In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with a plan to receive from Italy, 1000 refugees of World War II. Each refugee was required to sign a contract that stated that they agreed they would leave the United States when the war was over. One thousand of 3,000 applicants were chosen. Priority was given to families, and those that had been in concentration camps. Young men of fighting age were not allowed to apply. On the date of departure only 982 of the refugees arrived to board the U.S.S. Gibbons, headed to America to escapes the horrors of Hilter. It is unknown what happened to the other 18. Each person was required to wear a 'casual baggage tag', a stark reminder that they had no legal status past visitor. The voyage was dangerous as there were submarine attacks and points where German planes flew overhead. But the ship arrived safely in a port in New Jersey. Soon after arrival, however, the refugees became suspicious when they were told to load a train that would take them 200 miles to Oswego, NY. Many of the refugees feared they were set up to travel on to a concentration camp.
Oswego, NY was chosen by Roosevelt because it was the site of some old Army quarters, Fort Ontario, that was not being used at that time. The fear of the refugees grew worse upon arrival at Fort Ontario when they saw outside of their train windows a camp that was enclosed with fencing topped with rows of barbed wire. The new arrivals were sure they had been fooled into being shipped off to a concentration camp and they refused to disembark at Fort Ontario. Eventually the US troops took the celebration feast that had been set up for these new arrivals and carried this food to each individual at their seats on the train. The story is that one lone man convinced the group that because they had not eaten this well in years they should all get off the train.
The refugees were set up in barracks that had been converted to small apartments with cots, a trunk and a few wooden chairs. The community had a church that all religions shared, a health center, a theater house, a bowling alley and a gymnasium. These buildings were all left behind from when this facility served as an Army location. The new residents were quarantined for 30 days. Upon their arrival, the local Oswego residents came and looked through the fence at them and these new residents felt like they were on display like monkeys in a zoo. But quickly that sentiment changed as the local residents would come to the fence every day and toss over toys and shoes and even a bike. The stories Lois told us could not help but bring some feelings of hope in mankind as we were reminded of the horrors that brought these people here to begin with.
All residents in the camp were required to learn English and all of the children went to school. For some of the children of this war torn world, this would be the first school they had ever attended. After the 30 days of quarantine the residents were allowed out in the community for 6 hours a day, but they were required to sign in and out when they left. This was a good time for the people living here. The people could sleep without fear, the children could run and play and they enjoyed foods they had not been able to get for years during the war.
Eventually the war ended on September 2, 1945. By this time President Roosevelt had died and Truman was in office. While most Americans supported these refugees remaining when the war ended, the U.S. Congress said they had sign agreements that they would depart after the war ended and they were all informed that they were not welcome to stay. Buses were then arranged to take anyone interested across the Rainbow Bridge to Canada to obtain visas where they were able to return with stamped visas from Canada as immigrants and then apply to remain. All but approximately 100 chose this option. All that returned to the US from the Rainbow Bridge were welcomed with open arms to Oswego. Most, while appreciative, did not like the harsh winters and would eventually leave the area for more weather comfortable US locations. This was such a feel good museum, though sad that more could not have been helped. Those that came were from many countries and many professions. Check the pictures below for some of these details on the diversity of people.
Next we went to tour the Fort. The original fort on these grounds was erected in 1755 during the French and Indian War. This fort was attacked and destroyed by British forces during the war of 1812. The five main buildings at the current fort were erected from 1842-1844. As the years passed, the fort would be used for various things including the refugee camp discussed above. We toured the grounds, officer's quarters and enlisted men areas. From the fort we could also see the Lighthouse in the harbor. For more discussion on this fort in its early days, there is much available at the following link: Fort Ontario
After a great lunch we were off to the H Lee White Maritime museum. Here we viewed various old maritime artifacts and also got to tour both the Army LT-5 (John F Nash) that was used at D-Day and also the Derrick Barge Number 8.
The John F Nash was built to serve WWII and was part of the D-Day attack at Normandy France. While many of the Army's tugs would later be decommissioned and scrapped, this ship served as a Great Lakes tug from 1946-1989.
While at the museum we also toured the Derrick Barge Number 8. This is a 200 ton barge that served the New York State Canal system for 60 years. The barge, powered by a steam engine was capable of lifting 150 tons.
The day proved to be yet another most informative day in an unexpected location.
Safe Haven Museum
Two men Per Bunk Times 2 Bunks High
US Army LT-5
US Army LT-5
US Army LT-5