The STORY of the INTERNMENT of a GERMAN MERCHANT SEAMAN
This story of a German seaman on an American oil
tanker that spent part of the war in U.S. internment camps is fascinating.
I had no idea that the amount of internment was this extensive.
This story is not well known -- and I try to pay attention to WW2 issues.
Here it is for you to hear about.
In 2003, I began an investigation into my father's internment. My
investigation was propelled by two events. My son, a college student, was
enrolled in a Quarter at Sea program and was planning a 12 week journey on
the Golden Bear to the South Pacific. Since it was after 9-11 and the world
trade center attack, I was, as most mother's, overly concerned about his
safety on such a journey. Fortunately, after making a couple of calls to the
program director I was assured that the Golden Bear, had diplomatic status.
My concern, was probably more acute than other parents because my father had
been interned in the US during WWII. Although, I was not aware of the
details of my father's incarceration I did know that the German embassies
had been closed in America in June 1940 leaving no diplomatic recourse for
After my son departed for his journey to the South Pacific, I happened to
watch a PBS program on the Guantanamo Bay detainees. I began to wonder how
my father's status as an enemy alien during WWII differed from the status of
the detainees. Unfortunately, my father died in 1957 at the age of 45,
taking his internment story to his grave. Since I was a child of six when
my father died, all I ever knew is that he was interned but nothing more.
Never in the US do you here anything about the 11,000 German-Americans
interned during WWII. The story has intentionally been focused on the
Japanese American story. After my father died in June of 1957, my German
grandmother died in November of 1957. Unfortunately, after my grandmother's
death we lost contact with my father's only brother Fritz. My mother had
her hands full after my father died she was left with four children between
the ages of 10 months and 9 years old. She really did not know what she was
going to do with out my father. She had no driver's license to even drive
the car in the driveway. Since she had never met any members of my father's
family, and found it difficult to arrange translation for the letters
received with my uncle. Naturally, her correspondence with my uncle
dwindled. To this day I have no idea if I have any living relatives in
I have contacted the Standesamt in Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Schwerin and
Geestacht for information. Although I have found out who my great
grandparents were and more information about my father's parents, I have
found out nothing regarding my uncle. I presume he is deceased, because he
was a few years older than my father, and my father was born in 1912. I
have tried to find out about my uncle through the German military records to
no avail. Evidently, my Uncle's name is very common in Germany, Fritz
Ahrens and without his precise birthdate I can find no information. By a
photograph, I know he was an obergeister in the Luftwaffe but nothing more.
Through Freedom of Information requests, very hard work, and much research
I have learned the following information about my father and his WWII
My father, Werner Ahrens, was interned at Ft. Lincoln beginning in May
of 1941. He had been removed from his ship, the Clio, on August 29, 1939
in New York Harbor when the entire German crew was replaced by Americans.
The Clio was an oil tanker built in Germany and registered to Panama in
1936. Technically, my father was a German national, on a Panamanian
registered ship, owned by an American Company, Standard Oil. Standard Oil
had 27 ships built in Germany, manned by German crews at the outbreak of
the war, September 1, 1939. Standard Oil made a decision in late August
of 1939 to remove all of their German crews in ports across the Western
Hemisphere. It seems likely that Britain put pressure on Standard Oil
to take this action because they had a very large contract for petroleum
products with Standard Oil. The contract called for transporting
petroleum from the Lago Refinery in Aruba up the east coast of the US and
then to Europe. This was a critical oil supply route for Britain. The
German built Esso tankers had been the primary tankers servicing the Lago
refinery. As the war broke out, fourteen of the German built Esso ships
were in American ports, three ships were out of service, and nine were
in South American ports. Unfortunately, I have not been able to identify
the 27th ship or it's whereabouts at the start of the war. I can only
presume it was in Canada or Britain. If so, the crews would have been
immediately interned because both countries were in a declared war.
From my research, it appears that the crews who were removed from their
ships prior to August 22, were successfully repatriated because they were
able to board the German passenger liner Europa that departed on August 22.
All the other crews were stranded in American ports. The US State
department made an agreement with Italy immediately at the start of the
war to ban all German civilians from Italian vessels. The ban was modified
late in December 1939, to allow women and children to travel on Italian
vessels. Eventually, the ban allowed German men beyond military age to
travel. Basically, the US State department had cut off the main source
of repatriation for the scuttled crews. Italy was the dominant player in
transporting American refugees from Europe. Literally thousands of
Americans were leaving Europe through Italy and traveling west to America.
The ships were so full they had to put up cots to accommodate passengers.
However, going east, the ships were empty.
In January of 1940, the Asama Maru Incident occurred blocking off all
repatriation on the Pacific route via Japan to Germany. On board the
Asama Maru were seamen from three Standard Oil tankers. I have confirmed
that most of the crew of the F.H. Bedford Jr. were on the Asama Maru when
it was boarded by the British thirty-five miles off the coast of Japan.
(I have a ton of information on this diplomatic incident that I have
gathered from the German archives and US newspapers.) The crew from the
F.H. Bedford Jr. had been in South American waters at the start of the
war. The German crew was removed and American officers were sent from
NYC to take over the ship. A US State Department official was dispatched
to Aruba to grant temporary visas to the crew to bring them back to the
US for repatriation later. Most of the crew was taken to Ellis Island on
the Santa Rosa. The men were sent by train to San Pedro, CA, to board the
Asama Maru. (One Swiss crew member was repatriated on a Portugese liner
to Lisbon.) The newspapers reported that a few Standard Oil seamen had
stole back to the Reich aboard Portuguese ships. I have only been able
to verify the one Swiss man.
The Brits removed all the German civilian seamen from the Asama Maru
claiming they were German naval experts. None were. All were civilians.
The newspapers reported the men seized were crew of the Columbus, they
were not. Not a single man was from the Columbus. A full scale diplomatic
event ensued. The Japanese called for a release of all the men seized
from the Asama Maru. The British claimed they had the right to seize
all men of military age on a neutral vessel under contraband rules.
The Brits were clearly in violation of international law and I have found
evidence that our State Department in another incident acknowledged the
Asama Maru incident was clearly a violation of international law. It
appears that this incident was contrived by the British (and most likely
collaborated with the US) to stop all repatriation of German men of
military age on neutral vessels. Immediately, after the incident Standard
Oil announced they would cancel all repatriation of crews, as it was too
The stranded Standard Oil men could not technically be interned because
the US was a neutral nation. Additionally, the US citizens were adamantly
opposed to becoming involved in the European war. Only 3% of the public
favored involvement. Since 1940 was an election year, FDR could not afford
to take the chance of such an unpopular action by interning the seamen.
However, it is obvious he was trying to find a way to deter the crews from
repatriating to Germany, at the bequest of the British, until after the
election. Interestingly, it was accomplished by obligating Standard Oil to
pay the men a stipend and by providing housing and medical benefits. Since
the men were getting paid for being idle, they accepted their predicament
without much dissent. The government imposed a $5,000 surety bond for each
crew member to be paid by Standard Oil. This was done to keep track of
the men. Since Standard Oil had paid $5,000 per head they made sure they
kept track of the men by retaining all of their passports at their
corporate headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza.
Although my father made several attempts to gain "voluntary departure"
status he was foiled at every turn. The INS [Immigration and
Naturalization Service - Jim] granted him "voluntary departure" in 1940.
he tried to obtain his passport from Standard Oil to leave they refused to
release his passport on orders from the US government. On May 7 of 1941,
he was rounded up with 179 other Standard Oil seamen and sent to Ft.
Lincoln, N.D., for internment. In July of 1943, he was paroled to
various different work assignments in the Bismarck area. To gain American
citizenship in February of 1944, he enlisted in the US military.
After basic training he was sent to Camp Gordon Johnston, where he was
assigned as an interpreter to give work orders to German POW's captured
in Africa. For some unknown reason which I still have not been able
to figure out, the US military recruited my father into Military
Intelligence. He had to become a citizen before enrollment at Camp
Ritchie, so he became a citizen at Tallahassee, Florida, and then entered
M.I. at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Camp Ritchie had highly intelligent,
well educated men, that were multi-lingual. For the life of me I can not
understand why my father was sent there. He had an eighth grade
education, was only an able seaman, and his translation skills were rated
reading: poor, conversation: fair, and translation: poor. Supposedly,
my father's military records went up in smoke in an archival fire in St.
Louis in 1973 so I have not had any access to them Certainly, I have no
explanation as to why he was put into military intelligence nor why he
agreed to do it. It has plagued me to try to make sense of it. I have
wondered if his knowledge of "oil" practices might have been the reason,
but it is purely a guess.
Anyway, my father went from enemy alien to military intelligence in 9
months. Remember, while my father was training in US military intelligence
his brother is back in Germany in the Luftwaffe and his parents were
residing in Hamburg. About 60 days into training, my father is washed out
of MI training for "cheating". Does it get much more ironic than that?
He was sent back to Camp Gordon Johnston and one month later sent to the
Pacific, the Philippines. In Manila he was a Master tugboat operator,
and classified as a Tech 4 which is equivalent in rank to a Staff
Sergeant. I have no idea what he did as a tugboat master, but certainly
it is not out of the realm of possibility that he assisted in the
refueling of US tankers while in harbor.
In 1946 my father was released from military service in Ft. Lewis, WA.
In 1948, the deportation order was finally rescinded on my father. After
the war, surprisingly, my father returned to Bismarck ND, to finish his
plumber's training with the same man (Hessinger) who he was paroled to in
1943. He had become fast friends with the family when he resided with
them in 1943. Shortly later, he became a journeymen plumber and was
employed in the construction trade in ND and Minnesota.
Certainly, Mr. Ruge that is enough background on my father.
I have gathered an incredible amount of information in my search for my
father's journey and have determined that the US tried to provide the
image that they made numerous attempts to repatriate the civilian German
seamen but when one investigates the details it does not hold up. I have
become fascinated with knowing the truth purely for my own satisfaction.
No researcher has ever conducted detailed information about the German
Esso crews and their internment. So I have had to laboriously try to find
the details through painstaking research. I have written to the National
Archives dozen of times to get information to no avail, many of my
requests are over 2-1/2 years old. Believe me I have lots of questions left.
Some details gathered by Shirley
Nine Esso/PTC tankers where the crews were removed in South American waters
in August/September of 1939
MS J.A. Mowinckel - August 1939, the ship was on her way around South America
having discharged at Buenos Aires - arrived at the canal zone the first day
of the war - on Sept. 16 her German crew was replaced by Americans sent from
MS Leda - at the outbreak of the war German crew was loading crude oil at
Caripito - crews changes after 1939 -- American to Danes to American
MS Calliope - arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 8-22-1939 with a German crew -
all German shipmasters had been instructed by their government to proceed to
German or friendly ports because war was imminent - British cruiser HMS Ajax
was patrolling outside the harbor - the master of the Calliope refused to
sail until he received from his government "assurance of safety for crew and
vessel" - American officers were sent to Rio de Janeiro - the German captain
refused to relinquish the tanker until he received a written guarantee that
he and his crew would be cared for properly pending their repatriation -
after considerable negotiation the American officers took charge of the
vessel on 9-7-1939.
MS Harry G. Seidel - the first day of the European war, 9-3-1939, German
crew removed in port at Buenos Aires where she arrived August 22, 1939 -
American crew dispatched to take over ship - American officers take charge
on 9-7-1939 after being divided between Harry G. Seidel and Calliope -
Calliope sails on 9-12 - Harry G. Seidel ships on 9-18 manned with a mixed
crew which 29 nationalities are represented
MS Franz Klasen * (8) - German crew replaced with Americans the ship left
Aruba on Sept. 2, 1939 for Montreal - later American crew replaced with
MS F. H. Bedford * (5) - 9/3/1939 on way from Buenos Aires to
Aruba - Dutch refuse to let German crew come to land in Aruba - US State
Department obtains authority to issue transit visas to the Germans - the
crew sent on the Santa Rosa to NYC then via rail to Los Angeles to board the
Asama Maru (men on Asama Maru are seized off the coast of Japan in violation
of international law, men interned first at Hong Kong then transferred to
Ceylon, and Canada, for some reason 5 men including the captain end up at
MS Thalia * (16) - 9/4/1939 German crew delivered Venezuelan crude to NYC
9/15/1939 American crew put onboard
MS Prometheus* (2) - last of the German manned vessels of the PTC - German
crew, due to circumstances remained onboard until April 1, 1940 when
American crew took charge at St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands
SS Niobe - * (1) ship en route from Aruba to Sao Salvador, Brazil at the
start of the war. German crew replaced with an American crew around
9-8-1939. No details of the crew transfer or repatriation of crews
* Blue = Ships with Crew members interned at Ft. Lincoln according to
roster dated 4/24/1943. Number of crew members interned at Ft. Lincoln in
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Last updated on November 23, 2008
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