THE HELMUT RUGE STORY
PART FIVE -- NORTH AMERICA, 1941 to 1946
CAMP UPTON (December 1941 To April 1942 ?)
We finally arrived on a freezing cold winter's day at Brooklyn Yard, New York on the 15th December 1941, shivering
in only our shorts and "T" shirts, and were sent to be initially detained in Camp Upton.
The American papers carried articles about us being the first 'U' boat crew to be captured by the American Navy.
Considering that my fellow crew were majoritively 'old' men, the captain was 70, the ship's carpenter 69 and the
chief engineer 65, the American Public must have got a strange impression of the quality of the sailors serving in
this key arm of the German Navy.
G-2 Report on crew
While at Camp Upton I met the great world heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, who was one of the American
soldiers working there. An opportunity I would never have imagined possible before.
It was during my time when I was in Camp Upton in 1941, and also later in other camps, that I had the good fortune
to meet a Costa Rican called Peters, who had been interned because his father was German, although he had
been born in Costa Rica. His family owned coffee farms and coffee processing plants in Costa Rica and after we
became friendly told me that, if I was ever interested in coming to Costa Rica after the War, he would offer me a job
as a manager on one of his farms.
Life was not easy in Camp Upton, there being four people per tent, which was heated by a coke stove in the middle. As
the temperature outside was 20 below freezing, with strong winds, we were never able to get warm. It was
especially bad when we to go to the mess hall or to the toilets which were at least 50m from the tent and which in
the case of the toilet block, to make matters worse, was not heated. In the toilet block the lavatories were a multi
seater in a long line, there being no individual toilets, which were flushed by automatically releasing water along the
trough under the seats, while you sat there.
In early 1942 after 4 months at Camp Upton we were transferred to Fort Mead, Maryland.
FORT MEAD, MARYLAND (April 1942 To October 1942?)
The American Captain, who was the commandant at Fort Mead, told us at the reception on our arrival, "Now you will
behave at this camp, you are American prisoners now and the only way you are going to get out of here is either
feet first or by order of the government."
The America Internment Camps included people of German origin from all over North, South and Central America
and from all walks of life. These included doctors, teachers, engineers, university lecturers, journalists, artists.
musicians, etc. During my years of internment I used this source of highly educated people to improve my education
and knowledge, a chance that would never have been available to me had I lived all my life in a conventional way in Germany.
We were forbidden to have alcohol in the camps, but at Fort Mead, as indeed at all the camps I was interned in, We
overcame this obstacle by making our own alcohol. This was done by fermenting the any dried fruit we could get
hold of in old wooden nail kegs (?), then distilling the fermented juice in fire extinguishers adapted by us for the
purpose. The distillate was finally filtered through white bread to remove the poisonous alcoholic oil and the 100%
alcohol was then drunk neat, like schnapps.
Over the next three years was moved around the States to different Internment Camps, to Camp Forest in Tennessee,
to Fort Stanton in New Mexico, to Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, North Dakota, and finally to Ellis Island in New York, the
old point of entry for immigrants arriving in the United States over the previous century.
CAMP FOREST, TENNESSEE (October 1942 to May 1943?)
When we arrived at the Camp Forest in Tennessee, we found separated by 500 meters from our section for
internees, another section enclosed by barbed wire that contained German submariner prisoners of war.
Naturally we wanted to find out more about them and who was there, so I started to try and communicate with them,
initially using flags to semaphore messages to them. Unfortunately I was only able to send messages that way, I
was not able to understand the semaphore messages when my opposite number replied. This was because I could
only read the signals from the way I was facing and I was unable to make them realise that if they stood with their
back to me I would know what they were signaling. So I then made a lamp to send messages in morse by putting a
bulb inside a stove and opening and shutting the door to send the letters in morse.
Once I was able to communicate I learnt that the my opposite taking and giving the messages was a radio operator
called Kruger whom I had met in 1936 at the Radio Operator's School in Flensburg and that another of the
prisoners held in the camp was the navigation officer from the 'Graf Spee', Wattenburg, who had escaped back to
Germany and been made a 'U' Boat captain and been subsequently sunk by the Americans and taken prisoner.
Both camps used a joint hospital and I was able to pass a message to them inside a tennis ball which I left in the
cistern of one of the hospital's lavatories.
One evening in a moment of madness, myself and a companion decided to visit the other camp for a party and
advised Kruger by morse to wait for us in order to lift the wire and let us into his section of the camp. At the agreed
time we crawled across the space between the two sections to the boundary fence of the prisoner of war camp.
However, unknown to us the captain in charge of this camp called an unscheduled roll call with the result that
nobody was able to be at the wire to help us through. After waiting for a long time at the fence for help that never
came, we had no option but to craw back again to our section.
We contacted Kruger to find out had happened and after explaining to us said he would come to us the next
night instead and told us to wait at a certain point by our wire to assist him to get under it. The next night Kruger
came to our camp, not crawling, but openly marched in full view of the guards with a broomstick over his shoulder
pretending to be a guard with a rifle, whereas the previous night we has spent two hours crawling about in no-mans
land in order to escape detection! While we were lifting the wire to get him in to the camp, we were spotted by
another internee, a Von Munchausen, a man of around 50 years old, a very intelligent man who was able to speak
eight languages, including such difficult languages as Finnish and Russian.
Once Kruger had arrived we got a good party going in our tent, drinking our illicit alcohol and singing songs
accompanied by an the accordion played by an internee who used to play at one of the top hotels in Washington
before the war. Suddenly we heard a commotion and the guards swarmed in to carry out an inspection, one of the
guards told us that an informer had seen us helping somebody from the other camp into our camp. On hearing the
commotion I had quickly hidden under my bed but Kruger had had no time to hide and was found sitting on my bed
with me under it. One of the guards said to him "Here he is, come on you son of a bitch" and he was taken away. At
that moment I took the opportunity to get out of the side of the tent and escape. They arrested the others in the tent who
were kept in confinement overnight. On being questioned, Kruger told the bizarre story that he went to bed, as
normal, but when he woke up he found he was in a different tent with strange people, who then invited him to have
a drink! Naturally this was not believed and he was also put in solitary confinement for a week as punishment. The
prison governor made life a little easier for him at the end of his confinement by having the blinds to the windows
lifted a little more each day so that he could slowly get used to the light after days of darkness.
We were to get our revenge later on Von Munchausen when we were sent on a work detail to cut down a wood of
trees so that the American Army could use the area for artillery practice. I have never understood why they had to
destroy these beautiful trees when the USA is so huge and they could have used one of their deserts for this
purpose. The work detail involved about ten, including Munchausen, myself and two friends from Hamburg, a ships
stoker and an ordinary seaman, who always worked with me. On the first morning we set of marching and singing
as per normal, but one of my friends seeing Munchausen said "That is the son of bitch who gave us away, wait until
the coffee break". My friend gave Munchausen a terrible beating telling him that he was never to betray anybody
again and that he was going to knock the shit out of him. As a result of this beating Munchausen could hardly see
as his eyes were nearly closed and when one of the guards asked him what had happened to him he said he had
been stung by a wasp!
It was at Camp Forest that I started to improve my English. I learnt to speak with an Oxford accent because I was
taught by a Dr. Kublemann, who at some stage in his life had taught at Oxford. He was sadly to become an alcoholic
and committed suicide sometime after his release from Ellis Island. He lived with a lady friend, Josephine, from a noble family
from southern Germany. He once sent me a telegram after the war urgently requesting $100 to pay for a trip to Europe.
I spent about 8 months at Camp Forest and was then sent to Fort Stanton in New Mexico.
FORT STANTON, NEW MEXICO (May 1943 To May 1944?)
This was different to the other camps, in that it was restricted to interned merchant marine crew only and I missed
the variety of interests and professions of the people interned in the other camps.
I did however take one course during my time at Fort Stanton studying for a Masters Certificate, which unfortunately
I was eventually unable to finish as the completion of the course could only take place in Germany at one of the
merchant naval schools in Hamburg or Bremen.
One event that took place in this camp was to have far reaching and terrible result for one of my friends. In the
camp was a homosexual German naval officer, a First Officer, who shared his room on the camp together with a
young mess-boy. The showers in our barracks could also be used as a steam room and one day a friend, Fritz
Metener, and myself were enjoying a sauna when this officer turned up and came into the steam room with us. We
told him to get out as we had no wish to share the room with such a person as him, but he shouted at us saying that
he was an officer and we could not speak to in this manner. We said we did not care whether he was an officer or
not, but if he did not leave we would physically throw him out, which we did. This man was one of the fanatical Nazis
in the camp and we had made an enemy who was to extract his revenge later in the War on my unfortunate friend,
a story I was to learn when I returned to Germany in 1946.
I was not as happy at Fort Lincoln as I had been at previous camps, partly because it was restricted to naval
personnel only and I missed the stimulation and variety of my previous internees, but more importantly it was
resented by some of the internees that some of us should agree to go on work details for the Americans. I always
looked for work at every camp in order to keep myself busy and to keep fit. Some of the more fanatical internees
considered those of us who went on worked to be traitors. They felt that by our digging the fields or planting
potatoes, etc., we were enabling another American to be available to go and fight the 'Fatherland'. One day when I
was not working outside the camp, the returning work detail was met at the camp gate by some of the fanatics
chanting and carrying placards saying "traitors" etc. As a result the American authorities decided the lives of the
work party were in danger from these other camp inmates and that they could not therefore continue to stay in the
camp. The work party was told to collect their belongings at once and be ready to be transferred to another camp.
Because I hadn't been working that day I was naturally not included so I immediately set to action and went to see the
American camp commander and explained to him the situation and that I wanted to go with the others as I had been
a regular member the same group and that my life could also be in danger. He said that I could go and told me to
pack my belongings and join the others. I then reported to the senior German Captain in charge and told him that I
wanted to leave. He said if that is what I wanted he could not stop me.
FORT LINCOLN, BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA (May 1944 To May 1945?)
That day we were taken to the railway station and all put in one carriage. This was then hooked up to a series of
different trains and after two days, via Kansas and other cities, arrived at Bismarck in North Dakota. On the way we
passed an airfield where I counted thousands of parked bombers which made me doubt the outcome of a successful
conclusion to the war for the Germans.
Here I worked in the kitchen from 4 a.m. to noon or in the afternoons until 8 p.m, initially as a helper, but ending up as
a cook with the right to wear a chef's hat as a soup and gravy chef. For working in the kitchen I received 80 cents
per day. I also worked during the day in the summer, when I was not in the kitchen, in the fields harvesting the
wheat. The wheat would be cut by machine leaving sheaves which we had to collect and stack in long straight lines
in bunches of twelve sheaves each so that they could be picked up later by the threshing machine. For this I was
paid 10 cents an hour or another 80 cents per day, making a princely total of $1.60 earned per day, good money in
those days. When there was no work in the fields I worked in the camp laundry for eight hours. I was able to make
extra money because in the camp were a number of internees who were millionaires and who not wishing to wash
their own clothes paid me a dollar a time to do this for them. My days were, therefore, always full.
Bismarck also had a splendid school at which it was possible to study any subject you wanted, even medicine if you
so wished, taught by various professors, who had been interned, at formal lessons they gave every day. I made
friends with a fellow internee who had been the editor of the Wall Street Journal before the War and he took it upon
himself to continue my education in English that had started at Camp Forest.
North Dakota was at that time the biggest producer of cereal crops in America and the fields were full of pheasants
which were hunted by the guards. One day after the camp guards had been pheasant shooting they wished to get
the birds correctly cooked. As some of the internee cooks in the camp had worked as chefs before the War in some
of the best hotels and restaurants in the United States, the guards asked these them to cook the pheasants they
had shot and offered to pay them in dollars, something which was totally forbidden under the camp rules. The
kitchen prepared the guards a delicious meal, with all the internees helping in the kitchen ensuring that they also
had a partridge each to eat.
After the partridge feast, five of us, all ex-sailors, were having a couple of drinks when somebody suggested that
we go and spend the money we had earned in Bismarck. One of us, a very good football player who came from
Hamburg suggested, yes, that we put the painter's ladder against the camp perimeter fence and jump over. "What", I
said, "if the guards see us". He replied, "If that happens we will just pretend that we are drunk, but if not then we are
out and away."
So the five of us put our seabags in our beds, took make it appear to a casual observer that the beds were
occupied and went over the fence without being detected by the nearest guard, who luckily was asleep, and set off
to walk the 20 kilometres to Bismarck. We arrived around 11 in the evening and found a bar that was open and
proceeded to spend our money on drink and girls, until by 4 a.m. The money was gone and we were drunk, tired and
happy. We now had to get back to camp with no money and too tired to walk the 20 kilometres.
The solution : to give ourselves up to the police. We therefore went to the local police station and told the officer on
duty that we were from the Internment Camp and asked if he could phone the Camp to get them to come and
collect us. The officer, a typical American policeman, tall and well built, being warm and cosy in his office on this cold
night and not wanting to be bothered, stood up and shouted at us, "Get the hell out of here and stop bothering me".
There were a lot of Swedes in the Dakota area at that time and, seeing the five drunken blonde men in front of him,
thought we were some of them. I said I would go back in and try again, so I spoke once more to the police officer
and said, "We really are Germans from the Internment Camp and perhaps you could phone the Camp and check
with them whether anyone is missing" He told me to sit in his office while he phoned. After about an hour the camp
phoned back and after putting the phone down he turned to me in a rage shouting, "Get out you bastards, there is
nobody missing from the Camp." What could we do? So we went back to him again and asked him to phone the
Camp again and tell the guards to check our bunk numbers where they would find seabags but not men sleeping
there. He phoned again and after about an hour we heard the sound of police sirens from the cars coming from the
Camp, much to our delight, to collect us. We were taken back to camp and were given only one day's solitary
confinement as punishment which could not be properly carried out as they did not have the facilities to confine so
many of us at one time.
I was to stay at Bismarck until the war in Europe ended in May 1945. I was then moved to Ellis Island on Long Island,
NY, in order for me to be repatriated back to Germany, together with all the sailors from Camp Upton.
ELLIS ISLAND, NEW YORK (May 1945 To March 1946 ?)
It was not my wish to return to the chaos and confusion that Germany was experiencing at that time,
so I applied to stay in Ellis Island to complete a course in English that I was taking. This was granted and I delayed
my repatriation to Germany for another year until April 1946. I also at this time made an application to live in the
country of my choice, as I considered that I had been interned falsely, having been taken prisoner by the Americans
before they had declared war on Germany. My choice was America and the authorities, after reading my
application, said that it could be possible. They told me to get a lawyer and make a case "habeas corpus"
concerning my allegation for being wrongly interned.
I had been receiving visits from an American lady of German origin, Mrs. Reineke, who had become an official camp
visitor, like many other citizens of German origin, because they wished to provide support for interned Germans and
to supply us with food parcels to supplement the camp food. This kind lady, of around 40 years of age, put me in
touch with a New York lawyer who prepared my case and submitted to the Immigration Department. At a hearing
they confirmed that there was nothing against me, except that I had now brought a case accusing the America
government of being unjust. If I was to withdraw the "habeas corpus" from the court, I would probably receive
permission to stay in the U.S.A. I agreed to do this, but the next night I was woken up in the middle of the night and
told I was being put on a ship for Germany (I was to meet Mrs. Rheineke again in Germany in 1947).
Arriving in Ellis Island I met again, acting as a lift operator, Von Appen, the captain responsible in South America for
the inspection of German ships, previously met in Chile when I was escaping from internment in Argentina. He was
subsequently returned to Chile, where he ended up the owner of a major shipping company with oil tankers, tugs,
etc. I later met Von Appen's sons in Chile in their office for lunch, the old man himself having died two years previously,
and they wanted to know any details about their father I could tell them.
Whilst on Ellis Island, I worked as a cook and one of my tasks was to take the food to a high security prisoner who
turned out to be "Lucky" Luciano the mafia gangster who was being deported to Italy where, when he arrived back in
Naples was treated as a hero and died there a "man of importance". I also got friendly with the prisoner who ran the
camp's library and made full use of his separate room to spend my days without having to share space with more
than 100 fellow internees on their beds.
Throughout my time as an internee in America I had no communication with the outside world, having no idea, for
example what had happened to my parents and sister. By keeping myself busy I tried to eliminate doubts or
concerns that I might have. Once Germany invaded Russia, while I was in Japan, and particularly after Stalingrad, I
knew that Germany could no longer win the War and in that event being in America was the best place to be when
RETURN TO GERMANY, April 1946
I was put on board the 'Sea Nymph', together with 25 criminals who had been serving life sentences for murder in
Sing Sing prison. My luck held as the First Officer decided to make me spokesman for these men and to be the
means of liaison between them and the ship's officers. The downside of the job was that I had to speak to these
men to ensure that they understood that if they did not misbehave they would be al; right. Luckily for me they did. As
a result instead of leaving me to live in the hold of the troopship, I was given the Pilot's cabin, complete with its own
shower and toilet and I ate in the Officer's Mess. I became a friend of the radio operator and took watch for any
signal while he slept. I also helped the chief steward with his bookkeeping (he having no idea), who gave me a
carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes and explained to me that this was currently the equivalent of money in immediate
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