More Than 500 Germans Lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1940

In 1940, Angel Island became ‘home’ for 512 German crew members from the luxury liner, Columbus
In 1940, Angel Island became ‘home’ for 512 German crew members from the luxury liner, Columbus | © San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris
Daisy Barringer

Angel Island is the second-largest island in the San Francisco Bay area. What a lot of people don’t know is that, in 1940, the island became “home” to 512 Germans. They had been aboard the SS Columbus, a German luxury liner that was setting out on a cruise right as World War II commenced.

The Columbus departed from New York on August 19, 1939, with its Nazi flag flying above. It was one of the largest and fastest luxury ships at the time, and among the first to have an outdoor swimming pool. Unaware that war would be declared in just a couple of weeks, the itinerary included a 12-day cruise to the West Indies. However, when the ship arrived in Martinique under the looming shadow of war, the German crew and passengers were not allowed to disembark.

They turned around to go back to New York, but the captain received a message that war was imminent and that the ship was not to enter a US port under any circumstances. They were to return to Germany, if possible; otherwise, they were ordered to head to a neutral port. The captain sailed to Havana, Cuba, dropped off some American passengers, and then fled to Veracruz, Mexico. It was one of many German ships stuck at a neutral port, unable to go home due to the threat of being captured by Allied ships.

Over 500 German crew members from the Columbus were sent to Angel Island after the ship was scuttled in December 1939

A sinking ship

The problem now was that the US, which had not yet entered the war, had technically onboarded the men as “guests of the United States government,” which meant that they were legally allowed 60 days of freedom in port before being deported to Germany. But the US government quickly realized that there was no way Britain would allow these experienced sailors to return home to help the German navy. They decided to avoid the British ships on the East Coast altogether by sending 512 members of the crew who were of military age on a train to San Francisco, where a Japanese ship would transport them home via the Pacific Ocean.

Trapped in limbo on Angel Island

The British, however, were not having it, and they set up three Allied warships outside the Golden Gate. Unsurprisingly, when the Japanese saw the ships, they backed out. With their allies now departed, the Germans found themselves stranded without a way back. And so all of the men were sent to Angel Island, the only local place with enough room to house them.

Technically, the German sailors weren’t POWs and, at first, were told their stay would be brief – two weeks at most. However, there were no ships to take them back to Europe. And even though they were neither quarantined nor immigrated, they were stuck on Angel Island, which – despite views of the water and the Golden Gate Bridge – was a somewhat ominous location.

Angel Island has a daunting history. Due to the threat of bubonic plague, a Quarantine Station – where ships from foreign countries were fumigated, and immigrants thought to have the disease were isolated – opened here in 1891. Later, in its most disturbing chapter from 1910 to 1940, tens of thousands of Chinese and Japanese immigrants were detained on the island under oppressive and unsanitary conditions. Now, the German men were being housed in the same conditions; they slept on cramped tri-level bunks and were locked in at night, without access to toilets.

The crew’s living conditions on Angel Island were cramped
Articles relating to the ‘Nazi sailors’ appeared in American newspapers

One final relocation

Despite being somewhat quarantined, the men were allowed to roam the island freely and even go ashore to San Francisco. But when a fire in the main administration building forced the immigration facility to relocate, their stay at Angel Island ended. The sailors were sent to an internment camp in New Mexico, where they set up shops, built a soccer field, tennis courts and a swimming pool, and had relative freedom – until the US entered the war in 1941 and the camp almost immediately transformed into a prison.

The German sailors continued to think that their stay in the US would soon end and that they’d be on their way to Germany. However, they lived at that internment camp until the end of the war in 1945 when they could finally go home – six years and two weeks after their ocean liner departed for the West Indies on a luxury cruise.

The German crew members were moved from Angel Island to Fort Stanton, New Mexico, in January 1941
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article