Thursday, March 15, 2018

German Sailors in Hampton Roads, in 1915, and Now

In a panoramic view from the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center at the downtown Norfolk waterfront, the German air-defense frigate Hessen (F 221) is shown docked at Nauticus on March 14, 2018, during a short port visit, alongside the schooner Virginia and the battleship Wisconsin (BB 64). (M.C. Farrington)
A three-postcard series shows a panorama of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1916, with the German commerce raiders (both former luxury liners) Prinz Eitel Friedrich and Kronprinz Wilhelm looming large over Kolonie Etel Wilhelm, the group of over 50 miniature structures known to the thousands of tourists that visited it simply as "the German village." The German sailors who built the village sold postcards such as these to raise money for the German Red Cross. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection
At the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM), we draw great satisfaction in helping visitors, K-12 educators, college students, professors, genealogists, and even scale modelers from across the country with their research projects, but it is always a moment of pride when a book reaches my desk that we helped an author create. 

German Sailors in Hampton Roads: A World War I Story at the Norfolk Navy Yard (History Press: Charleston, SC, 2018)
An excellent example is the new book German Sailors in Hampton Roads by Gregory Hansard, who teaches history and museum studies at John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia. While researching photographs at the Virginia Historical Society (now known as the Virginia Museum of History and Culture) a few years ago, he came across some unusual postcards of German passenger liners lying peacefully at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  A postcard panorama from the time shows dozens of cute little cottages in front of the liners, in stark contrast to the drab shipyard buildings in the rest of the image.  It didn't take him long to learn that the ships were in the midst of one of the strangest sojourns in naval history.  They had carved a global path of destruction across the world's sea lanes during the opening months of World War I, and, despite having sunk 25 merchant vessels between them (including an American barque) along the way, the raiders had been allowed to proceed unmolested into Hampton Roads in early 1915.

His curiosity piqued, Hansard embarked on a journey of exploration that took him from the Library of Virginia in Richmond to the National Archives in Washington DC, and finally to museums and archives in Hampton Roads, including HRNM.  The fruit of his research gives the reader practically everything there is to know about the unusual way World War I came early to Hampton Roads, and explains why the first belligerents from that war to reach our area were so well-treated.  That is, until Americans began dying on the high seas as a result of German naval activities, indirectly resulting in the American declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.

The German army had cemented their reputation for ruthless barbarity during their invasion of Belgium in August 1914, yet seven months after setting out from China (the place Kaiser Wilhelm II first told his troops to behave as "Huns") on their mission of destruction at around the same time, the 800 or so German sailors who entered Hampton Roads with British and French warships on their heels were regarded by many Americans, according to Hansard, as "courteous pirates."

Even Captain H.H. Kiehne of the merchant ship William P. Frye, the first American ship destroyed by the Germans during World War I, became friends with the man who destroyed his ship and took him, his wife, and his crew as prisoners: Captain Max T. Thierichens of the raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich.  The German captain even sought advice from his American prisoner as to the best way to get to Newport News, their original destination.  "Without Kiehne's guidance," wrote Hansard, "the Eitel may have never made it to safety."

It might have been easy to explain away Kiehne's actions as that of a man simply trying to preserve the lives of his family and crew, but taking into account the multiple visits the captain, his wife, and even "a group of ladies" they brought with them back to the German vessels after their release, plus the eight kegs of beer and cigars sent to the German sailors by the Frye's crew, it seems clear that the Germans interned at Norfolk Naval Shipyard were a different breed of warrior.  Some American commentators even went so far as to compare the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, favorably, it seems, with the legendary CSS Alabama, adding to its regional cachet.

"Despite the case of the Frye and potential threats to neutrality," wrote Hansard, "the German sailors were not seen as villains but as members of the Hampton Roads community, where they would live comfortably for eighteen months."  The strange interlude for the Germans, however, finally ended when their village was swept away and their ships were moved to Philadelphia in September 1916.  After war was declared, the ships were confiscated and pressed into the Atlantic Fleet's Cruiser and Transport Force, while the sailors were shipped south to prisoner-of-war camps in Georgia, where they would remain until the end of the war.
As seen from the Portsmouth side, Prinz Eitel Friedrich passes the Norfolk waterfront on its way to Philadelphia in September 1916. She would serve under the American flag during the war as the troopship USS DeKalb. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection)
Blasting the 1980s Sammy Hagar song, "Winner Takes it All," from its loudspeakers, the Sachsen-class frigate FGS Hessen (F 221) comes about on the Elizabeth River just off the pier at Nauticus after a three-day visit to Norfolk, Virgnia.  Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Hospital Point Park can be seen in the background (M.C. Farrington)
Just after opening the package and getting a first look at the new book, I was informed that a German frigate had moored right behind our museum.  At first, it would seem that the visit might be a poignant reminder of historical continuity, but the visit's circumstances couldn't have been more different than those surrounding SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich and SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm 103 years ago.
FGS Hessen, seen here with the carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), deployed with the Truman Strike Group in 2010.  (U.S. Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park via Wikimedia Commons)
The three-day visit of FGS Hessen (F 221) to Norfolk was quite brief and low-key by comparison to its swashbuckling forebears.  After its successful participation in a Composite Training Unit Exercise with the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, it was simply in town for a couple of days before deploying operationally as an integrated part of the group. The circumstances were quite routine, but that is what makes it remarkable; a German ship seamlessly working as part of an American strike group set to deploy on missions around the world.

Visits of German warships to our area were far from new, even in 1915.  A German naval contingent participated in the Hampton Roads International Naval Rendezvous in 1893, and ships that would later take part in the Battle of Jutland visited Hampton Roads in 1912.  Today, however, there is no preening nor sabre-rattling.  Neither is there any pomp and circumstance.  They're just another part of the team now.

Gregory Hansard will be speaking about his new book at the MacArthur Memorial in downtown Norfolk on April 11 for the Norfolk Historical Society Lecture Series

No comments: