Captain Roy C. Smith, Commandant at Guam, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
To : Secretary of the Navy.
Subject: Destruction of S. M. S. CORMORAN1
1. Demand was made for the surrender of S. M. S. CORMORAN about 8:00 a.m. April 7, 1917. The Captain offered to surrender the crew but declined to surrender the ship. This was refused.
2. The ship was blown up immediately afterwards. The officer making the demand, Lieutenant Owen Bartlett, U.S.N., had barely got clear of the ship. The crew were already jumping overboard. The ship listed to starboard and sank on her ends in two to six minutes.
3. The ship was about 1500 yards from the nearest shore in 22 fathoms water. The Naval Station and the U.S.S. SUPPLY assisted in the rescue. By 9:00 a.m., all had been picked up, including two dead. Three more bodies were recovered later. Two remain missing. The dead, including two warrant officers, were buried in the Naval Cemetery with military honors. The prisoners number 353.
4. Information obtained from the prisoners indicates that the explosion was caused by a service charge of high explosion in a coal bunker on the starboard side forward below the water line. The blast came up through the cabin and bridge, wrecking that part of the ship.2
5. Separate reports are made of the dead, missing, and prisoners.3
Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. There is a slip of paper attached to the top of this report that reads: April 7, 1917./Crew of S. N. S. CORMORAN (German) surrendered to U.S. Naval Officer, but ship blown up.” This typed text is done in red ink.
Footnote 1: Seiner Majestät Schiff (His Majesty’s Ship) Cormoran was a former Russian passenger liner converted into a commerce raider by the Germans. Cruising the Pacific, 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. The Americans were unable to provide the 1,500 tons of coal Capt. Adalbert Zuckschwerdt requested, and so rather than chance being stranded in mid-ocean or being forced to steam to islands occupied by Germany’s enemies, Zuckschwerdt chose to be interned for the duration of the hostilities. Charles Burdick, The Frustrated Raider: The Story of the German Cruiser Cormoran in World War I (Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979).
Footnote 2: After learning of the American declaration of war against Germany, Smith, the military governor on Guam, sent two officers to tell Zuckschwerdt that a state of war now existed between the United States and Germany, that the captain and his men were now prisoners-of-war, and that the Cormoran must be surrendered to the Americans. At the same time, the U.S.S. SUPPLY moved into position to block the entrance of the harbor to prevent any German escape attempt. Accompanying Smith’s two emissaries, though in 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 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 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. As seen in the cable, when he met with Bartlett, 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. After the explosion, described in the cable, 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, moved into position and began picking up German sailors as well. Thanks to this quick American response, all but seven of the crew of Cormoran were saved. Zuchschweldt was effusive in praising the Americans for their efforts. This brief encounter at Guam was 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. For the completed story of the Cormoran, see, Charles Burdick, The Frustrated Raider: The Story of the German Cruiser Cormoran in World War I (Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979).
Footnote 3: The reports are no longer with Smith’s cable.