Merchant Mariners at Milag Nord Prisoner of War Camp in Germany during World War II
U.S. Regulations for mariner POW conduct
Description of camps prepared by Military Intelligence Service
Tribute to Panama Canal Pilots by Allied Masters held at Marlag and Milag Nord
POWs come home: The monotonous life in a prison camp ends for 42 Merchant Seamen repatriated from Germany
Mast Magazine, April 1945
[Additional photos from American Seamen: About Men of the Merchant Marine, Winter 1945]
Mothers, wives, friends and sweethearts of 42 repatriated Merchant Seamen had waited patiently and hopefully for the return of these imprisoned men for almost three years -- but the last few seconds of this vigil were the most difficult.
They jammed the reception room of New York's Wilshire House, hotel for Merchant Seamen. They had waited all of a long afternoon for repatriates to arrive. There was a general feeling of tension and emotion. Apprehension was on every face as all waited for the news from a New Jersey pier.
The Gripsholm, Swedish exchange liner, had docked earlier in the afternoon [February 21, 1945]. Questioning by FBI, OWI [Office of War Information] and other government officials delayed the seamen's departure from the ship for several hours. Finally, officialdom was over. The men could leave. They packed their meager belongings into sea bags and small suitcases and word flashed back to the hotel that they were on their way. Women who had been calmly waiting for this moment began to cry and they swarmed into the lobby to await the first arrivals.
When the first repatriates arrived (they were brought in groups of ten), pent-up emotions broke bounds. It was a close race between newspapermen and relatives to see who could get to the seamen first. While some men were being hugged, kissed and interviewed, wives and sweethearts of others talked together nervously and excitedly. Doubts now arose in their minds. Is he really on the ship? Was he delayed again? Is he in a hospital? Some of the men were hospitalized and joined their families the following day.
This same scene was enacted several times as the men left the Gripsholm for the freedom they'd prayed for. In the reception room seamen were cornered by a dozen reporters; photographers found it difficult to fight their way through the throng of people to get their pictures and, off in a corner, while men were being kissed and hugged, women were weeping and bewildered seamen were being asked to pose and answer questions. A man was playing quiet dinner music on a piano in a vain attempt at making a generally confused situation more tranquil.
All of these Merchant Seamen had stories to tell. All had been in the prisoner-of-war camp at Milag Nord, near Bremen, for approximately two and one-half years. All had been torpedoed. Most of the captains had been held prisoner in German submarines. All of them agreed that "we'd never be here today if it wasn't for the Red Cross. Their food parcels saved us." And all wanted to sail again.
The men were in generally good spirits; in fact, they took the situation with more composure than did the gentlemen from the press and the relatives. Many of the relatives had come from as far away as New Orleans to meet a grinning seaman who had been behind barbed wire for two years.
Most of the seamen had been torpedoed on the Russian run and either landed their lifeboats and life rafts on the Norwegian coast or were picked up by submarines and German coastal craft. Some went immediately to Germany, others were put in solitary confinement and questioned for days by officials at Wilhelmshaven.
Praise for the American Red Cross was especially high. When questioned about the quality of their food at Milag Nord, one seaman said: "What food? Our regular parcels from the Red Cross kept us alive." The Red Cross also shipped to these men athletic equipment, books and other articles. The United Seamen's Service supplied them with uniforms and recreational equipment.
James Akins, Able Seaman from New Britain, Conn., said he also missed cleanliness. Their quarters, he said, were very poor and soap was a scarce commodity. "I would have also appreciated a soft chair," he added. Akins met his wife and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, whom he saw for the first time, at the Wilshire House.
Reunion for James Akins, A.B. SS Carlton, and wife Virginia. Akins saw his daughter June Elaine for the first time. L-R: Walter Morrison, Chief Engineer, SS Stella Lykes; R. M. Peterson (affiliation unknown) Captain S. Charles Wallace, SS Stella Lykes
The men had lost a good bit of weight during their internment but regained part of the lost poundage on the Gripsholm.
The seamen were all doubtful about their future. As repatriated Prisoners of War they are all pledged not to bear arms against Germany. "We'll do what the government wants us to do," was the general reply. All of the men questioned want to get back to sea as quickly as possible and several said they want "a crack at the Japs."
During their two-day stay in New York the men were entertained at a breakfast at the Andrew Furuseth Club, awarded Combat and Area Medals by Deputy War Shipping Administrator Edward Macauley, given a banquet at the Essex House, and were guests at the Broadway musical comedy, "Mexican Hayride."
Repatriates Tell Their Stories
The most unusual story told by any of the repatriates came from Captain Frederik Andersen Strand, master of the Matson Line ship Honomu, one of the first American vessels to be torpedoed on the "suicide" Murmansk Run early in 1942.
Left: Captain Frederik Andersen Strand, Master of SS Honomu
When the Honomu was hit by a U-boat she was in the Barents Sea, 350 miles from Murmansk. Taken aboard the submarine, Captain Strand was landed in Norway, the country of his birth.
"I was flown to Oslo," he said. "I told the German officers that I had a sister in Norway I had not seen since leaving the country 30 years ago. A meeting was arranged, but then we ran into further difficulty because she could not speak English and I could not understand Norwegian. However, my sister's husband acted as interpreter and we enjoyed a very pleasant visit.
Captain Strand was told by his sister that his father was living in Bodo and the German officers said the captain would be in Oslo several days and could see his father.
"That night, however," he added, "I was put aboard a German transport a few hours later and shipped to the prison camp. I learned later that my father came to Oslo to see me and died a short time later. I understand his disappointment over not seeing me was one of the contributing factors to his death."
At Camp Milag Nord, Captain Strand found that 5 members of his crew were also prisoners. The Captain is 36 years old and has been going to sea for 20 years. He joined the Matson Company in 1929 and received his first command in 1941. He reported that other survivors from his ship were rescued by Allied vessels and returned to the United States.
SS Santa Rita
SS Stella Lykes
Captain Henry Stephenson, of New Rochelle, N. Y., Master of the Grace Line's SS Santa Rita, was confined for two and a half years at Milag Nord, 16 miles from Bremen and 30 miles from Hamburg. There were 2,700 seamen interned at this camp.
The jovial 69-year-old captain, who has spent half a century at sea, sat calmly in the temporary press room at the Wilshire House, and told his story of the long sojourn as a "guest" of the Nazis.
Commenting on the fact that be bad lost 30 pounds during his imprisonment, he said with a smile, "I could afford it." He patted his ample mid-section to illustrate.
Captain Stephenson said he was treated about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. "The food was pretty bad, but the Red Cross packages were life-savers."
Asked about the attitude of the Germans, he said it had changed with the progress of the war. "They thought they were going to win in 1942 when I was picked up, but in recent months all hope of victory seems to have gone."
An inveterate cigar-smoker, Captain Stephenson refused the German cigars and smoked only cigarettes provided by the Red Cross while he was in prison.
"We made old-fashioned crystal sets," he said, "and were able to tune in on BBC broadcasts to keep informed on the progress of the war. Parts of the sets were obtained by supplying the German guards with cigarettes. Cigarettes were very scarce over there and the price was about 250 marks per hundred. We received morning and evening broadcasts, knew all about D-Day and every other major development in the war."
Captain Stephenson said that the flames from the city of Hamburg when it was practically razed by American and British planes brightened the sky over the camp 30 miles away.
To pass away the time, the prisoners organized classes in navigation, engineering and other subjects, but the veteran captain said that time passed slowly.
His ship was torpedoed about 500 miles south of Bermuda and he was taken to France. The Gripsholm docked in New Jersey one day after Captain Stephenson's 69th birthday and his wedding anniversary. He said he expected that before long he would be heading back to sea again.
War Shipping Administration Deputy Administrator Edward Macauley awards Combat Medals to Walter Stankiwicz, Ordinary Seaman, SS Carlton, and Captain Harold Anderson,* Master, SS Stone Street Captain Harold Anderson greets his wife George Allen Riggins, wiper SS Carlton, of Norfolk, VA, greets his mother at the Wilshire House
Captain Harold Anderson,* Master of the SS Stone Street, who lives at 100 Primrose Avenue, Floral Park, L. I., was two and a half years at Milag Nord. He was torpedoed in the Atlantic. He was taken immediately into the U-boat, where he spent 16 days.
"While I was aboard the submarine" he said, "and in the hands of German naval officers, I wish to stress the fact that I was treated courteously in every way. I was fed good food and could have no complaints.
"However, it was a different story when I reached the camp at Wilhelmshaven. The food was awful and if it had not been for the Red Cross we would have starved. I spent 27 days in solitary confinement under constant questioning. While I was not touched physically, I was subjected to mental torture.
"Right now it all seems like a horrible dream."
* Several sources give his name as Harald Andersen.
Tribute to Panama Canal Pilots by Allied Masters held as POW at Marlag and Milag Nord signed by all Masters including Captains Strand, Wallace, Stephenson, Anderson
American Prisoners of War Camps in Germany: Marlag and Milag Nord
Prepared By Military Intelligence Service War Department, 1 November 1945 [Excerpts]
The camp was situated at Westertimke, 30 miles southwest of Hamburg and 10 miles north of Bremen. It was well placed on sandy ground planted with pine trees.
Created for the confinement of Navy and Merchant Marine personnel only, the installation under normal conditions had a capacity of 5,300 and in emergencies of 6,900. According to official figures of the Protecting Power [Switzerland], the strength in April 1944 was 4,268 with 41 nations and races represented.
At no time were there more than 71 Americans from the Navy and Merchant Marine in this camp, and on 2 April 1945 two American Air Corps officers were imprisoned there, the first non-naval American personnel to arrive.
A month before liberation, the camp held 35 American Merchant seamen and 9 regular service personnel including: Maj. Peter Ortiz and Lt. Walter W. Taylor of the Marine Corps and Lt. (jg) Richard N. Harris, USNR.
The entire camp, which was constructed in the autumn of 1942 and subsequently added to, consisted of 7 lagers as follows:
- Lager I, Dulag, which was used as an interrogation and transit compound;
- Lager II, Marlag, housing personnel of the Royal Navy;
- Lager III, Milag, for the confinement of Merchant Marine personnel of the various nationalities;
- Lager IV, Milag (Inder), accommodating Indian seamen of the Merchant Navy;
- Lager V, Wache, for the camp guard;
- Lager VI, Kommandatur, the administrative officer for entire establishment;
- Lager VII, Stabslager, living quarters for the administrative personnel of the entire establishment.
The Marlag Lager for the Navy POW and the Milag Lager for Merchant Marine POW each had 2 compounds designated as "O" and "M" for officers and enlisted men respectively.
Each compound consisted of several sturdily built one-storied wooden buildings which were well-lighted and heated. There were 29 of them in Marlag and 36 in Milag. The majority of them were used as barracks for the POW while the others were kitchens and dining rooms, ablution barracks, guard barracks, storehouses, postal section and other administrative buildings.
Each building used as living quarters comprised many rooms accommodating 14 to 16 officers or 18 men of other rank.There were two and three-tiered bunks furnished with palliasses of straw with washable covering. Two blankets were issued each man and some POW had an extra Red Cross blanket. Personally owned blankets were rare. Cleanliness was the rule and for the most part the barracks were well kept although at times the palliasses were infected with vermin.
The entire camp was surrounded by barbed wire and the Marlag and Milag compounds were also separated by barbed wire. Within the lagers, the compounds for officers and men were also separated by wire. In addition each compound had a barbed wire cattle fence about a yard high placed about 4 yards inside the outer fencing. POW were not allowed to go beyond the cattle fencing. Placed at the corner of each camp were watchtowers with machine guns and searchlights, which were always turned off during an air raid warning.
At first the camp was commanded by Kapitan zur see Schuhr, a regular German navy officer who was severe, but considered by POW as just. After his transfer the personnel was as follows:
|Camp Commander||Fregatten-Kapitan Schmidt|
|Second in Command||Korvetten-Kapitan Rogge|
|Security Officer/Gestapo||Oberleutnant Schoof|
|German Physician||Stabsarzt Dr. Trautman|
|Accompanying officer of the G.H.C||Major Bosenberg|
Kapitan Schmidt was short and fat and looked like a pig. He weighed about 290 pounds, was five feet nine inches tall, about 54 years old and had grey hair. The security officer, Oberleutnant Schoof, was about 6 feet tall, weighed about 150 pounds and had a very thin long nose, dark skin and black hair. The POW did not come into contact with other members of the camp personnel.
When the camp was first formed, the camp guard comprised NCOs and men from naval artillery units. These men, between 45 and 55 years, were unfit for frontline service. In addition about 30 members of the German marine forces were distributed throughout the camp as cooks and clerks. Later on, the guards at the camp were of the Wehrmacht and wore the uniform of this ground force organization.
According to observations by POW there were 8 guards around the enlisted men's barracks going on duty at 0730 hours and remaining there until 1800 hours. Armed with pistols, they patrolled the barracks area and sometimes entered them. There were 2 guards along the inner fence of the enlisted men's compound. Shifts changed every 2 hours. Twelve guards patrolled as sentries along the outer fence around the compounds at all times. The guards were old and were for the most part German farmers recently inducted into the Wehrmacht although some of them had been veterans of the first World War. As a rule, the guard personnel was changed about every six months. POW traded with the guards whenever they would come into the barracks and talked to them quite openly.
The compounds were administered by English personnel who filled the staff positions. Ph.M. 1/C Charles H. Carter was the American MOC [Man of Confidence] in Marlag "M" and Joseph Ashworth, of the U.S. Merchant Marine, [Chief Mate on the SS Carlton] was American MOC in the Milag compound. The basic unit for organization was the barracks and the barracks' chiefs were all English inasmuch as the number of American POW in the 2 compounds was so small.
In general the health in the camp was very good. There were a few cases of tuberculosis in the hospital, which was in the Milag section of the camp and was operated by the British, and also a very few cases of dysentery. The American MOC in Marlag "M" acted as the doctor for the Americans. All dental work was done by an English dentist. It was reported by those who had been to the hospital that the treatment was quite good, but the hospital ran short of medical equipment and supplies.
Washing facilities were in a separate building in the camp. In this building were 3 cold showers which the men could use at any time and 53 water spigots. The men received what was supposed to be a hot shower once a week, but the building where the showers were situated was a quarter of a mile from the camp and 3 parties of 25 men each would be taken down at one time. Therefore, the men who went in first were the only ones to get a hot shower, because when the others came later the water was cold.
The latrine, which was in a separate building, consisted of 47 stools over a hole in the ground. They were cleaned out about once every 2 weeks. Drinking water was plentiful and was available at all times except the one period of 3 weeks in Dec. 1944 when the Germans claimed that the pump was broken and needed repair. At that time the water was on only during certain hours of the day.
The usual German ration existed in this camp. Breakfast comprised 2 slices of bread, half a cup of ersatz coffee and sometimes a small piece of cheese. For dinner the prisoners had soup made out of turnips and potatoes, and for supper each POW was issued three potatoes. About once a month a little horsemeat and sugar was issued. The meager rations were supplemented by Red Cross parcels, the food of which was prepared by POW on the stoves in the barracks.
The German issued no clothing to the POW although there was a great demand for winter overcoats and warm garments. Red Cross shipments were received quite regularly and distribution was made of the necessary clothes to each POW. The English had set up a shop to repair shoes and there was also a tailor shop in the camp. The Germans did not confiscate any uniforms of the prisoners who were allowed to keep whatever clothing they had.
The treatment of POW was correct. There were no indications of any disciplinary actions having been taken against American POW. The guards were older men and would do favors for he POW for cigarettes. Consequently there was a sort of mutual understanding and as long as the POW did not cause any trouble they were not interfered with by the Germans.
Work and Pay
POW from Marlag and Milag never worked outside of the camp, but when they were asked to do so they refused. Seamen 2/C were made to do work within the camp but the Seamen 1/C did nothing except work on cleaning details and KP within the barracks. Those POW who worked received 40 pfennings per day, and according to statements of some they received 7 marks 50 pfennings a month. The money was in camp currency and could be spent in the PX operated by the Germans. In Nov. 1944 the Germans stopped issuing camp currency and paid the POW in German marks. No man was ever allowed to have more than 30 marks in his possession.
In each compound there were sports fields where the POW could play baseball and volleyball. A great deal of equipment was supplied by the Red Cross and YMCA. Other exercise was obtained by walking around in the enclosure during the day, and toward the end of the war the Germans permitted the POW to walk outside the compounds under guard. They would give the guards cigarettes for the privilege of taking these walks and at times would go as far as 2 and 3 miles from the camp but never near any town.
Plays were put on by the POW in the camp theater. They also had a band, using instruments issued by the Red Cross and those purchased by the British from the Germans. A well stocked library (3,000 volumes) was run by the British. In regard to education, there were 19 men giving instruction in 25 separate courses, which included languages, mathematics, commercial subjects, vocational, economic and scientific. Classes were very popular and well attended. Textbooks for these courses were obtained from the Red Cross and YMCA.
In general the delivery of mail was very erratic. The average number of letters received per man per month was 7 and required as many as 61 days for transit. Parcel post packages required about 43 days in transit. POW received 2 letter and 4 card forms per month, while the medical staff received a double ration of the forms. The Germans were quite regular in issuing these forms and at times additional ones could be obtained from POW who did not desire to use theirs. There were no restrictions on the number of incoming letters a POW could receive and the letters could be kept indefinitely. German civilian girls censored incoming as well as outgoing mail.
Two small chapels, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics, were in the camp. Protestant church services were held in the morning and evening of every Sunday. In addition, prayers were held every night and there was a mid-week "fellowship discussion group" meeting. The YMCA provided hymnals and prayer books and at Christmas time provided hundreds of booklets with Christmas carols. An English chaplain served as minister. A French civilian internee was the Roman Catholic chaplain; Mass and benedictions were held each day.
Representatives of the Protecting Power came to the camp about every 3 months. They made fairly rigid inspections and received oral and written complaints from the Senior British officers and the Men of Confidence in the individual compounds. The German staff usually accompanied the Swiss representatives when they made a tour of the camp.
Complaints about food, clothes, sleeping accommodations, the need for fuel and other matters were turned over to the Germans. In some cases the complaints were acted upon promptly but in other cases, particularly in regard to the coal situation, action was promised but never fulfilled. According to statements of POW, they felt that the Swiss representatives were doing all they possibly could but were handicapped by the Germans in the High Command.
The Red Cross and the YMCA were particularly helpful in regard to the welfare of the POW. Recreational supplies, books and clothing were provided whenever requested, and whenever representatives of these 2 organizations came to the camp, POW had ready access to them and could usually obtain whatever they requested.
"Source material for this report consisted of interrogations of former prisoners of war made by CPM branch, Military Intelligence Service, and reports of the Protecting Power and International Red Cross received by the State Department (Special War Problems Division)."
Tribute to Panama Canal Pilots by Allied Masters held as POW at Marlag and Milag Nord signed by all Masters including Captains Strand, Wallace, Stephenson, Anderson
Names of mariner POWs
Stories of POWs
Men and Ships in WWII
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