Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Sabotage at Charleston, SC

German freighter, SS Liebenfels, in dry dock at Charleston Navy Yard
on 1 May 1917

"Federal officers had been unable tonight to ascertain the cause of the sinking of the 2,830-ton German freighter Liebenfels, of the Hansa line, which settled to the bottom in the harbor here today under circumstances that led marine men to believe she had been scuttled," reported by the New York Times.

Before the United States of America entered the Great War on the side of the Allies, a forgotten incident of German sabotage occurred in the Cooper River near Charleston, SC. The Liebenfels was sunk on 31 January 1917, coinciding with the break in diplomatic relations between the USA and Germany. The following day, Germany announced a return to its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare. Neutral nations like the United States feared the effects of this policy on their shipping and ability to stay out of the conflict. The story of the Liebenfels would not end there; the vessel would be raised and outfitted for service as an American naval vessel, the Houston, in the Charleston Navy Yard.

Eight of the ship’s officers were convicted for their role in the conspiracy and sentenced to a year in an Atlanta penitentiary. In another trial on 12 October 1917, Johann R. Klattenhof, the ship’s captain, and Paul Wierse, a Charleston American editorial writer, were convicted in federal court of conspiracy to sink the ship in Charleston Harbor and sentenced to two years. They acted upon orders from the German government, likely the German consul in Atlanta, William Muller. Muller fled to Ecuador and could only be sentenced in absentia.

Conversion of the SS Liebenfels to the USS Houston, finished,
July 1917 at the Charleston Navy Yard

The Liebenfels was raised by army engineers and moved to the Navy Yard for repairs. After the American declaration of war in April, five German vessels interned in Charleston Harbor were similarly overhauled and refitted at the Yard. These six vessels, given new American names, would be welcome additions to an expanding U.S. Navy. The Liebenfels was commissioned as the Houston on 3 July 1917 and saw service in convoys to France, transporting vital wartime goods like coal, oil, trucks, and airplanes. Writing in 1919, the commandant of the Sixth Naval District, headquartered in Charleston, stated that conversion of enemy vessels was probably the most important work done by Navy Yard workmen during the war.

Sources:  National Park Service (Article), Naval History and Heritage Command (Photos)

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