of health, nationality, or some other explainable condition.
Distressed Seamen from the Columbus
In January of 1941 the men from the Columbus start arriving at Ft. Stanton for internment. On October 1940 a small group of German men of military age sneak on to the Asama Maru with help of the Captain by switching places with "medically unfit sailors" scheduled for repatriation. This small group of former Columbus crew members pull off the deception and sail on the Asama Maru on the 60th voyage homeward. (Documented in the book "Shooting the War" by Otto Giese and James Wise.)
In January of 1945 the State Department and the War Department announce that the Gripsholm, a mercy ship, will leave New York traveling to Marseilles on or about January 6, to carry out a further exchange with Germany of seriously sick and seriously wounded prisoners of war who are found eligible for repatriation under the terms of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention. Also included in the exchange will be a number of German civilians in US custody and a number from Mexico who are being repatriated in exchange for US nationals and nationals of certain other American republics. The repatriation list consisted of 857 names. Among the names were Captain Daehne, Captain of the Columbus, 61 years of age. Other seamen from Ft. Lincoln, and Ft. Stanton are among the names on the list. Perhaps, Capt. Daehne, 61, was allowed repatriation because he was now beyond military age rather than unhealthy. Once again, the list confirms there was no attempt to repatriate healthy civilian seamen of military age.
Further study might help determine why Standard Oil crews were intentionally not repatriated according to international law.
URL -- http://www.ww2pacific.com/civilseamen.html