U.S. Merchant Marine in WWI and SMS Wolf

During my lectures about WWI research, there is usually some with a question about researching members of the Merchant Marine. While I revised and expanded my book about researching WWI ancestors, I definitely wanted to include information about the U.S. Merchant Marine. It can be difficult to research the Merchant Marine in WWI, so I spent some time looking for both obvious and less obvious sources to learn about and understand their experiences.

In this post, I will demonstrate the use of a less obvious source: contemporary accounts. It is very helpful to have contemporary accounts from the time so readily available for the Great War (World War I). Many of the contemporary books are out of copyright and accessible to us over the internet. These accounts are useful in our research and for understanding that range of experiences that people had during the war. 

Newspapers remain a solid resource to use for this research, but some stories were not reported at the time, and some details might have been suppressed. Personal accounts, published close to the time of WWI, can provide facts and fill in the details of experiences that we might have learned from conversation with participants.

I read three books about prisoners of war, held on the German surface raider SMS Wolf that provided insights into the experiences of captured mariners and passengers. All the books were all page-turners. The level of personal insight was as candid as a diary, but with the benefit of being better edited. The authors had similarities in their narratives about the events and the food, but sometimes offered different perspectives based on their roles and even about different crew members.

Captain Cameron and Nita
Captain Cameron and Nita

“Ten Months in A German Raider: A Prisoner of War Aboard the Wolf,” was written by Captain John Stanley Cameron, the Master of the American Bark Beluga. This book was illustrated with several photographs. Captain Cameron, his wife and child were captured 15,000 miles away from the fighting, in the South Pacific. His commentary included the fact that some of the prize crew were actually American seaman, who had worked on American ships but went “home” to Germany to enlist when war began. He expressed his sadness about the deliberate destruction of good ships. He reported that the number of people grew a total of 800 people onboard Wolf. Cameron also included the stories of the fourteen captured vessels in an appendix to the book.

“A Captive on a German Raider” was written by F. G. Trayes in 1918. The author was a British Professor who had left Siam after a long posting to sail home with his wife on the Japanese Mail Steam Ship Hitachi Maru. In the book he shares details of life in captivity, including the “Rules and Regulations for Onboard the German Auxiliary Ship ‘Hitachi Maru’ Detained Enemy Subjects.” He shared that only three of the officers on Wolf were from Imperial Navy, with the other officers being from the German mercantile marine. He also reported the dire conditions of over 400 prisoners kept onboard Wolf. The ten thousand cases of canned crab that Hitachi Maru had been transporting were mentioned as becoming a reviled food.

Captain Donaldson and the SS Matunga
Captain Donaldson and the SS Matunga

In “The Amazing Cruise Of The German Raider ‘Wolf’,” Captain Donaldson of SS Matunga offered a perspective different than the other two authors. As a crew member from a combatant country, he and his crew were kept prisoners below decks and always kept on Wolf. SS Matunga also had officers returning from leave take at home in Australia. His civilian passengers were treated better. His book was well illustrated with personal pictures and maps of the events during Wolf‘s cruise.

Captain Donaldson’s begins the story of Wolf before he was taken captive, using the German Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Karl August Nerger’s words to tell the story. With an inauspicious beginning to its cruise, Wolf had only succeeded getting underway on its third attempt. It was disguised as a merchant ship to elude casual visual inspection of ships that passed near, and kept its weapons hidden. It had also been involved in laying mines at various locations that had caused interruptions on the sea that were attributed to U-boats.

Wolf found ships to prey upon by eavesdropping on open wireless conversations. Wolf carried a seaplane hidden between decks, called Wolfchen. Wolfchen would act as a scout to investigate targeted ships and spot enemy ships. When not in use, it was kept out of sight of other ships. 2.5 hours were required to put her together when she was brought up to the deck to use. Once the prey was within reach, Wolf would threaten to fire upon the ship if any transmission was attempted. In fact, Wolf had a transmitter powerful enough to jam any signals sent by another ship.

There were prisoners from twenty nations kept on Wolf, but the only fighting that that Captain Donaldson had witnessed was between British sailors who were having personal disagreements. The crew from the Japanese “Hitachi Maru” were also belligerents, and were kept separate from other prisoners. Her officers were prisoners, but some of their members elected to work for the Germans. Her Captain eventually committed suicide.

It was interesting to compare the experiences of the authors who were taken captive by Germany’s Wolf. A common thread was that the combatants and laborers were kept below decks, and some agreed to work for and be paid by the Germans. The passengers and non-combatant officers were treated better, staying in officers’ quarters. They were shuttled between captured ships and Wolf.

Donaldson’s book shared insights about the Germans, and included more about the story of Captain Cameron’s daughter, Anita, and her mischief onboard Wolf.

While on Wolf, the passengers feared that they would be sunk on an enemy vessel, but Captain Nerger assured them they were safe. He could receiver all the wireless messages from the ships cruising in the vicinity, he could avoid those posing a danger. Wolf also picked up news from the wireless and circulated it to the passengers.

Wolf used captured ships to replenish her stores and coal supply. The first captured ship was used  to lay mines. The other captured ships would detach from the marauding Wolf, then join up after another conquest. The prize crews capturing the ships were small, but very well armed. When the coal ran out of a captured ship, they would strip it, then destroy it.

The Captain and German officers often said that they would let the passengers off at a neutral port, but this never happened. For all the months imprisoned on Wolf, there was no word of the prisoners; stopping at port to file a report about prisoners or disembark non-combatants would alert the enemy of the raider’s activities and position.

Donaldson brought up several discrepancies in Nerger’s story. In one case, he asserted that the Ford cars sunk on the captured John H. Kirby were not armored for battlefield use, but rather intended for regular motorists.

Captain Nerger wanted to bring the Hitachi Maru back to Germany, but when she ran low on coal, the Captain elected to sink her. The Spanish steam ship Igotz Mendi was subsequently captured and used as a collier (coaling ship), with Wolf‘s crew working to repair her, and painting her.

After sailing through the tropics of the South Pacific for months, Trayes, Captain Cameron and the other passengers had been transferred to Igotz Mendi to rendezvous with Wolf after a cold trip back to Germany. Once in Germany, they would be placed in a prisoner camp for civilians. Under cover of a fog, the German crew tried to pass through the waters of the Skagerrak on their way to Kiel, but Igotz Mendi ran aground hours outside of Germany. In spite of the prize crew’s attempts to get a Danish tugboat to set them free. The Danish tugboat captain had grown suspicious about the nature of the ship, and brought in Danish naval authorities to intervene. After investigating, the Danish authorities freed the passengers and interned the prize crew.

Donaldson and the other prisoners on Wolf were not saved before arriving at the port of Kiel. He and his Australian mercantile marine were imprisoned. He traveled to various prison camps during his time as a prisoner of war, and he described the camps, activities and meals. After the Armistice, he made his way out of Germany to London, and managed to sail on a ship home on Christmas Eve, 1918. He sailed home on a former German ship.

After leaving Kiel with a crew of 375 men, Wolf had claimed fourteen boats, seven steamers and seven sailing ships in its 15 months of raiding.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cameron, John Stanley. Ten Months in A German Raider: A Prisoner of War Aboard the Wolf. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918, https://books.google.com/books?id=zjjHAAAAMAA.

Donaldson, A.  “The Amazing Cruise Of The German Raider ‘Wolf’.” Sydney: New Century Press, 1918, https://archive.org/details/amazingcruiseofg00dona.

Trayes, F. G. A Captive on a German Raider. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, October 1918, https://books.google.com/books?id=JJ8MAAAAYAAJ.

Using WWI Morning Reports on Fold3

Using WWI Morning Reports on Fold3

Those who have seen my lectures, read my books or visited my WWI Facebook pages know that Morning Reports have proven to be one of my favorite resources for researching an individual who served in the Army in WWI. The 1,748 reels of 35mm microfilm containing the Morning Reports for 1912-19 have been digitized and are now available on Fold3.

There reports are created by a company or detachment and contain the important details of the daily status of in the life of an Army company: where and how they traveled; names of those who joined or left the company; who was transferred to a hospital or sick in quarters;  names of those wounded or casualties; disciplinary actions; and promotions. Additionally you can the statistical information about the company for each day, including how many horses and mules attached to the company, both serviceable and unserviceable. This data was used to build other summary reports like the company histories that appear regimental histories. The rosters include the individual’s presence in a company. Individuals’ data would appear in their personnel file, but for those whose research soldiers whose files were burned, these are reports can assist in reconstructing those files.

Having these records online is a huge advantage for researchers. A trip to STL to view the reels in person was wonderful, but had to be planned in advance to be sure that the records and the equipment used to view them would be available. Most of our time had been spent in photographing and photocopying the records. Because of the viewing equipment, the photographs were not good representations of the cards, and the cost of photocopies was significant. Because of time limits, we had focused on Company B’s Morning Reports and other companies in the regiment only for September 1918 when members of the regiment participated in the Saint-Mihiel Offensive. Still, the records and the trip had been amazing. Now, from home or a local library, these records can be viewed and images of them can be downloaded without prior planning.

As I examined these records it was clear that a researcher might want to go beyond looking at the records of one company. The records of other companies of a regiment might fill in gaps left by other companies’ records. One example is how the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment ended the war. They traveled home on two different ships, and while the Morning Reports of Company B for July 1919 were not available at NPRC (and so cannot be found on Fold3), Company C’s Morning Reports  described how the other companies of the regiment that sailed on the USS Wilhelmina finished their service:

3 July Debarked from U.S.S. Wilhelmina at Pier 8 Hoboken N.J. About 11 AM. Boarded Ferry at Pier 3 arrived L.I. entrained at L.I. for Camp Mills, N.Y. Arrived Camp Mills about 3 PM.

4 – 5 July Camp Mills, N.Y.

6. July Marched from Camp Mills, N.Y. to Clinton Road Station about 5 A.M. entrained at station for Camp Upton, N.Y. arrived Camp Upton about 10.30 AM Turned in Equipment

Although you can search US World War I records for the term “morning reports” it is easier to access The U.S. Morning Reports Publication Page directly.

U.S, Morning Reports search page

Knowledge of using the index to find the reel numbers would be import if your plan is to browse the records. I did know the reel number for the 51st Pioneer Infantry, so I could browsed Category: Morning Reports, 1912-1939 then selecting Roll 0402. (Other detachments appear on other reels.)

Browse the records

This was cumbersome. Since this Fold3 Publication is 99% Complete at the time this blog post was written, I recommend using the search.

Search Results for 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment

With over 2 thousand results this would be tedious to search. As you can see, each page of the Morning Reports is returned as a result. There will be several pages per month.

51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment Company B Search

There were only 634 Results, but many were not from the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment. They may have referenced the 51st Pioneer Infantry. (Putting the term “Company B” within quotation marks was ignored in the search box.)

51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment Company B Search

Whether searching for the Regiment or Company, click on a record for the organization you want to search to open it.

51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment Company B Results Image

Then click in the box with the navigation bread crumb trail (or just click on the down arrow at the end of the path). This opens the image in an image browser.

Image Viewer Breadcrumb Trail Window

This opens a pane to navigate to any of the Morning Reports for Company A.

Browse the collections

I was interested in Company B’s Morning Reports, so I select Company B, 51st Pioneer Infantry.

Browse to Company B, 51st Pioneer Infantry

This took me to where I could navigate to all the available Company B Morning Reports.

navigate to all the available Company B Morning Reports

I clicked on “Feb 1918” and can now see the images for this month’s Morning Report. There is usually a card inserted at the beginning of the Morning Reports for each Company’s that was used as a visual divider. (See Page 1 below.)

Navigate to Feb 1918 Morning Report

At the beginning of each month is a cover sheet. Pay attention to this, as it lists the company, regiment, month and year of the report. The information on this page tells us that prior to this month, the organization was 10th NY Inf NG (Infantry, National Guard).

Cover sheet for Company's Morning Reports

Some issues I encountered:

Some months were missing (They might be missing from the original reels.)

Some months that were missing were filed with a different year’s records. For example, one company’s Morning Reports for Jan 1918 also contained the Morning Reports for Jan 1919

Suggested strategy:

Navigate to the company of the individual you are researching using the search feature.

Find an image for the regiment, or best for the company and click on it

Use the bread crumb to open the navigation pane to select the company and month of the first Morning Report you want to view

Download the Morning Reports for each month the individual was with the company (I used a separate folder for each month)

Transcribe the entries relating to the individual you are researching, as well as the significant movements and events for the company to put together their story

Searching can be awkward, but by using a combination of searching, using the bread trails and the arrows in the image viewer, you can relive the events of a company (or other organization) during WWI.

For help with Fold3 features, such as downloading records, see the Fold3 Training Center.

Finding WWI U.S. Army Rosters

New Blog Post

Another great resource for researching soldiers in WWI that has come online are the Muster Rolls and Rosters at FamilySearch. Using these records, you can trace your a service member throughout his service in the U.S. Army in WWI.

US WWI Muster Roster Rolls on FamilySearch

These records are not indexed, so using them will take a little work. These are digital images of the filmstrips that you would be using at the National Archives and Records Administration in St. Louis, Missouri.

You will need a free account at FamilySearch to access these records, but if you are not using FamilySearch, you should be.

In order to use these records, you need to know the military organization(s) to which your ancestors belonged. A good start is using the VA Master Index to locating the first organization to which he was assigned. From there, following him in each roster, you might be able to trace his transfers between organizations.

This List of Authorized Abbreviations World War I Service Discharge Cards is a valuable reference for deciphering military abbreviations of the time.

Starting Place: The VA Master Index

I used the VA Master Index for Joseph F. McMahon, which showed his first military organization as Co B 51 Pion Inf. (In real words, this translates to Co B of the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment.) To help, there is a Blog post about using the VA Master Index.

VA Master index card

Next Step: Search for the soldier’s first military organization

Searched the Muster Rolls and Rosters at FamilySearch for the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment, I learned the description was “Pioneer Inf.” Be flexible when searching. I would not have located the regiment searching for “51st” and there were many “51” on the page. Searching for “Pion” was fairly efficient.

51st Pioneer Infantry roster entry

When you see the little camera icon on the right, that means there are digital images of the record to view on the website! Click on the camera to go to the filmstrip.

Viewing the filmstrip on the website can be intimidating, but it is a lot easier than using an actual filmstrip. More than one frame at a time can be seen.

Digital Filmstrip

I can click on the Image with “51st Pioneer Inf Regt” and see that Image 12 is where the muster rolls begin. (You may wish to record that number in case you want to revisit the records.)

The Images marked “SPACER” are between the separate documents for the same organization. The images marked “NEW ORGN BEGINS” will be key to finding where the first muster rolls for Company B are.

New Organization Begins marker

The first group of Muster Rolls are for the Headquarters Company.  You can double-click on an Image to go it. From there you can use the arrows to move forward and backward through the filmstrip images. If you want to go back to seeing the browse multiple images, click on the button in the navigation menu on the left with all the small boxes.

Viewing an image on the filmstrip

Since the records are not indexed, checking the Image where a new organization begins, then browsing the multiple images will help location where Company B begins. Image 249 is where Company B’s records begin. On the Image, we can see that to go backward in time, we would have to look at rolls for the 10th New York Infantry Regiment (which was the predecessor of the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment).

I need to know when Joseph F. McMahon Served with the 51st Pioneers to be able to locate him in a roster. He enlisted on 5/28/18, so I check for the new muster rolls after each SPACER to see the dates.

The first page of the organization's rosters

Image 265 is for 30 April to 30 June 1918.

The first roster for the organization

By using the arrows to scan the pages of the Muster Roll, I locate him. This record shows when he joined the organization.  

sample roster entry

At the end of the Muster Roll, soldiers lost are listed. This soldier was lost through transfer. If I were researching him, his date of transfer would be known so I could pick up the search for him in the next organization (Provisional Depot, shortened to Prov Dep).

sample roster lost by transfer entry

Through these records you should be able to track your soldier through the organizations in which he served. Of course, I recommend downloading the records you find, complete with citations. Another thing I recommend is building a timeline for his service, and add the organizations along with dates of his service in them.

The only time I have had a problem following a soldier through the rosters is when the military unit disbanded. In that case, some historical research would be in order to figure out if the soldiers were transferred en masse into another organization.

Did My Ancestor Serve in WWI?

New Blog Post

In the past, I answered that question by recommending searching for information at home, searching through the U.S. Army Transport Records that documented a veteran’s trip overseas, consulting state service abstracts or contacting the National Personnel Records Center.

Now, one of the most helpful sets of records to answer that question has come online. It is the U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index from NARA’s Records of the Veterans Administration [VA] (Record Group 15).

So, gather up the list of possible candidates. Having a residence and a birth date may help you narrow down the search for ancestors with common names.

You will need a free account on FamilySearch to access these records. If you do not already use FamilySearch, you will be glad to find out about what it has to offer. The link to search the collection is United States, Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940.

Family Search search page for U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index

Enter your ancestor’s name.

Searching example

Look through the search results to look for your ancestor. (Pay attention to the residence; the military service location (St. Louis) is related to where the records were stored.)

result for example search

The small document icon is used to “view the record details.”

The small camera icon on the right means that you can view an image of the record.

Search result

Clicking on “view the original document takes you to the image viewer, you can view and download it.

The image viewer screen

From this image, I know the first military organization in which Joseph F. McMahon served. An important piece of information is his military service number, which is helpful when the veteran has a common name.- His birth and death dates, as well as his enlistment and discharge dates.

C is the Claim Number assigned when an application was made for a service connected disability, pension, and education and training.

An “A” number shows that this veteran was eligible for the Adjusted Compensation paid to veterans based on their WWI service.

T Indicates that the veteran had War Risk Insurance during WWI.

CT  Shows the certificate number assigned by service departments with the World War I Bonus.

Learn more about these records at Family Search search page for U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index.

Learn more about the letter codes at NARA’s Key to Codes & Prefixes.

When you find an ancestor who served in WWI, you can begin to research his service. Check out our other WWI blog posts by using the Search Box and entering WWI.

Learn more about our book on this website or at Amazon Researching Your U.S. WWI Army Ancestors.

The U.S. Military Records That Never Burned

No, NOT all the WWI and WWII military records for your ancestor were burned!

We often hear the misinformation and read many posts on Facebook claiming that all the military records burned. This post will help shed light on just a few of the records about your ancestor’s service that are still available.

We have already blogged about the Official Military Personnel Files OMPFs beginning here, and hope you had a chance to read about them. From that post you will have learned that Navy and Marine Corps personnel files from WWI and WWII were not burned in the NPRC fire.

It is important to know there were original records that were never in the OMPFs, and so, they were NEVER BURNED. These records were part of the paperwork generated by military organizations, and were kept separately from the individual personnel records. The individual personnel records were actually constructed by using these original records.

This blog post covers some great examples of records that could help you understand your ancestor’s military experience: Rosters/Musters and Morning Reports. For military ancestors who died while in service, there are WWI Death Files and WWII Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF).

Muster Rolls and Rosters

These records contain information about service members who were in an organization, so you can place your ancestor with an organization at a specific time. These are lists of the members of an organization during a specific time period (or at a specified time such as the last day of the month). They shows who was sick in hospital, who was “lost” to the organization by transfer, and to where they were transferred, who was “gained” by the organization through transfer, and who was attached. By piecing these together, a service member can be tracked.

Browsable images of WWI muster rolls and rosters are available online at the FamilySearch website. You need to know the military organization for the service member because these are not searchable. United States, World War I, military muster rolls and rosters, 1916-1939 (The filmstrips are available at the National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO.)

Morning Reports

These reports cover the day-by-day details of an Army organization, giving a brief summary of the status of the men and animals in the organization.

The front of the morning reports contain columns that record the counts of officers, enlisted men and animals. On the back, brief notations were made naming the soldiers who transferred in, transferred out, transferred to a hospital or were sick. Notes were made of soldiers who were loaned out to other organizations, who were promoted, where and how far they traveled, courts martial, and disciplinary actions.

Like any other diary, this will give context to your military ancestor’s service even when his name is not mentioned.

These records are available at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). The U.S. Navy has Ship’s Logs, which rarely mention individuals. Learn more about Ship’s Logs here.

WWI Death Files / WWII Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF)

For service members who died while in service, a death file will exist. In WWI, these are Death Files; in WWII they were called Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF). These files are truly individual, as the contents will vary for each case. Each should contain the circumstances of the service member’s death. If the ancestor died in combat, there will generally be a description of how he died, compiled from available witnesses.

For an ancestor who went overseas, the file will contain correspondence with the next-of-kin to establish whether to ship the service member’s remains back to the United States, or bury him in an overseas military cemetery. In the file for a WWI service member who was buried overseas, there may be information about a Gold Star trip sponsored by the government to allow mothers and wives to visit the grave of their fallen soldier in Europe. If the service member was originally classified as missing in action, the file may contain information about how the remains were identified.

Although these files exist for those who died during service stateside, typically these files contain less information that for those who died in combat.

These records can be requested from the NPRC, however, NARA is prioritizing the digitization of WWI files and making them online. Record Group 92, Series: Correspondence, Reports, Telegrams, Applications, and Other Papers Relating to Burials of Service Personnel, 1/1/1915 – 12/31/1939 are searchable here.

Burial Cards

For service members who died while in service, a burial card will exist. The burial card contains information about where the service member was interred, and where the remains had been relocated. (To learn more, read the blog post Researching Soldiers Who Died During World War I.)

The family of the soldier below chose to have his remains stay in Europe, in the American Battle Monuments Commission Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. NARA Archivists have reported not yet finding where the photographs are stored that are referenced on the cards.

Record Group 92, Series: Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers, 1917 – 1922. The 104 sets of digitized cards can be browsed from here.

Know that only the personnel records for Army and Air Force service members were involved in the fire, and that even those ancestors still live in the unburned pages of the military records.

Researching Alabama WWI Ancestors

WWI service summaries are incredibly useful when researching our military ancestors. For Alabama, we have two choices to access these online: The Alabama Department of Archives and History and FamilySearch.

For the centennial of WWI, the Alabama Department of Archives and History conducted a crowdsourcing effort to transcribe the records of Alabamians who served in the military during WWI. These records can be browsed by county here.

Click on a county to view the list of WWI service cards in alphabetical order.

From the page for the county results, you can enter a name in the Search box, and click on the Search button, to see that name in all the counties in Alabama. (Also note the checkbox for Alabama Active Military Service Reports if you are searching for more recent military ancestors.)

Below is a list of all the Smith results for all counties.

There is a separate series for members of the 167th Infantry Regiment. Enter the name in the Search box and click on the Search Button.

This is a summary of service transcribed from the original personnel records that may have been burned at the NPRC. Remember, even though the files may have burned, the data compiled in them still exists. Read our blog post Where Do I Find Out About My Ancestor’s Military Service? The OMPF!.

As promised, there is one other resource for the Alabama service summaries. FamilySearch has them online and indexed. It was a little easier to search on this website, but you do have to sign up for a free account to use it.

Search the Alabama, World War I Service Cards, 1917-1919 here. The birth date might be helpful to enter.

Searching for Frank B Williams brought me to these search results. When you see the camera icon on its own that means you can view an image on the FamilySearch website.

The first result was the WWI soldier who I was researching.

Thank you to John Milam for bringing the research question to me that resulted in this post.