“Untrue and Unjust Accusations”1
As told by John Heitmann, Ph.D — Son
History and past memories, especially recent past memories, were rarely topics of family conversation when I was growing up during the 1950s and 1960s. World War II, in particular, was off limits for discussion, and might as well have taken place in the Middle Ages instead of a mere decade or so before. But as a child with open eyes and ears — and curiosity — I invariably uncovered glimpses of the past. Ultimately, a few snapshots of the period stuck with me, bits of evidence leading to my own personal journey during the 1990s. As I quickly discovered, this journey was obscured not only by the mists of time, but also by a “wall of silence.”
Most significant in motivating my quest for reconstructing this past was a yellow, black, blue and white ashtray inscribed “Seagoville, 1943″ that was the catchall for the little odds and ends in our household. That one seemingly trivial everyday object—later my mother told me it was a rock my father hand painted while interned–was etched into my memory from my first remembered thoughts. Sadly that ashtray was lost after my father died. I wonder now more than ever what the image in the center of this handicraft said about my father and his wartime predicament.
Persistent questioning on my part about that one relic only led my parents to be increasingly evasive. What resulted was a vague understanding that Seagoville was where my parents, Alfred and Caroline Heitmann, were held against their will during WWII. Additionally, I concluded that the American home front was far from peaceful for my parents, but little else. Yet it was this largely unknown wartime experience that shaped my childhood and family life. My world was a world in which avoiding confrontation, truthfulness, and repressed shame without an obvious reason dominated everyday relationships. All I knew then was that no one in my family marched in the annual Memorial Day parade. Indeed, it became a goal of mine to participate in that event, one finally realized after I joined the Cub Scouts.
In 1994, 11 years after my father had died and almost 50 years since WWII had ended, I began to recover my family’s past. That spring I visited my mother, now living alone, and perused the many books that she had dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. I came upon a Lutheran Catechism dated 1943 and stamped as a gift from the German Government to Kreigsgefangener,” or POWs, and my curiosity was piqued. A month later I visited the National Archives, a trip I had often taken as a professional historian and university faculty member, but this time I pursued my own history rather than that of others. By requesting an archivist check Department of Justice index cards, my research focus suddenly shifted from the history of science and technology, the ostensible purpose for this trip, to that of finding how in 1942 Alfred Heitmann had come to be interned as a “dangerous pro-Nazi Sympathizer.”
Of course, the story of Alfred Heitmann, the INS, DOJ, and FBI began long before 1942. Elements of his past, when interpreted subjectively, could and would be used by bureaucrats to justify the decision to intern, but only by stretching incredibly thin evidence. My father was a WWI orphan who had left home at an early age. By the early 1930s, he became a machinist’s apprentice, and served a mechanic and then junior engineer at sea between 1932 and 1939. He finally ended up as an employee of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Alfred was on board a ship of Panamanian registry when WWII broke out in September 1939. Landing in New York on September 4, 1939, Heitmann was allowed to remain in the U.S. and work for Standard Oil until the spring of 1941. At that time, he was investigated by the INS and temporarily interned at Ellis Island until November of 1941.
In mid-1942, Alfred and Caroline Heitmann’s “American Dream” of leaving totalitarianism and war in Europe behind them was shattered. On a tumultuous day in June, several FBI agents, armed with machine guns, entered the H.I. Voss Engineering Company located in the Bronx, New York, and arrested Alfred. The immediate reason for the apprehension may have been FBI knowledge of a submarine landing on Long Island. The landing resulted in a wave of war hysteria that convinced many that German spies were in New York. The FBI zealously hunted down potential 5th Columnists. One target was Heitmann. He had been under investigation, however, for some time.
Heitmann’s internment resulted from the unconstitutional investigative methodology of the government. The FBI gathered reports based on hearsay from informants whose reliability was never critically questioned. Many informants’ names suggest that they were of German origin. Perhaps fearful of their own persecution, the informants were very willing to give “evidence” to save their own skins during intense questioning. Their unsubstantiated statements and wild conjectures now seem almost ludicrous. The informants’ theories were spun from observations that Heitmann took many photographs although he never owned a camera (as later confirmed by a FBI search) and took long walks at night. Such wild conjecture was enough for the government to justify imprisoning Heitmann for three years. Following his arrest, Alfred Heitmann was detained, ironically, at Ellis Island for two months awaiting his hearing and the ultimate decision in Washington as to his future. He was ordered interned. Beginning in August of 1942, he was sent first to Ft. Meade, MD, with subsequent stays at Camp Forrest, TN, Ft. Lincoln, ND, and Seagoville, TX, before finally gaining his release in June of 1945. (More information on Internment Camps)
Curiously, Heitmann’s employer, H.I Voss, who posted a bond for him in November 1941, was never visited by a FBI Special Agent. (Voss also offered him a position once released after the ordeal.) A FBI report stated that any information obtained “would produce no worth while results.”2 Indeed, a Department of Justice employee who reviewed the evidence presented against Heitmann at his July 30, 1942, Board hearing argued for parole rather than internment. He concluded “This is a difficult case to decide on the facts available and this reviewer is not satisfied with the result. It may be that further investigation of the subject through the questioning of more people who would know the subject’s activities, an interview with the H.H. Voss Company, and an investigation of why the subject still receives remuneration from the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey would reveal information which would help materially in reaching a decision.”3 Scribbled after the paragraph in broad strokes with a marking pen were inscribed the words “I Think Not,” and an illegibly initialed superior’s signature.
In examining surviving documents, one wonders whether the internment experience was harder on Alfred, or his wife Caroline. In June 1943, she was interned with him on a “voluntary” basis after struggling to survive without him for a year. Caroline had married Alfred in April of 1941. She had left Germany in 1938 precisely to escape Nazi intolerance and brutality that had left her with a permanent disability. This disability was the direct result of an extended illness contracted during service in a mandatory labor camp where she was placed because of her “uncooperative,” anti-Nazi sentiments. To her dismay, Caroline quickly discovered that the American system was far from perfect. After Alfred’s arrest, he disappeared without a trace. For several months, his wife was not told where he was or why he had been arrested. She was left with that constant torment and no financial resources. She was forced to move from home to home in New York City until she relocated to Buffalo, New York in 1942. Living for a time with two sisters, a brother-in-law, and three nephews, Caroline’s correspondence to the Department of Justice reflect an inner anxiety that powerfully resonates on the handwritten pages. The stress of uncertainty concerning Alfred’s whereabouts in the months after arrest, the pressures of camp life, and a miscarriage in October of 1944 all contributed to years of lingering anxiety. It is safe to say that the unwarranted shame beginning that day in June of 1942 and what followed thereafter remained consciously and unconsciously with the family until Alfred’s death in 1983. The “wall of silence” that exists in many internee families was broken down only through my persistence long after my father’s death. Sadly, the shame still resides deep inside Caroline’s mind despite fading faculties today.
In an attempt to cover this dark episode in U.S. history, American apologists both during and immediately after the war pointed to the use of Hearing Boards as the bureaucratic mechanism by which fairness was provided to those interned. But in examining minutes of my parents and others, it is obvious that these hearing were anything but fair. They were instead a travesty of justice and due process. “Internment the American Way,” to quote a phrase used by Earl Harrison, an important INS official, was far from American in spirit. Legally admitted in 1939, under conditions of war, the INS would later deliberately and in a totally misleading manner change Alfred’s status with no explanation or justification to “illegal and deportable.” This would be used against him during a “second, fairer” hearing while interned at Seagoville, Texas in 1943. Heitmann’s second hearing, supposedly one to correct the possible injustices of the first, also proved to be riddled with inappropriate and, at times, silly questions and mistaken evidence.
Heitmann had claimed to be a conscientious objector, and apparently his Draft Board had ruled in his favor. Yet the hostile members of the Hearing Board continually grilled him about his unwillingness to fight against Germany, an action that deeply disturbed him. Irregularities never caught in the process included the claim that Heitmann had signed a document of allegiance to Third Reich Germany. In fact the copy of this document actually was that of another internee (Rudolf) with the last name of Heitmann, interned at Ft. Lincoln in 1944, while Alfred was more than a thousand miles away at Seagoville in Texas.4
Release would finally come after in early summer of 1945 after almost three years of incarceration. Alfred was one of the lucky ones who were spared the agony of an internment that continued for some until 1948. Relocating in Western New York close to Caroline’s family, Alfred would live a productive life until his death in 1983. That seems to be the case for so many of the German WWII internees who remained in the U.S. or returned after forced repatriation. But it was a life that had no real past, especially when it came to the War years. Caroline undoubtedly suffered far more mentally as a consequence of what happened. Her physical and mental health clearly reflected the strain first of not knowing where her husband was, and then later the crucible of life in confinement.
For the thousands like Caroline and Alfred this episode — which is not even relegated a footnote in American History — not only shattered the lives of countless individuals, but also stands as an example of what America is not supposed to be. If America is to remain a stellar example of the virtues of democracy and freedom, then this story needs to be fully told. If it is not told–due to the efforts of pressure groups and politics, political correctness, or whatever else the cause–similar circumstances may lead to a repetition in the future, history having a tendency to repeat itself. Will we learn from the past? Only if it is fully studied and understood.
1 Quote from letter, Caroline Heitmann to G.L. Grobe (U.S. Attorney), June 7, 1943, in Record Group 60, Records of the Department of Justice, National Archives, closed legal file, Box 470.
2 Federal Bureau of Investigation, file 100-21746, 5/9/42, p.3, in RG 60, closed legal file, Box 470.
3 “Memorandum for the Chief of the Review Section,” July 30, 1942, Southern District, New York, in RG 60, closed legal file, Box 470.
4 I.P McCoy to Edward J. Ennis, March 13, 1944, in RG 60, closed legal file, Box 460. The internee at Ft. Lincoln in March of 1944 was Rudolf Heitmann, who had a different INS number than my father but in the process of transcription to DOJ numbers on the memo my father’s name was inadvertently inserted.