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 Fregattenkapit√§n (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.