Germans Build a Swimming Pool in the Middle of New Mexico

December 03, 2017

The year was 1939. The SS Columbus was a large (775 ft) luxury liner of the German fleet, carrying passengers on cruises to the Caribbean. She was the first German cruise ship with an onboard swimming pool, and it had large dance floors, dining halls, and plenty of amenities to make her a popular ship. She left New York City on August 19, 1939, for her fourth cruise of the season to the Caribbean.

The world, however, was about to change. On August 27, the captain received orders to take the ship to Germany or, failing that, to a neutral port. On September 1, as Germany invaded Poland and World War II began, the ship off-loaded all her passengers in Havana, Cuba, and headed to Vera Cruz, Mexico. Once war had broken out, all German merchant and cruise ships were subject to seizure by the UK and i's allies, and a return trip to Germany across the Atlantic would be highly risky. German ships all over the world were all in the same predicament, something I (Steve) had not known before. 

For the next four months, the German government tried to work out a diplomatic solution to bring their civilian fleet home, but to no avail, and on December 14, the German high command gave the SS Columbus approval to attempt a run home across the Atlantic. The US, while neutral at this point in the war, tailed the ship as she made her way through Florida waters and headed out to open sea. The SS Columbus was intercepted by a British destroyer just 300 miles east of Virginia. Rather than let the ship fall into enemy hands, the crew of the Columbus opened the sea valves in the engine room and set fires on the ship to prevent anyone from boarding, and she slipped beneath the surface around midnight on December 20. The US Navy rescued the crew and transported them back to New York, where they had begun their voyage four months earlier.

The US put the crew onto Ellis Island while they tried to figure out what to do with this German crew. While the British government would not allow any men of military age to be returned to Germany, they did allow 58 older members of the crew to return. After a month of negotiations, all parties agreed that the crew could be returned to Germany via a Pacific route, thus avoiding a neutrality violation of the Atlantic blockage. So 513 crew members were loaded onto a train bound for San Francisco, where they were housed on Angel Island. After months of failed attempts to return the crew to Germany via the Pacific, and with growing anti-German sentiment in the US, it was decided that the crew could no longer stay in San Francisco, and so a more remote location was needed. A recently abandoned Civilian Conservation Corp camp at Fort Stanton was chosen. (This is the fort whose desirable supply contracts had earlier provided fuel for the Lincoln County War, which made Billy the Kid famous.)

The first group of German sailors arrive at Fort Stanton at the end of January, 1941, and began rehabbing buildings to house the entire group. By mid-March, the rest of the crew had arrived, and they had rehabbed or built barracks, a kitchen, laundry, and washrooms. During 1941, they built an entire community, including a bakery, library, general store, and even a swimming pool. The captain kept his crew active as they used their various skills to improve life around the camp. Carpenters, cooks, blacksmiths, and mechanics all continued to practice their trades and teach others as well. The captain even bought two Model-Ts and taught the crew how to drive. Money for the renovations was provided by the US government, the German government, and the NDL cruise line.

The swimming pool as it remains today

With the US entry into WWII at the end of 1941, things changed a bit for the crew. They were now classified as Enemy Aliens rather than Distressed Seamen, and there were more restrictions on their movements outside the camp. But otherwise life remained much the same for their four years in New Mexico, as they kept active and participated in hiking, concerts, swimming, boxing, tennis, and learning to drive.

The entrance to one of the buildings that the German crew built

Between 1942 and 1945, a number of changes happened at Fort Stanton. The INS transferred other German civilian crew members to Fort Stanton and relocated some of the SS Columbus crew to other interment camps or back to Germany via a parole program. In 1944, the US Government constructed an isolation camp at Fort Stanton to house American Nazis, which was very unpopular with the other internees. Following Germany's surrender in May 1945, the remaining German internees were all returned to Germany by the end of August. This was not the end of the camp, however, as the US government used it to house 17 Japanese Americans for 2 months until deporting them to Japan. That's right, we deported American citizens simply because they were of Japanese ancestry and were considered trouble makers.

This was not the end of Fort Stanton, as it continued to serve as a TB sanitarium until 1953. It's now a New Mexico State Historic Park and is slowly undergoing repairs and renovations, as time and limited budgets allow. I think if they really want to get it fixed up and looking good again, they're going to have to bring in a crew of German sailors!

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