The SS Columbus was an opulent German ocean liner and the fastest liner of its time when she was built in 1924. She was on a cruise off the U.S. Atlantic Coast and Caribbean when Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939. The German High Command ordered the Columbus to disembark its passengers in Havana, Cuba and return post haste to Germany. She was intercepted by a British frigate 400 miles off the Eastern U.S. coast and compelled to surrender. The German commander, Captain Wilhelm Dähne, ordered his crew to scuttle the ship and take to the lifeboats. The crew of over 500 sailors was picked up by the American heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Tuscaloosa. The Americans, who were not yet at war with Germany, wanted to re-patriot the German sailors to Germany, but the British Navy refused to allow them to be passed through the blockade. The sailors were transported to San Francisco and then to Fort Stanton in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Fort Stanton had a played an important role in frontier New Mexico; first as an Army garrison to pacify the Mescalero Apaches and later as a tuberculosis sanitarium for the U.S. Merchant Marine. Over 1300 American sailors are buried in the cemetery outside of Fort Stanton. During the Lincoln County Wars, troops from Fort Stanton rode into to the town of Lincoln to quell the violence between the warring factions.
The status of the German sailors was unique. They weren’t POW’s as the U.S. wasn’t at war with Germany. They couldn’t be returned to Germany as the Brits wouldn’t allow it. There was growing anti-German sentiment in the U.S. and the German seamen had to be protected. The remote location of Fort Stanton was the ideal site to house them. There were no fences, guards or guard towers. The Germans were told that Apache scouts patrolled the surrounding mountains and any escapees would be promptly scalped. Captain Dähne kept his sailors busy with construction projects in the camp and farming operations in the surrounding hills. Between 1940 and 1945 there were only 6 or 7 escape attempts. Each of the escapees were re-captured and returned to Fort Stanton… with their scalps intact. 4 of the sailors are buried in the Merchant Marine Cemetery outside of Fort Stanton. The surviving sailors were returned to Germany after the end of the war in 1945.