The Asama Maru Incident

The Full Story: Diplomacy and Legal Nicities

In 1940, Britain and Japan became embroiled in a diplomatic interchange relating to the interception of a Japanese liner by Liverpool little more than thirty miles off the coast of Japan. In many respects, the diplomacy was a substitute for the naval engagement which was only narrowly avoided during the course of the original incident.

The chain of events began when S.S. Columbus, the third largest and one of the most luxurious vessels in the German merchant fleet, left Vera Cruz (Mexico) for Germany on the 14th December 1939. She was shadowed by U.S. warships of the Neutrality Patrol, which transmitted her position in plain language. These signals led the British destroyer Hyperion to Columbus on the 19th December, some three hundred miles off the coast of Virginia; but the German crew lost no time in destroying the vessel by fire. The Germans were soon picked up from their life boats and landed back in the United States where British intelligence tracked their movements.

Within a month, a report was received in London that all of the crew had taken passage in the 17,000 ton Japanese liner Asama Maru, which had left San Francisco on 6th January, heading for Yokohama via Honolulu. (Report: Los Angeles Times, 4 January 1940.) Acting upon this information, the Admiralty instructed Liverpool to intercept the liner and to detain the Germans. Liverpool sailed from Hong Kong on the 16th January and, with her powerful double frame FM7 D/F aerials, was able to track the routine radio transmissions from Asama Maru as she made her way across the Pacific. Without radar, Liverpool could ascertain only the direction of the Japanese liner, so interception necessarily had to take place close to her intended destination. Although Liverpool sought to stay clear of Japanese coastal traffic, close contact with a small freighter proved unavoidable. Quickly, the Japanese flag was hoisted in an attempted ruse. Feeling that the red, white and blue roundals on her Walrus aircraft were something of a give-away, one of Liverpool’s catapult crew improvised some make-shift drapes.

Visual contact was made with the liner on January 21st when the two vessels were off Cape Noshima, just thirty-five miles from the Japanese coast off Nojima Zaki, Chiba Prefecture and within sight of Mount Fujiama which was showing above low cloud. At about 12.50 hours, Asama Maru was directed by flag signals to stop, but a shot across her bows was needed to achieve the desired result. Liverpool closed before sending across a launch with an armed party of thirteen officers and men.

The Japanese captain was given a list of those which Liverpool had been ordered to detain. A search which, according to passengers’ accounts, was conducted courteously, discovered fifty-one Germans on board, of which twenty-one were removed together with their baggage. Two other Germans succeeded in concealing themselves. All the detainees were technicians and thirteen were ship’s officers. On board Liverpool, they were placed under Marine guard for their passage to Hong Kong, during which time a microphone was hidden in a vent in order to eavesdrop upon their conversation.

Liverpool arrived at Hong Kong on the 28th January where the detainees were handed over to the military authorities. Top speed had proved necessary in order to evade Japanese destroyers which had been sent to intercept. While Liverpool was making for Hong Kong, Japanese aircraft had flown over the colony in a show of strength. At that time the total of military aircraft at R.A.F. Kai Tak had consisted of one squadron of nine antiquated Wildebeest torpedo bombers - maximum speed below 100 m.h. - and two Walrus biplanes left behind by Liverpool. There was not a single fighter!

In connection with this incident Japan protested on the basis of Article 47, London Declaration, dated 1909, that only persons actually enlisted in the armed services of belligerent nations could be removed from the ships of neutral countries while Great Britain adhered to the broad interpretation that any male personnel 18 to 50 years of age and physically fit for military service could be taken as prisoners of war whether they were passengers or crew members.


This action occurring very close to the coast of Japan made a deep impression on the people and government of Japan and added to anti-British sentiment of the time. Moreover in the eyes of the Japanese people, the unsatisfactory results of the negotiations with and protest against Great Britain reflected very poorly on the newly-organised Yonai Cabinet. The Japanese Navy did not take any concrete counter-measures during this incident but left diplomatic negotiations to the Foreign Ministry.

On the 22nd January, the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign affairs presented the British Ambassador in Tokyo with a strong note of protest. The Japanese maintained that a belligerent was entitled to take from a neutral ship only ‘those actually embodied in the armed forces’. The British action was a ‘serious and unfriendly act’ and ‘a great shock to public opinion in Japan’, especially as it had occurred so close to Japan. A British Foreign Office spokesman replied that his government claimed the right to detain any German of military age. On the 1st February, the Japanese made a formal protest and asked for the return of the twenty-one men.

In spite of the language of the protest, and an outburst of anti-British feeling in Japan, the Japanese seemed willing to accept a compromise settlement if their prestige were not affected. The War Cabinet therefore agreed to a proposal from the Foreign Office that Britain should offer to return some of the detained Germans if the Japanese would agree not to give passage to Germans of certain prescribed categories. After considerable bargaining over the number of Germans to be returned, an agreement was reached. On the 29th February nine Germans were handed over.

January 2006. From Alexandra Oesterle:

‘My father was among those taken from the Asama Maru. His diary contains an account of this event. In addition to confirming most of your description, I can add that, not only were there individuals from the Columbus on board, but also the crew of the German Tanker Bedford Jr, where my father was the 3rd engineer. Bedford Jr was in Aruba (Central America) when the war started. From here, the crew was sent by passenger ship to New York and by rail to San Francisco. From there the Asama Maru took them, via Honolulu, to Yokohama. Their intention was to return to Germany via Japan. After Liverpool brought them to Hong Kong, the crew was taken to the rest camp at Diyatalawa, Ceylon. Two years later, they were transported to Canada. Only in 1946 did my father return to Germany.’

August 2007. From Shirley Weiss, daughter of an interned Standard Oil seaman (email:

Incredibly, this posting has been the catalyst that enabled me to put together all the pieces regarding the Standard Oil seaman’s experiences during WWII. After years of research, and communications with a number of internment researchers, (David Carter, (Canada) author of POW Behind Canadian Barbed Wire, Art Jacobs (US) from, and Asama Maru researcher, Chester Dunham, (US)) among others, finally a coherent picture has emerged.

Standard Oil civilian seamen were removed from their ships in ports all across the western hemisphere in late 1939. In Canada, and Great Britain the seamen were immediately interned. Since both Canada and Great Britain were in a declared war against Germany, their actions were explainable.

However, US policy in 1939 was still neutral. Perhaps, I should say at least publicly so. It now appears that an arrangement was made with Standard Oil in the last days of August 1939 to remove the seaman from all Standard Oil tankers in US ports in solidarity with the British effort. For US government cover, this removal was presented as a private company action. Even the stipend payments made to the seaman by Standard Oil were cover to maintain the image that it was a private company layoff. The layoff was sold to the men and the public as a necessary step to protect the company’s economic interests from “Nazi” sabotage. All of these actions were taken under the guise of private employer actions.

Obviously, the US was not at war and public sentiment was opposed to involving the US in Europe’s war. After reviewing all the sequence of events with the benefit of hindsight, it is pretty obvious the US government was pulling the levers behind the scenes. Ships were being re registered from nation to nation and entire crews were being replaced what almost appeared to be willy-nilly. Again, in retrospect, chaos and mass confusion created the disguise necessary to mask US government policy in regards to the merchant seamen. I now firmly believe that, from the moment the seamen were removed from their ships, it was the government’s intent to find a way to incarcerate them for the duration.

Critical to the success of the war was the control of the global shipping of goods. Certainly, again in retrospect, the crucial factor which had the greatest impact on winning the war was the civilian merchant marine. Unfortunately, through personal reasons, my research focused on the Standard Oil men. Consequently, I do not know if they were targeted more or less than other civilian axis merchant marines. Although it would seem that the control of oil products would have been paramount, it appears that the Roosevelt administration made some sort of deal with Standard Oil for their cooperation in controlling ‘axis seaman’. Indeed, when the global status of maritime shipping is observed it is difficult to come to the conclusion that the primary reason the Asama Maru incident occurred was to prevent the German seaman from entering the German military. (However, that was a good by-product and very sellable to the public.) Most likely, by controlling repatriation of axis seaman, the allies could better control all shipping across the globe, particularly oil shipping.

The ‘seaman story’ in Canada is probably more important to understanding the seaman situation in the United States than I previously realized. I am sure that much pressure was placed upon Roosevelt to incarcerate the merchant seaman, since England, Canada and perhaps Australia were already interning these men. Since international law required the repatriation of civilian seaman, the Asama Maru was the ginned up incident to give Roosevelt the cover he needed to stop all repatriation.

The question becomes, ‘Why did it take him from January 1940 - after the Asama Maru incident - to May of 1941 to intern the men?’ Undoubtedly, political considerations played the most significant role. 1940 was an American election year and public sentiment was firmly opposed to involvement in Europe’s war. Congressional opposition, the lobbying of industry (particularly Standard Oil) in conjunction with negative public sentiment explains the delay in interning the seaman. More than ever, I am convinced that from the very moment the men were removed from their ships, there was intent to find a way to incarcerate them.

In regard to my father’s application for (and the approval of) ‘voluntary departure status,’ unbeknownst to him, this was an exercise in futility. There was never any intention to allow these men to be repatriated or to voluntarily leave to live in a neutral nation for the duration of the war. Certainly, this is supported by my father gaining voluntary departure status from the INS, only to be denied his passport by a directive from the Department of Justice given to the Standard Oil Company. Again, from the moment they were removed from their ships, the US government was trying to find a way to ‘legitimize’ internment. It would be very interesting to know how the government kept Standard Oil in line. Standard Oil had almost as much power as the US government.

Of course, a couple big questions still remain - what were the diplomatic actions taken by Germany in regards to the interned seaman? It appears, no matter what the bait, Germany resisted involvement in an altercation with the US. Additionally, it sure would be interesting to know what agreements and conditions were made between Standard Oil and the US government regarding the seaman and the global shipping of oil, including shipments to belligerent nations.

Certainly, I would be interested in others’ thoughts. It all seems so obvious now that I have connected the pieces. Just imagine if the international community examined WWII internment collectively how much we could learn regarding whether:

the policies were necessary
the government objectives were reached
the cost to thousands of innocent civilians and their families was justified.