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A piece of history: Structure from WWII internment camp to be reassembled in Bismarck

Mike Beck has undertaken the task of assembling a North Dakota prisoner of war internment camp building at Buckstop Junction. Beck and others rescued the World War II-era buildings from a date with the wrecking ball in 2011 and brought the pieces to the pioneer village east of Bismarck. During WWII, the internment camp at Fort Lincoln, which is now United Tribes Technical College, housed prisoners of war from Germany and Japan. Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune 1 / 2
A barracks building from an internment camp is being reassembled at Buckstop Junction in Bismarck. Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune 2 / 2

BISMARCK — Mike Beck, 78, was just a child when the trains arrived carrying hundreds of German and Japanese "enemy aliens" who were to be interned at Fort Lincoln, or what is now United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.

Congress proclaimed in December 1941 that the United States was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy, which resulted in the arrest and detention of "aliens" residing in the country.

For Beck, though, some of these men would later become his friends and members of the Bismarck community. More than 4,000 Germans and Japanese interned at Fort Lincoln.

"It was a part of a history in the United States that no one wants to talk about," Beck said of the camp, which operated from the spring of 1941 to March 1946.

For the past year, Beck has been reassembling a piece of history from the internment camp at Fort Lincoln. Beck is a longtime volunteer of Bismarck's Buckstop Junction, which, in 2011, acquired a temporary barracks building that was used in the camp.

Prior to 2011, the structure, called "T-23," served for more that 40 years as the maintenance building at Bismarck State College. The deteriorating building was set for demolition to make way for a new campus facility when the Missouri Valley Historical Society, which operates Buckstop Junction, stepped in.

Board by board, volunteers disassembled the temporary barracks building and the Historical Society and UTTC each got half. Then the flood of 2011 hit and Beck, the lone volunteer reassembling the structure, had to take a break to work on his flooded house, located by the Missouri River. He also had a stroke, so, up until last spring the boards from the barracks building remained at Buckstop Junction until Beck could get back to work.

Beck has been volunteering for about 22 years at Buckstop Junction, a little "town" in southeast Bismarck that is filled with other restored historical buildings — about half of which Beck rebuilt himself.

History of Fort Lincoln

The internment camp at Fort Lincoln was the talk of Bismarck in 1941. On April 11, 1941, the Tribune announced that Italian sailors taken from 28 ships in American ports would soon be interned at the camp. More than a month later, the paper announced 200 German seamen also were expected to be placed there.

Ft. Lincoln internment camp was transformed from a military post to a camp with the addition of a 10-foot fence. In addition to the German seamen, in early 1942, the Tribune reported that 415 Japanese, most of whom came from the California area, arrived at the Ft. Lincoln camp. All the internees were men.

The internees

Beck got his start in restoring old buildings when he and his two brothers started the Great Plains Museum in Mandan, which operated from the late 1960s until 1983. They picked up nearly a dozen log houses between Bismarck and Mandan that were set to be torn down.

Beck said he recalls, as a kid, going to the internment camp in Bismarck. It wasn't until he returned to Bismarck after two years in the U.S. Air Force when got to know some of the German internees who chose to remain in Bismarck.

There was Meinrad "Pete" Huchler, who owned a farm near him, Paul Mueller, a barber at the Prince Hotel, which is now Sunrise Apartments, and Kurt Peters, a man popular in Bismarck.

"Everybody in town knew (Peters)," Beck said. "He was an amazing guy."

According to Tribune archives, Peters was a radio operator on ships. He worked on four German liners before he started working with Standard Oil Co. and was sent aboard an American oil tanker in the late 1930s. He came to the U.S. from Germany in 1939, just a week before the war broke out.

Peters, who was arrested in New York City, interned in the Fort Lincoln internment camp until 1943. He was eventually released and he, like many former internees, joined the military. At the end of WWII, he became the Tribune's circulation manager.

Less than a dozen internees chose to remain in Bismarck.

Huchler was one who stayed and worked for Corwin Churchill Motors, doing wheel alignment.

Some internees who chose to stay in Bismarck may have opted not to speak about their time in the camp. Others did.

Ingrid Bailey, Huchler's daughter, said her father never spoke of any cruelty at the camp. Her father told her, "There was no cruelty if you did your job." Huchler worked at the the first aid station in the camp, because he had been a Boy Scout and had extensive first aid knowledge.

Bailey said her father had also been working for Standard Oil Co. When his ship docked in New York City, he left because he was worried about returning to Germany, as he had been arrested for a minor infraction and was told not to return.

"These people didn't do anything; they weren't spies. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Bailey, 73, who lives in Wisconsin. "When (my father) got off the train and they had guns pointed at them ... he said they kind of got a kick out of it, because they were just ordinary people who just weren't citizens."

Life at camp

Tribune archives reveal that internees in the camp at Fort Lincoln were kept well-fed, took educational classes and participated in activities. There was a 5,000-book library and recreational facilities that included tennis, badminton, soccer and baseball. A 50-foot ski slope was also built within the camp.

The camp had an 80-acre garden that grew potatoes, corn and other vegetables. Chickens and cows also were raised. Internees were given $3 in camp scrip each month, and those who worked received 10 cents an hour.

There was a 75-bed hospital at the camp. Eleven men died from natural causes, and there were two suicides. Seven parties attempted escape, but were returned unharmed.

There was also a beer "casino," where, at one end, an artist had painted a mural depicting an Austrian dance. Others also painted scenes from their fatherland, a sign that some may have been homesick.

Peak population at the camp was about 1,600. Of the total 4,030 detained there, more than half, 2,188, were paroled or released.

Remembering the camp

All of the buildings at United Tribes Technical College were part of the internment camp. Some buildings still remain.

In 2003, UTTC opened an exhibit called "Snow Country Prison" to remember the internment camp at Fort Lincoln. Neumann said a long-term project of the college is to renovate the hospital building to remember the history of the campus and to recognize the names of the internees.

Marlette Pittman, president of the Missouri Valley Historical Society, said her organization also got a $2,000 grant from Preservation North Dakota to help with renovating the "T-23" building, which Beck said he hopes to have reassembled before the fall.

"I think (the building) gives us a way to show part of the history that has not been shown and not known by a lot of people," Pittman said. "It's important because it happened here. Some of the people from that camp stayed here. It had a real impact on our area ... because it brought people here who wouldn't probably have come."