Dad’s Story: Werner Ahrens, Enemy Alien

written by his oldest daughter, Shirley Weiss
November 20, 2005

group at mess

Mess Time on the Clio, thought to be circa 1938-1939

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, in the previous year or so. The Clio was originally a German registered ship that was built in Germany and staffed by a German crew.

Werner Ahrens on ship

Werner Ahrens, Clio

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. News articles of the day gave a confusing account of the shipping situation in the ports in 1939. Why were crews of different nationalities being replaced on ships? Why was Standard Oil removing their crews? Was it to protect their economic interests or had the government ordered the company to take this action? Folklore suggested that 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?

My conclusion based on several articles is basically, Standard Oil was determined to secure their right to ship oil to all parts of the world, war or not. Roosevelt on the other hand, was very concerned about the German threat and he was receiving pressure from the British to find ways to assist them in the Atlantic. So the scenario is, oh so familiar, private company wants no government regulation and no restriction of free trade, while the government wants to regulate private industry actions they deem as detrimental to the countries strategic objectives. It appears that in late 1939, both were scrambling to meet these objectives. German built Standard Oil tankers under Panamanian registry had their German crews removed and replaced with American men. American built Standard Oil tankers were re-registered to Panama and their American crews were replaced by British men. Twelve new ships were being built under Navy plans that would fly the American flag and would hire American born men.

What does all this mean? Standard Oil would continue to ship oil to the entire world with a few concessions to the US government. The newly registered ships to Panama with British crews would ship oil to England and British protectorates. The German built Panamanian registered ships of Standard Oil would ship oil to belligerent nations but with American crews. The new ships being built would satisfy the unions and political situation for Roosevelt and they would ship oil to all non-belligerent countries.

The company line to the German crews was – that contractual obligations required the company to return the men to their home ports at Standard Oil’s expense, as soon as safely possible. Since the Atlantic was not deemed safe, SO paid the sailors a weekly stipend and covered their medical and dental expenses until their arrest in May of 1941, which appeared to be very benevolent. I am sure the men, including my father, extolled the virtue of Standard Oil not realizing the company behavior had more to do with protecting their own self interests than concern over the men’s plight.

The men were not allowed to find other work in the area as they did not possess US work permits. 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 almost 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. 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, and 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 passport.

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. (Ellis Island Hearing) Standard Oil, dad’s employer promptly canceled the bond issued as well as his weekly stipend. Ellis Island, held the enemy aliens. Certainly, the image of Ellis Island as a prison is in sharp juxtaposition to the common accepted image of Ellis Island representing immigrant freedom. 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 seaman were the first civilians incarcerated in internment camps, primarily Germans and Italians, Japanese came much later. Upon arrival, dad’s first bad news was he would be interned at Ft. Lincoln 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 Germany. 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 of Germany 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 could not be deported. He must find a way around the deportation order.

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. Multiple letters to anyone and everyone to get his personal items returned to him. Upon arrest he was not allowed to get his personal possessions. (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 express rail. (Swiss Request) Three parole requests granted in 1943-44 to work on the railroad, and it appears to work for two different farmers in the Bismarck area. 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 railroad. He thought, perhaps by taking a work assignment he could improve his situation. (Seaman Paroled, Parole Approval) Working on the railroad gave the internees a little more freedom, although the working environment was harsh and the living conditions horrible.

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 Nazis 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.

Werner Ahrends (believed to be from the 1930s)

Werner Ahrends (believed to be from the 1930s)

Ahrends' Kids

Ahrends’ Kids

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 almost 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.

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 “Spy Catchers” by Duval Edwards, I believe my father’s intelligence role might have been port security. During this period tugboats would intercept 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 most 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. No Hollywood heroes just ordinary people who experienced hardships that temporarily careened their lives beyond their control. They were good role models because no matter how tough their circumstances, they did what was necessary to live their lives day by day as best they could.