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Alien and American Internment

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns. The second column will run next week.

Every now and then a reader shares with me something they think I’d like to use for a column. I thank them kindly, but rarely write it.

This one wouldn’t leave me alone. It stayed on my mind several weeks, growing downright pesky. What tipped me was that I called or emailed several contacts, and they had never heard of anything like it.

Did you know that about 80,000 German Americans (meaning American-born or naturalized citizens) were rounded up in the days just following the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor, and incarcerated in camps for the duration of World War II, and more?

That fathers and husbands were taken sometimes hundreds of miles away and utterly out of communication with homes and communities they had lived in for their lifetimes?

And with no due process of the law as our Constitution mandates (Article 14)?

I’ve called or written several people who have better historical credentials than mine, by far, and they had never heard of it.

What about the Japanese incarceration, now considered racist? Of course we knew about that. Hawaii had a robust Japanese population, larger than the white, and one can understand in the confusion and panic of Dec. 7, 1941, it would seem urgent to round them up.

Most Americans, I believe, now see that as wrong, but in the day, it seemed the thing to do. The Japanese were easy to identify and spoke a language we could not understand. Just like the enemy.

And don’t for a moment think I’m comparing the Third Reich atrocities and murders of Jews, Poles, the physically and mentally disabled, with the American round-up of Germans. I’ve seen nothing to compare. There are no reports of inhumanity – except for the disintegration of families, which, Lord knows, was enough.

After some time, many families were allowed to come into the compounds and reunite with their husbands and fathers. The children had school and the same kind of social life they would have been having on the outside.

In fact, life in the camps didn’t bother the children very much – they had swimming pools, movies, enough to eat, and both parents. They didn’t know they were living behind a fence.

It was a lot tougher for the adults.

Klaus Schoeffler, who lives in Peachtree City and understands why I am interested in all things German, sent me an Oct. 2, 2010 article from a German English publication he takes, New Yorker Staats-Zeitung & German Times. The article was, I believe, by Dr. Joe Wendel, an on-air host of German-American radio shows, and was subtitled “Camp survivors came to Quakertown [Pa.] for an extraordinary reunion and commemoration,” Aug. 28, 2010.

This was their first attempt to organize a massive gathering of internees, most of them now living in the westernmost and north-central states, plus Texas. They plan to remain in touch and to repeat this reunion as, at least, an annual event.

Keeping in touch was never easier than it is now, and in the nick of time. The years have taken their toll and their numbers are dwindling. And there are those who are not eager to bring those dark days into the sunlight.

It’s important to say this: These survivors and their families are not asking for redress from the U.S. government or anyone else. They just want their injustices to be “on the record” and their sacrifices acknowledged in the history books.

One more thing: No internee was ever convicted of a war-related crime against the United States. Upon release, most adult detainees signed secrecy oaths, and many were threatened with deportation, with no prospect of return, if they spoke of their ordeals. Most internees, always fearful, have taken their secret to their graves. Reportedly, camp employees also signed oaths of secrecy.

The secret is well kept. Few today know of selective internment.

Karen Ebel, researcher and granddaughter of German Americans, published on Feb. 24, 2003 a huge timeline of events describing the incarceration.
German Americans, the largest ethnic group in the United States, with 60 million – a quarter of Americans claiming German heritage.
I’m borrowing information that Ebel has published, and there’s a lot more where that came from.

The Alien Enemy Act of 1798 remains in effect today allowing the U.S. government to may apprehend, intern, and otherwise detain “alien enemies” upon declaration of war or actual, attempted or threatened invasion by a foreign nation. Very limited due cause, if any, was exhibited.

More next week…

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Cumpleanos Rosita 2010's picture

Rosita Welcker

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