In this two-part series, Curator of Engagement & Dialogue Sinead Cox illuminates how the Second World War entered the walls of the Huron Historic Gaol. Click here for Part One: The ‘Defence of Canada’ in Huron County.
In the summer of 1940, when the Netherlands fell to Nazi Germany, a ripple effect extending to the Great Lakes would unexpectedly commit thirteen “alien seamen” to the Huron Jail.*
At the outset of the Second World War in 1939, the Oranje Line, also known in Dutch as Maatschappij Zeetransport N.V, was a relatively new Dutch-owned transport company that serviced Great Lakes routes. The Line had only commenced operations in 1937, and its fifth vessel in the Great Lakes, the 2,800 ton diesel freighter Prins Willem III was the first deep sea motor ship to come inland and embarked on her maiden voyage in September, 1939.
On May 9th, 1940 the Prins Willem III departed neutral Antwerp, Belgium on a routine commercial journey under Captain W. P. C. Helsdingen. In the course of one day, everything would change. The Prins Willem III was off the coast of Flushing when a German bomb hit the water about 200 yards from the ship and caused a huge explosion and towering pillar of water. Germany had invaded the Netherlands. Planes were flying high and out of sight, but the crew could hear the whining sound of bombs as they fell nearby. Targeted by a machine gun onslaught from Nazi fighter planes, the ship escaped via the English channel. After narrowly surviving with their lives and the boat intact to reach England, the Dutch crew would soon learn that the formerly neutral Netherlands had capitulated and their home county was now occupied by Nazi Germany.
The ship continued on its planned journey to North American waters, docking at Montreal, Duluth, Milwaukee and finally Chicago on June 25th , successfully delivering a cargo of seeds and twine. At Chicago, the crew awaited orders regarding their next destination. Meanwhile, members of the Dutch government, including Queen Wilhelmina, had fled to London, England. The government in exile required all Dutch merchant vessels abroad to now sail under the British Merchant marines, and to report to an allied port to join the war effort: which could include transporting provisions or armaments. Canada being the closest allied country, the Netherlands Shipping Commission ordered the Prins Willem III to return to Montreal and “then embark for some unnamed foreign port,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. 17 out of the 19 crew members refused the orders.
The crew’s actions seemed to defy easy categorization as conscientious objection or mutiny. Captain Helsdingen assured the Chicago press that the men were neither striking, mutinous, nor even refusing to do their assigned jobs aboard the ship, but the crew would not leave the neutral waters of the United States (which would not enter the war until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941). After their ordeal at the mercy of German bombs and guns, reluctance to return to a warzone aboard a ship that was not armed, and would not be provided an armed convoy, is hardly surprising. The Tribune quoted the crew as telling the captain, “If we cannot have weapons, we would rather spend our time in a United States jail than on the ocean.” They also feared for their families in a Nazi-occupied country and whether there could be reprisals against them—extending to arrests and transportation to concentration camps—for helping the allied cause by transporting munitions. According to the captain, the crew of the Prins Willem III feared Germany more than England.
The crew’s ‘sitdown strike’ left Commonwealth, Dutch and American authorities with no easy solutions. The standstill left most of the crew trapped on the ship, with only Captain Helsdingen legally permitted to go ashore. The crewmembers had no immigration documents to legally enter the United States, and because of the ongoing occupation of the Netherlands, the U.S. would not have been easily able to deport the sailors: thus Immigration authorities and the Coast Guard kept a close watch on the ship. The Captain could not take on an American crew to move the ship because of U.S. neutrality, and thus the Prins Willem III remained anchored unmoving at Navy Pier.
American newspaper reports emphasize that, rather than any assumed violent mutiny, the crewmembers were largely friendly and cheerful in their refusal to budge. During their months of isolation on board, the crew busied themselves cleaning, stripping and painting the masts, booms and deck, oiling “everything in sight, from door handles to winches,” and polishing every “spot of brass on the boat to glisten.” The Tribune declared when it finally left Navy Pier the Prins Willem III would probably be “the best painted, best oiled and best polished ship that ever left this port.” By September the crew’s plight had gained the sympathies of Dutch Chicagoans, who organized a committee to deliver care packages to the crew from pleasure boats.
The Dutch government-in-exile, the Oranje Line and Canadian authorities finally devised a solution in October: the Prins Willem III would take on a Canadian crew recruited from Montreal. Ten private police from the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States were hired to come aboard the ship with the fourteen Canadian crew-members to prevent resistance or sabotage, and the ship was escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard during its departure from Chicago. There was ultimately no violence from the crew confined below deck; according to Time Magazine, “internment in Canada looked better to the bored, sequestered Dutch than gazing at the Chicago skyline all day.” Their initial stop according to the American reports was to be an “unannounced Canadian destination,” later specified as an “Ontario Port.” That port was Goderich.
On October 16th, 1940 the Prins Willem III—presumably painted, oiled and polished to perfection—arrived in the Goderich harbour. The secrecy surrounding the chosen port for the uncooperative crew’s disembarkment meant local customs workers were completely surprised by the ship’s unscheduled arrival, and began a tentative dialogue with Captain Helsdingen regarding next steps while further instructions from Ottawa were awaited. Again, the original crewmembers of the Prins Willem III were stuck in limbo on board, and again they made the most of it: according to the Clinton News-Record they came on deck “under the watchful eye of two [Pinkerton] detectives…getting great enjoyment out of perch fishing from the stern of the ship while they whistled modern American airs.” A local crowd of curious onlookers gathered at the harbour to gawk at the ship from a distance, and a host of exaggerated rumors quickly travelled throughout the community, including that the crew were held in irons and guarded by machine gun-wielding “G-men.”
Three days later, thirteen crew members quietly disembarked from the ship during the night, escorted by the RCMP in batches of no more than two men at a time.** Police vehicles delivered these men to the Huron Jail. The remaining crew changed their minds and agreed to sail with Captain Helsdingen and the Canadians. The Prins Willem III had vanished from the Goderich harbour by the next morning, and the Pinkerton Detectives caught a train back to Chicago.
The crew’s confines on land might have been somewhat tighter and less comfortable than their previous situation on board the Prins Willem III. Detailed inmate records are not accessible from the 1940s, but regardless of how many prisoners were already ‘guests of the county’ at the time, the arrival of thirteen ‘alien seamen’ would have left the Huron Jail, which has only twelve cells, over-capacity and somewhat crowded. The crew, who may not have all spoken fluent English, would have received daily food rations worth 13 ¼ cents per inmate and would only be able to take fresh air from inside the jail’s walled courtyards.
The thirteen Dutchmen remained in jail for three weeks, until removed under RCMP guard on the afternoon of Saturday, November 9th; they left Goderich by rail. Their destination upon leaving Huron County was once again a mystery to the media and the public, but widely assumed to be a Canadian internment camp, where POWs, Jewish refugees from Europe, and civilian ‘enemy aliens’ of differing loyalties could be forced to cohabitate.
Captain Helsdingen and the Prins Willem III continued on to Montreal to enter into the service of the allies as originally ordered by the Dutch government-in-exile so many months earlier. The temporary Canadian replacements would eventually be relieved by a Dutch crew, and the boat outfitted with anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, but the Captain was to face continued refusals of work from his crew throughout the war. Confirming the original crew’s fears, an aerial torpedo struck the Prins Willem III off the coast of Algiers in March, 1943; the ship later capsized and sank, resulting in eleven deaths. None of the original crew from the Chicago sojourn were amongst the lives lost.
The international incident caused by the Prins Willem III in the Great Lakes may be largely forgotten today, but the plight of its crew demonstrates that the North American homefront was not always as peaceful or untouched by the conflict in Europe as we might imagine. Overnight, the capitulation of the Netherlands had left the crew of the Prins Willem III in a precarious situation after enduring a surely traumatizing ordeal during the Nazi invasion on May 10th, 1940. Facing uncertainty in the custody of North American authorities, versus what they might have deemed as an almost certain death re-entering a war zone without adequate protections, they took action (or rather inaction) that stymied multiple governments and brought the repercussions of the Second World War to an ‘Ontario Port’ as apparently nondescript as ours.
*A note on spelling: Jail & gaol are alternative spellings of the same word, pronounced identically. Both spellings were used throughout the history of the Huron Historic Gaol fairly interchangeably. Although as a historic site the Huron Historic Gaol uses the ‘G’ spelling more common to the nineteenth century, for this article I have chosen to employ the ‘J’ spelling that appeared more consistently in the 1940s.
** Newspaper reports record 16 crew members jailed, but the Jailer’s Report to Council for 1940 recorded 13 “alien seamen,” and this is also the number given by Martine van der Wielen-de Goede, who reviewed crewmembers’ testimonies later in London (see sources below).
Special thanks to Alana Toulin & Christina Williamson for research assistance that made this blog post possible!
Internment in Canada via the Canadian Encyclopedia: https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/internment
Internment resources from Library and Archives Canada: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/Pages/thematic-guides-internment-camps.aspx
Gillham, Skip, “The Oranje Line,” Telescope, Volume XXX, No. 5. (Sept-Oct 1981), pg 116-117.
Malcolm, Ian M, Shipping Losses of the Second World War, (Brinscombe Port Stroud: The History Press, 2013).
van der Wielen-de Goede, Martine, “Varen of brommen Vier maanden verzet tegen de vaarplicht op de Prins Willem III, zomer 1940,” Tijdschrift voor Zeegeschiedenis, No. 1 (Jan. 2008) Via https://docplayer.nl/173449011-Ten-geleide-tijdschrift-voor-zeegeschiedenis.html
“At Sea: Open Lanes.” Time Magazine, October 21, 1940, pg 29.
“Canada Jails 16 Dutch Seamen After Mutiny.” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 11, 1940.
“Dutch Crew Jailed.” The Wingham Advance-Times, October 17, 1940.
“Dutch Sailors Removed.” Huron Expositor, November 15, 1940.
“Dutch Sailors to Jail.” Clinton News-Record, October 24, 1940.
“Dutch Freighter Arrives in Goderich.” Clinton News-Record, October 17, 1940.
“Escapes Bombing; Reaches Chicago: Unloads Seeds, Twine.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 27, 1940.
“Explains Dutch Sailors’ ‘strike’: They Fear Nazis.” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 28, 1940.
“Members of Crew Interned.” The Seaforth News, October 17, 1940.
“Sitdown Strike Strands Dutch Ship in Chicago.” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 26, 1940.
“Stranded Dutch Ship Sails with Canadian Crew: Idle Force Lets Sailors Aboard Quietly.” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 8, 1940.
“Strikers Mark Time.” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1940.
Wilson, Edward. “Aye, There’s Rub to Life Aboard Dutch Freighter: Crew Keeps Busy Polishing and Painting Ship.” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 7, 1940.