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The War Begins: The United States Navy and the German Cruiser Cormoran

March 28, 2017 | By Dennis Conrad, Ph.D., Histories and Archives Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
For the United States Navy, the first "engagement" of World War I was marked by kindness rather than violence, and humanitarianism as opposed to pugnacity. S.M.S. Cormoran, a Russian passenger liner captured by the Germans and converted into a commerce raider, had been cruising the Pacific when it ran short of coal. Unable to find a supply and after near-encounters with much stronger Australian and Japanese warships, Cormoran, burning coconut husks for fuel, sought refuge in Apra harbor at Guam territory owned by the then-neutral United States--on 13 December 1914. Rather than the 1,500 tons of coal Capt. Adalbert Zuckschwerdt requested, the American commander, with his own shortage to contend with, could offer only 200 tons. 1,500 tons would have allowed Cormoran to reach German East Africa; 200 tons would not allow him to steam anywhere except possibly to islands already occupied by Germany's enemies.

Under international law, Zuckschwerdt and his ship had to leave Guam within twenty-four hours or be interned for the duration of the hostilities. He chose the latter. The internment agreement specified that Cormoran deliver up various parts of their armament, rendering them inoperative, but did allow the ship to keep the ship's machinery operational and to keep a small supply of coal aboard Cormoran so as to allow the ship to leave the harbor for the open sea should weather conditions become so serious as to threaten the safety of the ship. The ship and crew settled in at Guam and nothing material changed until word that the United States and Germany were at war reached the island the morning of 7 April 1917. Capt. Roy C. Smith, the military governor on Guam, sent two officers to tell Zuckschwerdt that a state of war existed and that the German captain and his men were now prisoners-of-war and that the Cormoran must be given up to the Americans. At the same time, the USS Supply moved into position to block the entrance of the harbor to prevent the Germans from attempting to flee.

USS Supply photographed before World War I, possibly during one of her long periods of duty as station ship at Guam. Donation of Captain Stephen S. Roberts, USNR (Retired), 2008. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Accompanying Smith's two emissaries, though in a separate vessel, a slower, larger barge, was Lt. W. A. Hall. Hall had been designated prize master and was to take control of Cormoran after the German surrender. With him he had brought eighteen sailors and a marine guard of fifteen men. En route to the German ship, Hall encountered a small boat from Cormoran towing a barge to shore to pick up provisions. On his own initiative, Hall decided to put shots across the bow of this small boat, force it to heave to, and capture it. He ordered a marine, Cpl. Michael B. Chockie, to fire a shot ahead of the German boat, which Chockie did. This was the first American shot of the war.

When Lt. Karl Gebhard, the launches' commander, did not heed the shot, Hall ordered another Marine to open fire as well. The two marksmen fired at opposite ends of the German launch, drawing nearer it with each shot until Gebhard, obviously shocked at what was going on, finally hove to. In the meantime, the two officers representing the governor, Lt. Owen Bartlett and Lt. William Lafrenz, reached the ship. When he met with Bartlett LaFrenz remained in the launch--Zuckschwerdt agreed to surrender his men but refused to turn over the ship.

Bartlett then informed the German captain that the defenseless Cormoran would be treated as an enemy combatant and left the ship to report to the American governor. What the Americans did not know was that the crew of Cormoran had secreted an explosive device under a hidden panel in the coal bunker. Minutes after the American officers departed, Cormoran erupted, debris was hurled across the harbor, and the crew began abandoning ship. Literally minutes later, Cormoran sank. Bartlett and LeFrenz immediately turned the launch around, raced to the site and began picking up survivors. Hall, too, released Gebhard and his boat with orders to save his comrades. Supply, too, moved into position and began picking up German sailors in the water.

Thanks to this quick American response, all but seven of the roughly 370 men serving aboard the cruiser were saved. Zuchschweldt was effusive in praising the Americans for their efforts. There was one last act of kindness during the day. When Zuchschweldt arrived at the dock he ordered one of his men to destroy the engine of the Cormoran's launch. While the sailor swung a sledge hammer destroying the motor, a Marine sentry, viewing the act as sabotage, took aim at the sailor. However, a nearby marine officer deflected the muzzle of the sentry's weapon, thus preventing bloodshed.

This brief encounter at Guam resulted in the first violence of the war, the first Germans killed in action with the United States, the first German prisoners of war captured by the United States forces, and the first shots fired between the U.S. and Germany. Despite this, it was an incident marked more by kindness and humanity than hostility and carnage as American Navy personnel acted quickly and labored hard to save their new enemies rather than to destroy them. It seems fitting that the U.S., the "reluctant" belligerent, would start the war in such a manner.

View of the U.S. Naval Base in Apra Harbor in 1945.    
Sources: Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command website, profile for Supply II (Supply Ship). Charles Burdick. The Frustrated Raider: The Story of the German Cruiser Cormoran in World War I. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. Cmdr. Owen Bartlett, "Destruction of S.M.S. 'Cormoran'." United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 57 (1931), 1044-51. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 45, ?Subject File, JT, 1911-1927, relating to the German Cruiser, Cormoran; and Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy General Correspondence No. 9351-19395: 28-80, relating to the German Cruiser, Cormoran.