Story, Werner Ahrens, Enemy Alien
written by his oldest daughter,
As I opened the parcel from
the Department of Homeland Security, I speculated
at what these new 160 pages of documents would reveal. Before requesting the
documents our family debated our apprehension, not every member of my family
was on the same page about our need to know. Did we really want to discover the
secrets buried in these documents? As a child you idolize your parents, as an
adult you recognize your parents are human and have faults. But a deceased
parent remains in your memory bigger than life. Did we want to risk destroying
our image of a benevolent father and take the chance of discovering a public
enemy? As I began tearing the package open, I was surprised at how conflicted I
felt. After all hadn't I convinced my sister that we needed to know the truth
no matter what the outcome. Momentarily, I was frozen
reflecting on my last images of my father, he was lying so still, looking so
unnatural, prominent on his right thumb was a blood blister. Of course,
at the age of six I didn't really realize that it was his right thumb. But the
image is so vivid it is indelibly etched in my memory, no question it was his
right thumb. Yes, 48 years later I still have that picture emblazoned on
by brain. Finally, I might find some answers "Was my father a
"Nazi" or a "fifth column" agent of the Third Reich?
As kids, we had always known
my father was interned during World War II. Two photos were among my father's
possessions one Ft. Lincoln the other Ft. Missoula?
Both pictures had barbed wire circling a clump of buildings each had a watch
tower. Which one was in North Dakota?
We know dad met mom in North Dakota.
Didn't mom say Italians went to Fort Lincoln and Germans to Fort Missoula?
or was it the other way around?
For years we had been hearing
about the Japanese, being interned during WWII, the news always discussed what
a tragedy it had been. Why was it not a tragedy for my father? Never once
had I ever read or seen on TV a single shred of news coverage documenting that
Germans had been interned. Perhaps, my dad’s internment was an isolated
incident. I wondered, if dad were alive would he
be asking this same question? Each time I heard the news coverage, I
would declare to friends and acquaintances my Dad was interned during
WWII. They would peer at me in disbelief. Always, they would
respond Germans were not interned in America. Well, if Japanese
were interned how do you know the Germans were not , I
retorted. You could tell, no one really believed me.
They all thought I did not have the story correct.
Pouring over the documents, I
was astonished at how mundane they were, a big
disappointment. Important men had signed the documents, Attorney General
of the United States,
Frances Biddle, had signed more than one document. Important men, important issues, but unimportant looking
documents. The details of my father's story still remained in front of me just a pile of paper, bureaucratic
paperwork. It was like a box of jigsaw pieces had been dumped in a heap. No
time line, no order just a pile of boring documents.
As I poured over the
paperwork, a few details began to emerge. The papers did not have any context.
I needed to find outside materials to understand the sequence of events and the laws that were passed. The internet,
provided some data but limited. Indisputably, without the reporting of
the New York Times we would never have been successful in uncovering the facts
of my father’s internment.
After viewing the paperwork,
I came to the conclusion that for 60 years, our government has suppressed the
facts of German/American internment. Amazingly, as critical as I am
of the today’s media I find myself extolling the virtues of the media during
WWII. Our own personal family story confirms the absolute necessity of a free
media in a democracy. As evidenced by thousands of internees, the
government has immense power to suppress information to the public. German
internment is the story of 11,000 persons of German Ancestry and 4,000 of
Italian ancestry interned in a web of camps operated by the Department of
Justice across the United
States. The story has been concealed by our
government for over 60 years.
My father died in 1957 at age
45. Because of his early death, he took his internment story to his
grave. Perhaps he signed an oath of secrecy like other internees, or like
most others he wanted to forget his years of internment. Fear,
embarrassment, and lack of control over their lives marked their years of
internment. Since I was only a child of 6 when dad died, I had limited
knowledge of his internment. The recent situation of detainees in Guantanamo is the event
that prompted my investigation of my father’s internment.
On August 29, 1939 dad was
removed as a crew member of the SS Clio. The Clio was a Standard Oil
tanker in port in New York City recently
shipping from Montreal, Canada. Dad was a German
national whose occupation was a seaman. For ten years, dad had shipped around
the world working for three different shipping companies. In the last two
years, prior to his removal from the crew of the Clio, he had been employed by
the Panama Transit Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Standard Oil
Company, an AMERICAN COMPANY. To avoid US shipping restrictions the SS
Clio had been re-registered to Panama,
a neutral country, a few months prior. The Clio was originally a German
registered ship that was built in Germany and staffed by a German
In 1939, the Atlantic was extremely dangerous with German U boats
sinking merchant ships daily. Germany
was determined to cut off Great
Britain from supplies and was aggressively
targeting all shipping lines. Did Standard Oil remove the men to protect
their economic interests or had the government ordered the company to take this
action? One theory is the company was fearful of German or Italian sabotage on
the ships. Although I found no documented evidence of sabotage on the
Clio, it is possible the company feared sabotage and removed the crew. The
crews were removed three days prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Did Standard Oil have forewarning of the impending invasion? Did England pressure US
government to lean on private US
companies to remove axis crews? Because of contractual obligations SO paid the
sailors a weekly stipend, and promised to return them, at Standard Oil’s
expense, to originating ports as soon as safely possible. The men were
not allowed to find other work in the area as they did not possess US work
permits. The company treated them well. In fact, it appears the company
paid for housing, medical expenses, and a weekly stipend from August 1939 until
May 1941. Was their benevolence a little out of character for the times
(pre labor law and the Wagner Act)? It does create suspicions in my mind.
Would current company’s pay salaries for almost two years in similar
circumstances? This unchallenged account of events regarding the removal of
German and Italian crews remains a stumbling block for me. Supposedly,
the government ordered the Standard Oil Company to keep track of each of the
men while in New York City
by requesting that SO retain all the men’s passports. Isn’t it ironic that
Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company shipped tankers of oil to Germany well
into the war with no government sanctions and my father a lowly seaman found
himself incarcerated for three years as an “enemy alien”? Who was helping
the enemy more and had more impact on the direction of the war?
In 1940 all aliens in the United States
were ordered by the government to register under the Alien Registration Act.
All aliens were photographed, fingerprinted and issued an ID. Any change in
status, including address changes, required immediate notification with the
INS. During October of 1940, the government conducted a deportation hearing
resulting in my father's release on his own recognizance. On November 15, the
DOJ on a document titled "Transmission of Records of Warrant
Hearings" reported my father’s passport status as: "Alien's German
passport is at office of the Standard Oil Co. VALID UNTIL 5/21/41. The
Department of Justice, on March 10, 1941 found dad subject to deportation on a
warrant charge. At his pleading he was granted permission to depart
voluntarily at his own expense. Although not desirable, this alternative is
what my father favored. His plan was to leave voluntarily. He would ship to a
neutral country and wait out the war. After the war he would return to
the United States,
an attempt to become an American citizen. But what neutral country would
he depart to, he must pick a country that had a favorable immigration quotas.
Upon dad’s initial arrival in New
York, he never contemplated becoming a citizen.
Only after his accidental stay in New
York starting in 1939, did he become enamored with
the American way of life. He definitely did not want to return to Germany. If the
government deported him he would not be allowed to ever return to the United States.
Additionally, he would not be able to continue his occupation as a seaman, as
he would be restricted from shipping into American ports. Voluntary
departure is exactly what he desired.
As my dad’s employer,
Standard Oil retained his passport in their New York office, a non customary practice
but now required by the government. In preparation to leave the country, dad
contacted SO to retrieve his passport. The company would not release
it. Dad went up the chain of command attempting desperately to obtain his
passport. All attempts failed. He was finally informed that the company
had been instructed by the Department of Justice to refuse to return his
Two days after my
father’s 29th birthday, May 7, 1941 he was arrested around 4 am by
the FBI for immigration violations ( I do find it
almost purposeful, rather than random, that his arrest and incarceration
occurred after his passport was no longer valid 5/21/41). The charge
against dad was "overstaying his leave" in the US. A
roundup of hundreds of seaman occurred in the next two days. The seaman were
arrested and brought to Ellis Island.
Standard Oil, dad’s employer promptly canceled the bond issued as well as his
weekly stipend. Ellis Island,
housed the enemy aliens. Was this America's first concentration camp?
Hundreds of men incarcerated in over crowded deplorable conditions.
President Roosevelt signed
the “Proclamation of Unlimited National Emergency” on May 27, 1941.
Unfortunately, this sealed my father’s fate. He was sent by train from
Ellis Island to Fort Lincoln,
North Dakota, an armed high
security facility. The seamen were the first civilians incarcerated in
internment camps, primarily Germans and Italians, no Japanese among them.
The first bad news upon arrival was he would be interned here until
deported. Unfortunately, the news grew worse on August 2, 1941 an order
and warrant was issued directing his deportment back to Germany.
To dad this was a total disaster. Dad started filing appeals striving diligently
to reverse the deportation order. He absolutely did not want to return to
In 1936, he had spoken out against the Nazi’s despotism. He left the country
quickly as he was a marked man for speaking out. Quickly he shipped out
to avoid authorities. On a short leave in 1937, he returned to Germany
declining to register with the police, a
government requirement. He was “tipped off” that authorities were still
after him and he feared he would be thrown into a concentration camp.
According to his papers, he feared that even his internment at Fort Lincoln
had been communicated to the Nazi’s. He literally feared for his life if
returned to Germany.
Absolutely, dad couldn’t be deported. He must find a way around the deportation
For the next few years he
remained confined in internment at Ft.
Lincoln. The records
during internment consisted of:
· Multiple letters in 1941 (until December 3, 1941) requesting
to be allowed to voluntarily depart the country. All denied.
letters to anyone and everyone to get his personal effects returned to him,
because he was not allowed to get his personal effects when arrested. (Ft. Lincoln
officials were sympathetic to his cause and helped him a great deal)
· Letter to the Swiss Legation asking for assistance in
paying the express freight bill when his belongings were returned to him via
parole requests granted in 1943-44 to work on the railroad, and it appears to
work for two different farmers in the Bismarck
· Letter to the Swiss Legation stating that all
correspondence regarding his affairs need to be sent to him not Captain Stengler, a merchant marine captain, subsequently
incarcerated at Ft. Lincoln. Dad stated quite empathetically that this man had
no authority over him and that he did not agree with his politics.(Stengler was pro-Nazi)
· Letter to the Canadian Red Cross requesting the health
status of another internee incarcerated in Canada. Who it appeared had cancer.
(Again speculation on my part I think my dad wrote this letter to confirm that
this man existed. I believe that he was afraid the man would die and there
would be no record for his family to follow)
In the spring of 1943, after
two years of internment dad was among 44 internees paroled to work on the
Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR), perhaps by taking a work assignment he could
improve his situation. Working on the railroad gave the internees a
little more freedom, although the working environment was harsh and the living
conditions horrible (in a box car).
News of the war was a
constant interest of the internees. New government pressure was being asserted
on the internees. The government wanted them to sign forms to volunteer
for deportation. Unknown to the men, the US government was going to trade
civilian internees for Americans caught behind enemy lines. If the internees volunteered
it would not be in violation of wartime conventions. Obviously, dad
refused to volunteer for deportation. In addition, Government officials
were also looking for volunteers to enter the US military. Volunteers would
need to sign an oath that they were willing to take up arms against their home
country. This would pit internees into combat against friends and
relatives in Germany.
Understandably, they were unsuccessful in enticing many internees to join the
service. Incredulous to me, my father volunteered. His parents and older
brother still resided in Germany.
It made me seriously question my father’s moral character. All the years
my dad had been at sea, he routinely sent money home to his parents. How
could he enter a war against his home country? But yet I was so relieved that
dad was not a “Nazi”. Today, I sincerely believe his parents opposed the Nazi’s
as well. Dad was fighting for his country in his own way.
Entering the military on
March 26, 1944 dad was sent to boot camp. It would be interesting to know where
he was stationed but according to the military all of his files went up in
smoke in a fire in the military archives. After boot camp in 1944, it appears
dad was sent to Camp Gordon Johnston, a POW camp in Florida, where he interpreted work orders to
the German POW’s. On September 6, 1944 dad became a naturalized citizen
in Tallahassee, Florida, the witnesses on his citizenship
papers were from Camp Gordon Johnston. It appears that while operating as an
interpreter the military determined that my father was a good candidate for
military intelligence training. Was it because of his linguistic skills
or his shipping experience? What ever the reasons in order to
train at Camp Ritchie he had to be an American
citizen. Isn't it fascinating that 6 months after leaving internment as
an "enemy alien" after spending 3 years incarcerated, the government was assisting dad in gaining citizenship to train him
in military intelligence. What a turn of events! Dad was never an undercover
agent for Germany he was an
undercover agent for the United
States! By the few military papers we
possess, we were able to confirm that the rest of his military service was
served in Manila harbor supervising a tugboat
operation.. According, to retired military
intelligence officers dad would have been attached to the
362nd Harbor craft Company but assigned to a military
intelligence unit. Consequently, he would receive his orders from the military
intelligence unit. In reading "Spycatchers"
by Duval Edwards, I believe my father's intelligence role might have been port
security. During this period tugboats would intercept all ships coming into
Harbor and confirm documents of the crew and glean as much information as
possible to improve the safety of the port. Many months after dad completed
his military service and over two years after becoming a US citizen the US government on December 23, 1946,
withdrew the order for deportation. He was safe at last.
In conclusion, my father was
nothing more than an ordinary man. No German spy, no “nazi”
just a working man who had entered our country at the wrong time in the wrong
place. Just like all the other German internees. Just
ordinary people with ordinary lives. My mother always said as we pursued
my dad’s story “your father was a good man with a good heart”. Of course
my sister and I would glance at each other and mumble under our breath
obviously he didn’t have a good heart or he wouldn’t have died at age 45.
Mom was always resolute no matter what the papers revealed dad was a good man.
He was just a very lonely man. Mom met dad when her roommate coaxed her into
dating my father. He was 16 years senior to mom, much too old for her.
Even today, we sometimes wonder if she married him because she felt sorry for
him. After a very short courtship, dad proposed. He told my mother
that he was so tired of being alone. He needed and wanted to start a
family. When dad died there were four of us children. The youngest, my sister,
Frieda, was just ten months old. At 29, mom was a widow with four children,
a woman who didn’t even know how to drive the car sitting in the driveway. As
an adult looking back, I realize how my parents' hardships were a testament to
character. Ordinary people and good role models.
No matter how tough their circumstances, they prevailed.
For more on the internment of
German Seaman please visit the story regarding the ASAMA
MARU incident. (Please click on the
underlined words ASAMA MARU).
Posted to FOITIMES.COM on
March 3, 2006
Updated on August 15, 2007