The Untold Truth Of America’s WWI German POW Camps

Published: 9 March 2024

By Kathy Benjamin
via The Grunge website

Inside German POW camp in the United States during WWI Not all were so relaxing

Inside German POW camp in the United States during WWI. Not all were so relaxing.

While the United States originally stayed out of  World War I, the beginning of 1917 saw Germany push the country’s lawmakers to the limit, including sinking several ships that led to the deaths of American citizens. So, during the first week of April, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

Months later, on November 16, 1917, Wilson released Proclamation No. 1408, which restricted the movements of Germans in the U.S. and forced all of them to register with the government, among other requirements. It also stated that “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed, as alien enemies.” In other words, just being a German man or teenage boy was now enough to get someone locked up.

Thousands of people would find this out the hard way when they were detained over the course of the next year. While not all of them had official POW status, whether they were civilians or military, they ended up in the same handful of camps across the country — and some of them never left.

Many POWs had already spent years in limbo

SS Cormoran

While the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany until 1917, some German citizens in America and its territories had already been dealing with the effects of the conflict for years. That’s because the U.S. wasn’t strictly neutral in the war they weren’t fighting: They were definitely rooting for the team Germany was playing against. So when hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914, some Germans were probably surprised to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This included the crew of the SS Cormoran (pictured), which was forced to dock in Guam when its supplies ran low. The U.S. territory didn’t have enough provisions available to make it to safer waters, so the German sailors ended up living on the ship for years under the watchful eye of the U.S. military. It wasn’t all bad; they got along well with those on the island while it was stuck there. But once 1917 rolled around and the U.S. and Germany were officially at war, the captured sailors were treated as hostile enemies, and the Cormoran was deliberately sunk by the Allies, killing seven German soldiers. The survivors were ultimately transferred to camps in the U.S.

Nor were they the only ones: Sailors on German ships that were docked in New York City, Boston Puerto Rico, and even Panama were also detained in various facilities for years while the government figured out what to do with them. In the end, it was decided that isolated, purpose-built camps were the solution.

Read the entire article on The Grunge website.
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