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Fort Lincoln Internment Camp

5/31/2005:

Ft. Lincoln was built south of Bismarck around 1898 and is now owned by the United Tribes Technical College. It served various military purposes until 1941, when the U.S. Justice Department turned it into an Internment Camp for people the government deemed enemy aliens.

The fort’s new purpose came as a shock when it was announced, in April 1941, that it and several other military posts would be housing foreign seamen who were taken from their ships and detained as belligerents in World War II – even though the U.S. was still neutral at this point.

Historian Frank Vyzralek states, “Despite protests, a detachment of Border Patrol officers and immigrant inspectors arrived in Bismarck to begin preparing the proposed detention camp. They did most of the work themselves, the local WPA administrator proving to be totally hostile to the establishment of a detention camp.”

The detainment camp was to ultimately house 2,000 people, which would require more housing. So, 20 wood-frame buildings were purchased and shipped up from Alabama; each could house 42 people, but none had insulation. Cots, mattresses and bedding came from federal agencies.

Ten-foot high cyclone fence topped with barbed wire was used to enclose an area measuring 500' by 1300'. To discourage tunneling, 3' long steel rods were driven into the ground every 6 inches under the fence. Seven steel guard towers with weapons and flood lights ringed the fenced enclosure, and a control center was equipped with gas bombs, Remington automatic rifles, gas masks, 12-gauge riot guns, gas guns, four machine guns and gas billies. Three German shepherds and three saddle horses were kept on the hand for chasing escapees.

The first prisoners were to be Italian seamen. Despite the high population of local Germans and German Russians, many thought Italians would be preferable to German prisoners, because the news portrayed Hitler’s men as nastier and more violent. But the train cars loaded with Italians didn’t stop – they continued west to Fort Missoula. On May 28th, the Bismarck Tribune announced the camp’s first prisoners would instead be Germans.

On this day in 1941, 220 German seamen got off the train at Bismarck’s Northern Pacific depot at about 7 p.m that evening. When they arrived at the detention camp, the fence enclosure wasn’t finished and INS inspectors had to guard the opening throughout the night.

The Border Patrolmen were pleased at how smoothly everybody settled in, but it wasn’t to last. Two weeks later, a young ships’ third officer, 23-year old Johann Marquenie, used a broken shovel to dig his way under the fence at a point where it crossed a shallow ditch. He disappeared across the Missouri River bottomlands, stole a boat and headed south. The next day, the patrolmen acted on a tip and tracked him to the Huff neighborhood, where they found him resting in some brush. Marquenie said he simply wanted to be “out alone.”

Soon, 37 more seamen arrived, and the camp’s population was about 280 until December when Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into WWII. Over the next five years, the camp’s population expanded to 3,600, most of whom were U.S. citizens of Japanese and German descent.

The United Tribes and the ND Museum of Art have organized a touring exhibition about the history of the camp called Snow Country Prison: Interned in North Dakota, which is currently on display at the newly opened Dakota Contemporary Art Center in Cooperstown until June 25th.

Sources: Frank E. Vyzralek, “The Alien Internment Camp at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, during World War II: An Historical Sketch”, April 2003; www.dakotaartcenter.org

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm