For most Americans, including the majority of the scholarly community, the internment of WWII German enemy aliens never happened. In the words of Stephen Fox, it continues to be the "unknown internment," totally overshadowed by the Japanese experience.2 Standard upper level American history texts perpetuate this historical injustice and ignorance. For example, in Allan M. Winkler's Home Front U.S.A.: America During World War II, the author denies the German internment experience by stating that
Some ethnic or racial groups had especially severe problems that were unique to the war. Those from nations which the United States was fighting had the worst time. German Americans, who had been treated poorly in the First World War, were now more fully assimilated into American life and thus left alone. Italians and Japanese found themselves targeted this time.3
Contrary to Winkler and the others who have taken a similar superficial and politically correct stance, recent scholarship has pointed to a clear continuity connecting WWI and WWII anti-German war hysteria. This "hysteria," for want of a better term, was expressed in numerous ways between 1941 and 1947, including the following: harassment, violence and vigilante actions directed towards German aliens and German Americans, especially during the first year of the war. Under the rhetoric of pursuing selective detention only for cause, numerous unwarranted apprehensions and unjustified internments occurred capriciously throughout the war years, and not only in the weeks immediately after Pearl Harbor. For example, beginning in early 1942 but not ending until May of 1945, the wholesale internment in the U.S. of Latin American Germans took place under the guise of hemispherical security. Ironically, and to their dismay, these aliens were subsequently charged with illegal entry once the war was concluded. Finally, and perhaps most puzzling and troubling, was the continued internment of a large group of hapless internees until 1948, with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and INS providing no real reason for this psychologically brutal action.4
Despite the recent publication of Arnold Krammer's Undue Process: The Untold Story of America's German Alien Internees, much related to the internment of Germans remains to be fully examined and explored, and given the amount of documents that continue to be rendered inaccessible and classified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice, it is doubtful that the entire story will be forthcoming in the near future.5 Rather, it is my opinion that this tragic episode will appear in incomplete trickles over time, and unfortunately, as the key actors and former internees gradually die off, pieces of the puzzle will be invariably lost in the mists of time.
One area of this most complex topic, namely camp life under military authority, is the handle which will be used to explore the at times capricious policies surrounding internment. For many of the male internees, it is their internment story during the first year and a half of the war, a time during which war hysteria peaked, the outcome of the war was still in doubt, and policies concerning the political and diplomatic value of interned enemy aliens remained in flux. It is also a part of the tale that we know very little about, as textual records are scant, and participants memories are more clouded than usual. When the American internment program was finally publicized in the press in 1944 and in film in 1945, it was INS camps and not those run by the military that were brought into the light, although even in these facilities, unrevealed shadows certainly existed.
To add light to those shadows and thus better understand the internment experience, the following questions are addressed: 1) How did civilians, placed under military confinement and dealt with as POWs, handle the external and internal pressures placed upon them?; 2) What forms of coercion were placed on these people, by whom, and for what purpose?; and finally 3) How were their anger, anxiety, confusion and continued hopes expressed in an everyday camp life physically delineated by barbed wire and limed white lines?6
In order to escape the trap of broad generalizations, my study will focus on only two representative camps in detail -- Fort Meade (MD) and Camp Forrest (TN), under the authority of the Department of the Army between 1942 and 1943. Certainly for a comprehensive study of internee camp life other sites should be included, since minimally 53 military and INS facilities were used to house internees during WWII.7 Time, readily available sources and personal factors, however, have dictated to this scholar a starting point for a narrative that is admittedly far from complete, but hopefully penetrating in depth and scope, and provocative to the degree that others will follow.
Strictly speaking, the United States military, and the INS were committed to following the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention, but given the fact that civilians were mentioned only once in that document -- "individuals who follow armed forces without directly belonging to thereto, such as newspaper correspondents and reporters, settlers, contractors" -- shall be treated as prisoners of war, much was left to interpretation. That interpretation, in terms of the United States, was made largely by the State Department, whose officials accompanied protecting powers' representatives during camp inspections. Strict and careful reciprocity was to be followed to avoid retribution levied on Americans caught overseas. Further, in the words of Lemuel B. Schofield, Special Assistant to the Attorney General responsible for the INS in early 1942 and later romantically involved with one of the most celebrated of all female internees -- Stephanie von Hohnelohe -- was the "obligation to treat them [enemy aliens] fairly and humanely...."8
For many of the alien enemy males living on the East Coast who were apprehended during 1942, the pattern of movement from camp to camp followed rather predictably. Undoubtedly more traumatic than any camp experience was for many the surprise FBI apprehension, at times at gunpoint, involving anywhere from three to seven agents. As Franz Hohenlohe would later recall: " When people say 'the blood froze in their veins,' I know exactly what they mean. It speaks volumes for my constitution that I did not drop dead right there from the shock and humiliation...Without doubt, my arrest by the FBI on February 16, 1942, was the lowest ebb in a life replete with many other low water marks."9 Anxiety was compounded by the knowledge that personal property left behind was invariably lost, as scavengers quickly followed to steal anything unsecured of value belonging to those taken away.10 After spending some time at Ellis Island and awaiting the results of the Hearing Board, aliens deemed "potentially dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States" during the Spring and Early Summer of 1942 were typically sent in a sealed off train with all windows shuttered to Ft. George G. Meade, MD.11 Only after Ft. Meade was subsequently filled with POWs captured during the successful campaigns in North Africa were arrangements made to send these civilians to another facility under the control of the Army, Camp Forrest. By mid-1943 responsibility for alien detention reverted to the INS, and many were sent to family camps like Seagoville or Crystal City in Texas.12
Any way you look at it, the welcoming committee at Ft. Meade was far from hospitable to many of the internees, particularly those who had a loyalty to the United States and who had decided not to elect for a speedy repatriation to Germany. The military viewed these civilians as Prisoners of War, ordering all internees by the summer of 1942 to don green government issue khaki. Internees were housed in four-man tents, several of which routinely flooded after heavy rains, as a group of hapless and angry Italians quickly discovered.13 Barbed wire, "off limits" signs, and machine guns surrounding the prisoners completed the scene, along with guards who viewed these men as potentially dangerous, rather than the typical butchers, bakers, mechanics, and common folk that most of them were. As one former army guard of alien internees later recalled:
...at the time I never even thought of these people as having families. They were enemy aliens and they were packed up because they were potentially subversive people. They were isolated and put into this camp. As far as we were concerned, they were enemies of the American people.14
To intensify the fear, at least one incident of gun shots directed at the internees from soldiers' barracks immediately adjacent to the compound was reported at Meade. FBI presence at Meade, both visible and behind the scenes, was aimed at interrogating numerous internees, sequestering a few to unknown locations, and carefully watching suspected pro-Nazi ringleaders with the purpose of listing all personal contacts made on a daily basis. Especially at Ft. Meade, but to some degree at Camp Forrest as well, incoming mail was months late, with the claim made that postal censors in New York were understaffed and overwhelmed with the sheer number of internee letters in and out of the confinement facilities. In reality, one reason for the long delay had to be the scrutiny under which each piece of mail was placed, as letters clearly became the central instrument of intelligence gathering by authorities.
And then perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting the internees came from other Germans already at Ft. Meade. Since the early Spring, seamen captured and interned first at Camp Upton, N.Y. and then transferred to Maryland had already shaped a camp culture that was aggressively pro-Nazi and intensely nationalistic. These sailors, from the ship the S.S.Odenwald, had placed swastikas and pictures of Hitler in various camp facilities and living quarters, had elected one of their own, a former ships' cook, to be a leader, had organized mass gatherings, and had used intimidation and violence to insure ideological conformity.15
By July of 1942, according to Dr. Heinz Luedicke, an internee who, upon his release, was interrogated about the loyalties within the camp, three broad categories could be discerned, namely: Old German (having nothing to do with the traditions of Nazism); anti-Nazi; and pro-Nazi. Luedicke claimed that area "B" contained individuals with the following leanings, although this assessment must be dealt with some circumspection, given the personal Leudicke's motives, his often incomplete knowledge about other internees, and the ever present occurrence of deception that had to be practiced among those interned:
- Decidedly Pro-Nazi: 19
- Pro-Nazi: 20
- Old German: 8
- Undecided/Divided Loyalties: 8
- Pro-American/Anti-Nazi: 15
- Psychologically Incapacitated/Political Non-entity: 4
While Leudicke's assessments are suggestive, one public affirmation of loyalty to Germany that left little room for interpretation was the internees declaration of intent concerning repatriation, and the validity and significance of this "test," was reflected in a September 10, 1942 letter from an loyal-to-America internee to a military officer at Fort Meade:
...there are people in this area who neither appreciate kindness, privileges, and fair treatment, nor are they willing to submit to given rules and regulations. They constantly seek to point out 'traitors,' 'squealers,' etc. Anyone who does not subscribe to their line of thinking or refuses to mutter their ideology is branded such.... For an example of the above they are distinguishing between people who have asked for repatriation and those who declared themselves for America. Needless to say that the latter are looked upon with dismay and downright hatred which is not always being kept hidden. This situation tends to establish a reign of terror amongst the internees....16
Thus, in the early months of internment, repatriation served to create fissures within the internee community, as groups kept tab on who made what decision, with subsequent derision and violence heaped upon those who were seen as traitors to the Fatherland.17 Given the promise of speedy exchange, and thus an end to confinement, the pressure to remain loyal to the U.S., given the circumstances surrounding their apprehension and initial detention, must of been intense. At least one despondent and desperate man initially elected for repatriation, only to be persuaded otherwise by a wife committed to remaining in the United States.18
Perhaps the most unusual case at Meade during the summer of 1942, but also one that tells us much about this entire episode, was that of internee Kurt Sanger. Sanger, unabashedly Jewish in faith and thus singled out in this camp full of Aryans, nonetheless came to the camp under circumstances that likely were shared by others whom he had ironically on one level little in common with. Sanger, born in Vienna in 1920, left Austria in May of 1939 to escape racial persecution, and after spending the period from May, 1939 to April of 1940 in a transient camp for male Jewish Refugees in Great Britain, he received a visa to the U.S. and arrived in New York City. Living with his mother's cousin in Bayonne, NJ for a time before finding his own housing, Sanger held a succession of jobs that increased in pay, beginning as a laundry worker, before finding work as a pool life guard, then box cutter, followed by service as a clerk delivery man, and then eventually finding employment as a $24.50 elastics cutter at the Maidenform Brassiere Company. Without warning, Sanger was arrested on January 3, 1942, and was given no real sense of the reason for his apprehension until coming before his Hearing Board later in January, where he was accused by a William Smith that Sanger had
...made inquiries from sailors as to the sailing dates of ships;...had tried to get a job at Bayonne Naval Base; ...[had] caused a marine to get intoxicated...had been a major(later he seems to have said a captain) in the German Army during the Polish campaign...[and] had been a leader in a strike at Maidenform.19
Was it possible, that Kurt Sanger was a Jewish Nazi spy, as some Northern New Jersey newspapers suggested after his hearing? In his defense, Sanger claimed that Smith was saying these things about him for no other reason than the latter "was trying to look important and to secure advancement." And in a more detailed explanation, Sanger gave a detailed rebuttal in a petition for release that asserted that his current events discussions with others never contained answers that would benefit the enemy; that it was Smith who asked him about the possibility of working at the naval base and not the other way around, and that he had answered that as an alien he was ineligible for employment there; that only to help out an intoxicated Marine did he take this individual to the YMCA for a few minutes to ensure that this person would find his way home, for in no way was he motivated to take advantage of the situation to inquire about secrets; that his age made the assertion that he was a major or captain in 1939 highly implausible, and that indeed at the time of the Polish invasion he was in England; and that finally he was not an organizer of the strike at Maidenform, although he did not deny that he supported it with his vote.
What has relevance not only for Kurt Sanger but for others who also were interned by hearsay is a quote taken from his "Petition for Release" that on a deeper level explains the circumstances that contributed to the decision to intern him and is also suggestive in a far broader sense:
Surely it is not necessary to stress that I am not a Nazi or a sympathizer with Nazi ideas, and that to arrive in America was to me like heaven. Like everybody who came from Europe during the past few years I was asked by a number of people how things were on the other side. It would have been, perhaps, more politic, but certainly dishonest, if I had told them simply what they wanted to hear. Instead, I tried to give those who asked me as good an idea of conditions as I could. For instance, when people asked me about the Anschluss I explained that the great majority of non-Jews I had spoken to in Austria did not like it, many of them for religious reasons. But with the exaggerated ideas of starvation, disorganization etc. which some people expressed I have no patience. It is foolish to underestimate an enemy. ...I was not extolling the German Army, but trying to awaken them .... As a statement of opinion I remember saying that the Versailles Treaty was unjust and that Hitler was a consequence of that mistake.20
Despite Sanger's obvious loyalties, the directed hostilities of the pro-Nazis in camp towards him that eventually lead top at least one serious beating, and the sustained efforts of the New York Jewish Community including Mrs. H. Field of the Jewish Community Council, it took until the Fall of 1942 for Sanger to gain his release. Indeed, according to Jewish studies scholar Harvey Strum, given the fate of other Jewish internees interned At Camp Forrest and the Algiers Naval Station, Sanger should have considered himself the fortunate exception.