The Eckardt Story
A part of my story, by Theodore A. Eckardt, 1997
German-Latin Americans also were imprisoned in the U.S. during WW II. My story begins when my Dad, Albert Eckardt, as a young lad at the age of 15, came to America from Leonberg, Germany seeking freedom and work. He arrived in Ellis Island, New York on the 3rd of September 1894. Soon thereafter he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He resided in Brooklyn, N.Y. and by working on the ships he eventually reached Panama and met my Mom, Ruth Jankwitz. They were married and made their home in Limon.
Limon, a rather remote village area that adjoins Lake Gatun is where I spent my formative years growing up. It was a good place for an adventurous youngster, although I got in trouble with my mother for being gone too long on one of my ventures, where I meet G.I.s stationed in the jungle. Theirs was the responsibility of [creating] an early alarm for the defense of the [Panama] Canal. To see a white kid come in out of nowhere was a surprise to them and most likely brought back memories of home. I remember them letting me try-out one of their listening devices, and the royal treatment I got when they brought out the canned peaches.
I learned to swim on my own. I spent many hours swimming in waters where my father hunted alligators. Lucky for me the alligators came around only at night time. Another time, my sister and I were caught up in a wind storm paddling an oversize canoe when our shouts for help were heard by a G.I., who came to our rescue in a rowboat.
Limon is a place with dirt roads and when it rained we played in the muddy roads. The natives lived in thatched-roof houses. They made there own soap and did the laundry by pounding it on a raft down by the lake. Our main food was rice, yucca, coconuts, oranges, mangoes, papaya and bananas. Mother spoke broken English and sang in German to us. Often she’d send us down to the bakery for bread. The alcalde [mayor] of the village was our baker, too. It was a normal life as we knew it.
For schooling, we had to get up early and go to Gatun by boat. Gatun is where Mom did a lot of her shopping. While we were in school my dad was at his job dredging channels in Gatun Lake for the ocean going freighters.
We were summoned to Panama City and subsequently arrested on the 16th June 1942. (This took place after my Dad died in 1938.) My mother was allowed to go back for a few belongings while my sister and I were held hostage. We were given cots to sleep on overnight alongside occupied prison cells…before being turned over to the U.S. authorities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, (INS) and interned in Balboa, U. S. Canal Zone, in Panama.
Later I came to the U.S., and was deported, only to be interned with thousands of German Americans along with my mother and sister. My sister, like myself, was a U.S. citizen.
Then the U.S., through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), began our internment at three different locations, with us ending up in the Crystal City, Texas concentration camp. My mother eventually had to go on welfare to get by. In the spring of 1944 we were placed in the Lutheran Orphan’s and Old Folks Home in Toledo, Ohio.
To summarize, from the 16th of June 1942 we were taken out of the “main stream of life” by being kidnapped and deported by the U.S. and Panamanian authorities.
I lost my ‘keepsakes of life’ and ‘dear friends’ after being taken abruptly from our home, never to see them again. My regular routine of going to school came to a halt. Immediately our livelihood was destroyed. The wounds I suffered are…scars of the memory I held over these more than 50 yrs. What bothers me the most today is how hard my Mom and Dad must have worked to create such a beautiful home for our family and then, suddenly, how quickly it all disappeared. Another thing that bothers me is how this is supposed to have not happened. (One would think an action of this magnitude would be in our history books for our future generations to learn.)
Over the years I have revealed my story, when asked, to many people I confided in. Each time, as I told my story, the reaction was one of surprise and disbelief that this could’ve happened in America, our ‘land of the free.’ They [the listeners] could not come to believe that our country had internment camps and the civil rights of citizens were taken away.
I have since learned that the deportation of Panama’s citizens was unprecedented in history and the reason…was due to the [government’s] acquisition of properties of those deported.
I am 72 years old and hopefully my sister, (70 yrs,) and I will live to see the day when what was personal justice denied now becomes “justice given.”
2001: Almost two decades have past since my first query of the U.S. Government on this matter. I continue to seek justice. For the last 59 years I have wondered why our country became resentful towards the German Americans to the point of compromising our Bill of Rights. I have also pondered why my sister and I, both United States citizens, could lose everything for which our parents toiled and sacrificed. I have concluded that our losses were due to the action and/or inaction of my government to advise us of our rights and to protect us from abuses of foreign governments. (More information about the Latin American Program)