The War Department: Keeper of Our Nation's Enemy Aliens During World War I

Mitchel Yockelson

Presented to the Society for Military History Annual Meeting, April 1998
© Mitchell Yockelson, 1998

The imprisonment of enemy aliens by the United States Government is a little known facet, rarely mentioned in history books or other discussions about World War I. When the United States entered the "War to End All Wars" in April of 1917, provisions had already been made to deal with war prisoners. In fact, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff sent a memorandum, dated December 4, 1916, to the Adjutant General in regards to this matter. In part the memorandum states that "it is intended, in the event of war, that a division of your office, to be designated by you, shall have general charge of all matters connected with war prisoners."(1)

More than five months later War Department General Order No. 54, dated May 17, 1917, established prison barracks at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, Fort McPherson, Georgia, and Fort Douglas, Utah. All three prisons were under the supervision of the Adjutant General of the Army.(2) In addition to the three War Department camps, the Labor Department established a camp at Hot Springs, North Carolina for interned officers and crews of German merchant ships lying in ports of the United States at the opening of the hostilities. Eventually, the camp was closed in 1918 and the prisoners were transferred to the War Department custody.

In the limited amount of time I have, I will attempt to provide the background on the U.S. Government's reasons for incarcerating enemy aliens and also paint a picture of everyday life in the war barracks using specific examples gleaned from the Records of the Adjutant General's Office (Record Group 407) and the War Department General and Special Staffs (Record Group 165), all of which are in the custody of the National Archives. Since War Prison Barracks #2 at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia held the largest population of enemy aliens of the three prisons and also left behind a significant volume of records pertaining to the war prison barracks, I will illustrate my discussion with examples from this facility.

The development of the prison barracks was a direct result of the April 5, 1917, declaration by Congress of a state of war to exist between the United States and Germany. Fear of a backlash to the war declaration prompted the federal government to undertake a number of restrictive measures to prevent sabotage and espionage by German aliens, as well as citizens of German descent living in the United States. Under the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, the Justice Department had full discretionary power over the more than a half million German aliens and over three million Austro-Hungarian aliens living in the United States. Aliens were basically defined as those who had not completed the naturalization process.

The day after Congress declared war, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation, encompassing 12 regulations, that essentially restricted the conduct of alien enemies in the United States. Violation of these restrictions resulted in arrest and possible imprisonment. Of most importance to the aliens was regulation 12, which stated in part that "an alien enemy whom there may be reasonable cause to believe to be abiding or about to aid the enemy...or violates any regulation promulgated by the President...will be subject to summary arrest...and to confinement in such penitentiary, prison, jail, or military camp."(3) A number of government agencies, such as the Department of Justice, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Labor, performed the actual arresting of the enemy aliens. The prisoners were then transferred to the War Department.

Although the arrests of German aliens by the United States government was initiated during the Spring of 1917, scrutiny against the aliens actually commenced in August 1914. At the outbreak of World War I, the Wilson Administration instituted a calculated program of propaganda that alerted the American people to be aware of German espionage. For three years the Justice Department prepared lists of aliens considered dangerous and attempted to register all male and female German aliens. They numbered approximately 480,000 at the beginning of World War I. By the end of the War, the United States Government arrested more than 4000 of the aliens. While very little concrete evidence existed to justify the allegations of espionage and ensuing apprehensions of aliens, the furor created by the Wilson administration succeeded in giving the president the public support he needed for his 1917 war declaration. (4)

The espionage charges of spying for the German Government were the chief reason for the arrests, but the United States found other reasons to prosecute the aliens. Arrests ranged from uttering pro-German statements in public to publishing German-American newspapers indorsing the German war effort.(5) Once arrested, the Department of Justice determined the severity of the case and whether or not the alien should be incarcerated. If a prison sentence was imposed, the alien was turned over to the War Department and interned in a War Prison Barracks.(6) As I mentioned earlier, other persons apprehended by the United States Government were officers and seaman serving aboard German naval and merchant vessels anchored in American ports. The German sailors, however, were considered prisoners of war, a designation that differed from being an alien. If the aliens or prisoners of war were arrested on the West Coast of the United States, they were relocated to Fort Douglas. If the East Coast was the place of detention, they were sent to either Fort McPherson or Fort Oglethorpe.

To administer the prison barracks, the War Department selected retired army officers as commandants. According to plans specified by the War Department, each War Prison Barracks would have accommodations for 1800 prisoners. (7) A stockade was also constructed for women, but never used for this purpose. However, women were not absent from the barracks compound as the wives of interned enemy aliens were permitted one visit a week, of two hours duration, on any days except Saturdays and Sundays. Prior permission had to be obtained from the commandant before attempting to visit the prison, and only the English language could be used during the visits. The Swiss Legation, responsible for German interests in the United States, inspected the camps to insure they met the standards for treatment of prisoners as stated in the Hague Convention of 1907.

A journalist from a New York newspaper described the scenery when first entering the gate at War Prison Barracks #2 at Fort Oglethorpe. "The prison contains three rows of barbed wire that enclosed the barracks. Placed at intervals along the barbed wire are twelve elevated sentry boxes with each box armed with a repeating shot gun, a rifle, and a machine gun." To preserve order at Fort Oglethorpe, the War Department stationed 32 commissioned officers and 452 enlisted men as guards at the war barracks.

The prisoners derived from all levels of social status. A segment of wealthy Germans were known as Class A prisoners. They paid for their own subsistence and upkeep and were quartered in a separate compound. Class A prisoners were also not required to perform any labor and in many instances the Class A prisoners hired the lower class prisoners as servants.(8) Prisoners not categorized as Class A, mostly prisoners of war transferred from various ports or radicals from the I.W.W., were required to work around the barracks to maintain upkeep of the compound. Other work that did not pertain to their upkeep, such as highway maintenance, was voluntary and paid at the rate of 25 cents a day for laborers and mechanics and 35 cents a day for overseers.

Money generated from prison work could be spent at the Prison Exchange, who's operation was on such a large scale that many of the articles were sold at cost with the store still gaining a profit.(9) Prisoners could also receive comfort items, such as food and clothing, sent from family and friends. Prior permission form the prison officials was necessary as in the case of H.L. Mencken, the controversial writer from Baltimore. He wrote to the commandant at Fort Oglethorpe on behalf of an acquaintance at the prison, who Mencken was "informed that he is without funds to buy such things as cigarettes, and should be glad to advance him a few dollars now and then if it is permitted by the regulations."(10) According to War Department regulations, there were strict exceptions to what an interned alien may receive from outside sources. Canned goods, clocks, rugs, furniture, medicines, medical supplies, surgical instruments, and tools of all kinds could not be sent into the prison. However, false limbs and trusses were allowed.(11)

A typical day for an inmate started at 5:45 A.M. with morning reveille. Prisoners in each barracks were under the direction of a Barracks-Elder, who was selected by the prisoners or in some cases, appointed by the Barracks commandant. The Barrack-Elder was responsible for preparing the prisoners for their morning and evening muster, as well as other activities that were required on a particular day. Lights out at the barracks was 10:00 P.M.

During the course of the day prisoners were provided with three meals. The food furnished the prisoners was identical to the regular army rations, supplemented by purchases of luxuries from funds generated by profits amassed at the Prison Exchange. According to commandant of Fort Oglethorpe, "there has been no complaints on the quantity or quality of meals, but on the contrary, there has been unstinted praise except by a few individuals who would not be satisfied with money falling from Heaven."(12) Prisoners were allowed to maintain gardens to supplement their diets and many took advantage of this privilege. To combat boredom, recreation was encouraged by the barracks commandant and almost all prisoners indulged in some form of activity. This included field sports such as baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, boxing, and wrestling. At irregular intervals field meets were held and prizes awarded, generally some form of tobacco or canteen checks. The Fort Oglethorpe Commandant stated that the "prisoners prepared themselves for the meets as though to contest with the champion athletes of the world. Every event was hotly contested."(13)

For musical enjoyment orchestra's, such as the one consisting of 75 pieces at Fort Oglethorpe, were organized and trained by a German army officer, who was captured in China by the Japanese forces and turned over to the U.S. Department of Labor. The symphony was trained to perfection and performed twice a month to enthusiastic audiences. Other forms of entertainment included moving-pictures supplied by the Y.M.C.A. that were shown twice a week. One of the single-story barracks was used as an amusement room and fitted with a stage, where dramatic performances were given by the prisoners. The room also contained a library, consisting of books and periodicals contributed by friends and societies, as well as a piano and billiard table.

Prisoners were allowed to read books, magazines, newspapers, and write letters, but all reading material had to be carefully scrutinized by the prison censors. Of more suspicious nature was the mail sent to the prisoners. An abundance of mail kept the censors busy as they examined each letter or package for any coded messages or subversive material. Enemy aliens who worked as journalists prior to their arrest were permitted to publish prison newspapers. Two publications were issued on a periodic basis at Fort Oglethorpe by the prisoners that consisted principally of camp gossip and were distributed among the inmates for their enjoyment. While the majority of prisoners were literate, a school was organized entirely by the internees for the less educated with a number of the highly accomplished prisoners serving as teachers. Every subject was taught including the arts and sciences.

Religious practice was also encouraged and all denominations were provided the opportunity to hold services. On Sundays the amusement room was turned into a chapel with two services regularly held. The most popular service was presided over by an interned German Lutheran minister, who always filled the hall to capacity. Jewish services were also held and in the case of Fort Oglethorpe, they were conducted by a Rabbi from the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Sustaining the general health of the prisoners was a chief concern of the War Department. Although the prisoners, for the most part, were in fine physical condition, the war prison barracks was not immune to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Forty-six prisoners died from the disease at Fort Oglethorpe during the Fall of that year, the highest death rate among the three war prison barracks. Some prisoners used the barracks infirmary as if it were their private health clinic. Numerous cases treated were old chronic troubles that had existed for years prior to internment. Although not entirely relieved of their ailments, many walked away healthier than before their arrival. In regards to dental treatment, most of the prisoners could not have afforded the treatment they received if forced to make payments. Although the War Department attempted to treat the inmates with respect and dignity, and provide for their well-being, there were contingents of prisoners who refused to cooperate and obey the rules set in place by the commandant.(14)

Since the war prison barracks at Fort Oglethorpe first opened, the significant growth in population of enemy aliens severely outnumbered the smaller contingent of Merchant Marine and Navy prisoners of war. As might be expected, considerable discontent developed between the two classes of inmates that resulted in disciplinary problems. To remedy the situation, the War Department segregated the two classes by transferring all prisoners of war to Fort McPherson, while all enemy aliens from Fort McPherson were transferred to Fort Oglethorpe. The arrangement alleviated some problems for both the prisoners and barracks officials.

Discipline among the prisoners was as good as could be expected from such a large, diverse number of inmates, drawn from all walks of life, education level, and social scale of society. In order to maintain discipline, a court was established that consisted of three Army officers and three internees. The court was referred all cases of minor nature with testimony taken and the accused allowed counsel and all desired witnesses. They determined the verdict and in the event of conviction, awarded a sentence. Problems considered to be major, such as prisoner escapes and disturbances, were handled by the commandant of the war prison barracks. Inciting many of the discipline problems at the war barracks were members of the anarchist I.W.W. (Wobblies).

Two particularly serious incidents occurred at Fort Oglethorpe in 1918 that demanded vigorous measures. The first, initiated by the I.W.W. Wobblies, occurred on September 6, when 108 prisoners defied the normal prison regulations, and attacked other internees. Their victims were fellow prisoners, who did not agree with the I.W.W. propaganda the throng were attempting to spread throughout the compound. The problem prisoners were arrested and confined in a stockade built around their barracks. For further punishment they received half rations for a week and deprived of all privileges. A second occurrence of grave nature was committed by merchant seamen sent from the Department of Labor. More than 800 of the sailors refused to perform any work as assigned to their portion of the compound. The same punishment as inflicted on the I.W.W. troublemakers was bestowed upon the sailors, who then caused few problems the remainder of their prison term.(15)

Another dilemma that plagued the War Prison Barracks system were escape attempts by the prisoners. In most cases escaped prisoners were found in areas a short distance from the prison barracks and returned to the compound for further incarceration. An example of this problem were three aliens who escaped from Fort Oglethorpe in September 1917, with two out of the three making it as far as Mexico. This information was unknown to the prison officials until mail sent from the escapees to a fellow prisoner at the barracks revealed their whereabouts. The confiscated letter indicated that one of the escaped prisoners died on the way to the Mexican border. The War Department made no effort to recapture the other two prisoners. In an isolated incident, one prisoner was shot and died from wounds received while attempting to run away in broad daylight. If recaptured, an escaped prisoner faced grave circumstances after returning to the prison barracks. A group of escapees complained that after being brought back to the prison , they "were subjected to an examination, in which we were told that we should not be punished. In spite of this we have been locked up in solitary confinement day and night and the treatment is inhuman...We are only given a few minutes in the morning for washing. Money has been taken from us and we are not allowed to buy the most necessary things. The food is not palatable for human beings. Sometimes bread and water was our only sustenance...Further we have to stay day and night in a dusty cell, so that our health suffers considerably from it."(16)

An armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the fighting of World War I, but the United States Government continued to maintain the war prison barracks and arrest suspected enemy aliens for almost another two years. The final arrests took place in February 1919 and the war prison barracks ceased operation on June 30, 1920. During their peak more than 3000 were prisoners incarcerated at one time. The repatriation of the prisoners began in May of 1919, and continued until the war barracks shut their gates in June 1920.

Prisoners wishing to return to Germany were repatriated and sent aboard army transports for travel to Rotterdam, Holland, then released to the German Government. The enemy aliens desiring to remain in the United States were transferred to the Department of Justice and granted permanent parole. (17)

In conclusion, it is my opinion that the War Prison Barracks system was one of the true success stories for the War Department during World War I. This thought is based upon the fact that the primary records of the camps reveal relatively few problems associated with the organization of the prison barracks and their daily operation. I will leave to the social historians to determined if the system of arresting alleged enemy aliens was either morally or legally wrong.

In reflecting on his incarceration at Fort Oglethorpe, a newly paroled alien perhaps sums up the war prison barracks when he wrote to the commandant expressing his "deepfelt thanks for the excellent, fair, and just treatment, that has been accorded to me by you and those under you during my stay at the Camp...I shall never look back upon those days with regret, they have been a wonderful lesson for me, and have in many ways developed that democratic idea, that is so truly American." (18)

(1) War Department, Annual Report of the Adjutant General's Office, (Washington, D.C., 1917), 182.

(2) War Department, General Order 54, May 3, 1917. Adjutant General's Office, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

(3) Department of Justice, Annual Report of The Attorney General, (Washington, D.C.,1917), 59.

(4) Mike Johnson, Personal Justice Denied, (New York: Scribners, 1977), 285-289.

(5) Preliminary Inventory to the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "Records of Enemy Alien Internment Facilities, World War I," Record Group 62, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

(6) Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 46-55.

(7) Annual Report of the Adjutant General's Office, 182-183.

(8) Chattanooga Times, July 21, 1918.

(9) Annual Report of the Commandant of War Prison, Barracks 2, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, August 14, 1918. Records of the Adjutant General's Office (Record Group 407), National Archives.

(10) Letter form H.L. Mencken, dated March 10, 1918, in the files of Fort Oglethorpe correspondence, Record Group 407.

(11) Correspondence from Adjutant General of the War Department, October 28, 1918. Record Group 407.

(12) Ibid., also published in Annual Report of the War Department, 1918

(13) Ibid., also published in the War Department Annual Report, 1918.

(14) Ibid.

(15) War Department Annual Report, 1918

(16) War Barracks #2 subject files., Box 15 Record Group 407. National Archives.

(17) Correspondence of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165, file #10525-746.

(18) Records of the Adjutant General's Office (Record Group 407), "Fort Oglethorpe Correspondence." Letter dated February 1, 1919.

Created: Sunday, May 17, 1998, 08:25 Last Updated: Sunday, May 17, 1998, 08:25