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History Matters: Fort Meade housed wartime internees

Part 1 of this two-part series focuses on the internees held at Fort Meade from 1942 to 1943. Part 2 continues with the switch to captured prisoners of war held at the same camp from 1943 to 1945.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the war already raging in Europe and Japan's increasing threat, plans were already being made for the internment of enemy aliens. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 required all aliens 14 and older to register with the government. What the military did not plan for, however, was a huge influx of captured prisoners of war being held in the continental United States. Fort Meade became a key location for both.

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Immediately after the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued proclamations authorizing the United States government to detain "potentially dangerous enemy aliens." Thousands of American citizens and foreign nationals living in the U.S., mostly of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry, were detained.

According to a Department of Defense report titled "Historic Context: World War II Prisoner-of-War Camps on Department of Defense Installations," preparations for constructing the first "permanent alien enemy camp" began in Arizona just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following that, internment camps were constructed on military installations across the country, including Fort Meade.

After World War I, Fort Meade was made a permanent Army installation, with a relatively small population. But the sudden buildup for World War II changed everything. By 1940, according to "Maryland in World War II," a volume prepared by the Maryland Historical Society, Fort Meade had become the fourth-largest "community" in the state.

In an undated Army memo found at the National Archives, the "Report of Captain Tollefson on Internee Camp at Fort George G. Meade" provided details on the completed, but yet unpopulated, camp. The camp was "built in the southwestern part of the fort, bordered by Zimborski Ave., Broadfoot Rd., Third Ave, and York Ave." The report stated that "the camp has a maximum capacity of 2,000 internees" and that "two rows of barbed wire fences surround the camp, each eight feet high, ten to thirteen feet apart." It describes the guard towers, internees' quarters and the rest of the buildings within the camp. Under the heading "Camp Surroundings," the report stated: "The entire camp is surrounded by too much traffic, making it easy to throw articles into the camp. … Because of many civilians as well as military personnel in the immediate vicinity, Colonel Hutchins thinks it is necessary that internees wear clothing dyed so that they may be easily distinguishable."

Security of the different nationalities was a big issue from the start. A March 9, 1942 memo from the Post Commander to the War Department warned, "If the purpose is to keep the two classes from possible conflict of a physical nature, then there should be a physical barrier between units. Escort companies are equipped with rifles or pistols. It seems that consideration might be given to sawed off shotguns or Tommy guns."

Under the Proclamations issued by Roosevelt, once internees were identified by local Alien Hearing Boards, they were denied due process and immediately sent to processing centers, such as Ellis Island, where they were then transferred to camps across the country with only those possessions that they could carry. Most of these people were American citizens. Businesses, homes and careers were lost simply because of their heritage.

In March 1942, Fort Meade received its first internees, who were transported from Ellis Island in sealed trains with the windows blacked out. According to a 1942 Third Corps Area Headquarters memo, "this Camp is to be more or less continuously used as a sort of clearing station" for primarily German-American and Italian-American internees, but some Japanese Americans also made stops on their way to other camps. By May 1942, Fort Meade was holding more than 350 internees.

Many families separated by the roundup petitioned the government to reunite them. Most such requests were denied. The government denied some separated married couples from even corresponding between camps. Two women interned at Ellis Island asked the government for permission to correspond with their husbands at Fort Meade. The government responded that "Internees held at this Internment Camp will not be permitted to receive correspondence from those at other stations. Your husband will be notified of the Commanding Officer's interpretation of the regulation."

The internees faced stark living conditions. Separate areas within the camp were designated for the German-American, Italian-American, and Japanese-American internees, who all slept in tents that held four people, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. There was one instance when a stray bullet from Fort Meade's firing range wounded a German internee. The internees wore green khakis with "PW" on the back. Letters were censored and visits from family were strictly controlled.

Most internees continued to profess their patriotism to America. Some, like Kioshi Miyazaki, even helped the war effort. According to the Baltimore Sun, Miyazaki, interned at Fort Meade, testified for the government against two American publicists working for the Japanese Committee on Trade and Information, a Japanese government propaganda organization.

An example of the injustice of the internment program is the case of Paul Lameyer, as told by his grandson, Randy Houser, a former Bowie resident who has retired to Charleston, S.C.

Lameyer, born in Germany and a German army World War I veteran, was an artist. He read and spoke German, French, Italian and English. In 1926 he emigrated to the United State, married Helen Ames, of Massachusetts, and they eventually had two children. Lameyer worked for Boston architectural firms until 1933, when he lost his job during the Great Depression. He also had investments in Germany adding to his income until his assets were frozen by the Nazi government in 1933.

With the loss of both his job and his German investments, he struggled to provide for his family and the marriage suffered. According to Houser, Lameyer's wife separated from her husband and intended to divorce him and retain custody of their children. Her brother, who was an officer in the Army, told authorities that the Ames family had been supporting her and the children, that Lameyer had refused to work and that Lameyer was pro-Nazi.

Acting on the false information provided by the brother, Lameyer was among the German nationals rounded up and interned. He spent time at a number of camps around the country, including Fort Meade, where he produced numerous sketches of the camp. Houser said that Lameyer may have used his drawings as currency, since internees were not allowed any money in camp except for scrip that could be used at the camp store.

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Official parole documents, issued at the end of the war, stated that Paul Lameyer was in fact never a Nazi. He was a terrible victim of his wife and her family using the system against him.

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Nazis at Fort Meade

As if the loss of family and dignity weren't enough, Fort Meade's first German-American internees faced another problem—the crew of the Nazi ship S.S. Odenwald.

On Nov. 6, 1941, five weeks before the war with Germany started, the light cruiser U.S.S. Omaha sighted a strange ship while on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the "Report on M.S. Odenwald" from the Navy Department dated March 12, 1942, the ship was flying the U.S. flag, and "Willmoto, Philadelphia" was freshly painted on it: "A comparison of her actual appearance with the photograph of the Willmoto appearing in Lloyd's Register of Merchant Ships of the World, which book was available on the Omaha, disclosed that the sterns were not the same." When the ship refused to identify itself, the Omaha sent a boarding party.

As the boarding party approached, the ship hoisted a signal to indicate it was sinking and its crew took to lifeboats. As the Americans neared the ship, two explosions were heard from within the hull. The boarding party was able to salvage the ship and determine that it was, in fact, the German freighter S.S. Odenwald. The report stated, "The Germans were dismayed by their failure to properly scuttle the ship and were at first inclined [sic] this failure on the inferiority of the Japanese explosives used. Later their ire shifted and the Captain was held responsible for not succeeding in scuttling his ship."

Its crew was taken prisoner an admiralty court ruled that since the ship was illegally claiming American registration, there was sufficient grounds for confiscation.

The crew of the Odenwald blamed their captain, who was recently assigned to the ship, and the second engineer of helping the Americans salvage the boat. The Navy report stated that "by request of the Captain, the Second Engineer was kept apart from the rest of the crew on the ground that otherwise he might come to bodily harm."

The crew was sent to Camp Upton in New York, where tensions came to a boil. The Navy report contains transcripts of interrogations that describe a confrontation between the crew and the captain: "The Captain allowed himself to be called a 'traitor to his country' by the ordinary seaman, and accused of having intentionally let his ship fall into the hands of the American vessel." The crew relieved the captain of his command.

Three months later, the Odenwald crew was transferred to the new internment camp at Fort Meade, along with hundreds of civilian internees, where things got worse. The POWs from the ship threatened and intimidated the German-American civilian internees. In his book, "Shattered Lives, Shattered Dreams: The Untold Story of America's Enemy Aliens in World War II," Russell Estlack writes: "The seamen created a culture that was extremely pro-Nazi and nationalistic. They placed swastikas and pictures of Hitler in various buildings … and elected Hans Huttler, the ship's cook from the S.S. Odenwald, as their leader. During the first months of confinement, the issue of repatriation literally tore the internee community apart. Those who chose not to be repatriated were considered traitors to the fatherland and were met with ridicule and violence."

Huttler, the 26-year old cook, had apparently studied Hitler well. In one of his letters home, intercepted and translated by Fort Meade authorities, he boasted about "the absolutely fanatical modesty and honest altruism of this brave band of seamen … these true comrades, to whom life means nothing; the Fuehrer and the Homeland everything."

In a memo from Fort Meade to the War Department, dated Sept. 17, 1942, Huttler was described as "a self appointed leader of a group of seamen, has been checked in the use of certain 'Gestapo' methods and actual strong arm means to instill obedience through fear of bodily harm…and to establishing himself as 'Fuehrer'…and kept a self-styled 'black book' of certain internees who were marked for lack of cooperation with his regime and self-styled leadership."

Huttler's tactics didn't always work. Another memo reports "that Internee Huttler was removed as leader of a group of seamen by camp authorities after he, with a group of henchmen, had attacked a fifty-year-old internee in an attempt to intimidate him. This internee was successful in fighting off his attackers and afterwards named them." Huttler was placed in isolated custody.

The final straw for the Odenwald crew was the discovery that they were digging an escape tunnel out of the Fort Meade camp. The crew was transferred to a camp in New Mexico.

In 1980, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was created. Two years later, the commission released its report that stated the incarceration of internees during World War II was not based on any military need, but rather on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of leadership."

President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese-Americans that had been incarcerated in internment camps. At the signing, Reagan said, "We gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent. … The Nation was then at war, struggling for its survival and it's not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake."

No reparations have ever been given to any former German-American or Italian-American internees.

Barbara Taylor, from the Fort Meade Museum and Archives, provided assistance for this story. History Matters is an occasional feature that rediscovers Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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