File No. 763.72111/5214

The Secretary of Labor ( Wilson) to the Secretary of State

No. 54274

Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 15th instant,1 inclosing copy of a note received from the Swiss Minister at this Capital, representing German interests in the United States,2 in which he requests certain information regarding the crews of the German merchant vessels in the ports of the United States. You request to be furnished with an early reply to the questions asked by the Swiss Minister.3

From the outset the officers and crewmen of the German merchant vessels that had come into ports of the United States and remained there while this country was a neutral in the conflict between the Central and the Allied Powers have not been regarded as prisoners of war, and they are not now being so regarded or treated. They were and are considered, rather, as aliens who, while physically within the jurisdiction of this country, were constructively outside and in the same situation as any other alien arriving in a United States port and applying for admission but not yet formally admitted. When the Congress of the United States declared a state of war to exist between this country and Germany, the President issued a proclamation defining “alien enemies.” The issuance of this proclamation made it necessary to regard the German officers and crewmen as alien-enemy applicants for admission in addition to their general status of aliens at the portals but not yet within the United States, under the meaning of the immigration law. Proceeding upon this theory, the officers and crewmen have been excluded and, their deportation not being practicable, have been detained. Throughout the procedure incident to so regarding them and disposing of their cases, it has been the practice to accord to the officers, to the fullest extent practicable, the same kind of treatment, as to quartering, feeding, etc., as would be given to first-class passengers [Page 225] arriving at ports of the United States and taken to immigration stations thereof; and the crewmen have been accorded, as nearly as possible, the same kind of treatment as would be given steerage or third-class passengers arriving at ports of the United States and taken to immigration stations thereof. Because the immigration stations, while adapted to the accomplishment of the purposes in view for limited periods of time, were not altogether suitable for detaining the officers and crewmen, respectively, for long periods and at the same time observing the requirements with regard to their treatment which the Department from the outset imposed upon itself, arrangements are now being perfected for the further detention of the officers and crewmen in internment camps where they can be given opportunities for healthful employment or recreation and where all inconveniences resulting from the restricted areas and somewhat confined limitations of immigration stations would be overcome. In pursuance of this policy the officers and crewmen who were for a very brief period detained in the immigration station at Boston have been removed to Gallup Island, Boston Harbor; a number of the officers who have been detained at the immigration station at New York (Ellis Island) have already been removed to Hot Springs, N. C., where a large, commodious, well-appointed building, to which extensive grounds are attached, has been rented; and arrangements are now being made to convey the crewmen at Ellis Island to another near-by point in North Carolina. The same is true with regard to the officers and crewmen, respectively, who have been detained at the immigration station at New Orleans; and as rapidly as possible similar accommodations will be afforded for those now detained at San Francisco, Calif., and Gloucester City, N. J., respectively.
It would seem more appropriate for the Department of State to answer the Swiss Minister’s second question than for this Department to do so. It will be seen, however, from the above answer to the Minister’s first question, that this Department has not applied to the cases the provisions of articles 6 and 7 of the 11th Hague convention of October 18, 1907, which articles read as follows:
  • Article 6. The captain, officers, and members of the crew, when nationals of the enemy State, are not made prisoners of war, on condition that they make a formal promise in writing, not to undertake, while hostilities last, any service connected with the operations of the war.
  • Article 7. The names of the persons retaining their liberty under the conditions laid down in Article 5, paragraph 2, and in Article 6, are notified by the belligerent captor to the other belligerent. The latter is forbidden knowingly to employ the said persons.

This Department has not understood that the Government considered that these articles applied to the officers and crewmen who were [Page 226] within our harbors under the conditions above alluded to when a state of war with Germany was declared to exist. Presumably, the theory upon which this holding rests is that chapter 3 of the 11th Hague convention of 1907 relates to “crews of enemy merchant ships captured by a belligerent,” and that the vessels, the officers and crewmen of which are under discussion, were not “captured” within the meaning of said chapter.

Cordially yours,

W. B. Wilson
  1. Not printed.
  2. Supra.
  3. The following reply was not forwarded to the Swiss Minister.