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

Friday, July 9, 2021

Hawaii and the SMS Geier Incident

Even after the annexation of the Hawaian Islands by the United States in 1898,  the German community who stayed to work in trade or agriculture fit in comfortably with the highly mixed native Hawaiian, Asian, European, and  American populace. This arrangement, sadly, would change with the coming of the war. Much of the disharmony grew around the visit and internment of two German ships.

SMS Geier in Honolulu (German Flag)

The German gunboat SMS Geier was en route to the German base in Tsingtao when war broke out in Europe in August 1914. Slipping out of still-neutral British Singapore days before Britain declared war on Germany, she crossed the central Pacific in an attempt to link up with Maximilian von Spee's East Asia Squadron. While at sea, she captured one British freighter, but did not sink her. In need of engine repairs and coal, Geier  put into the neutral United States port at Honolulu, Hawaii,  on 15 October with her collier, Locksun

America's Neutrality Laws did not allow belligerent warships to remain in port more than 24 hours unless they were in need of repairs. Captain Karl Grasshof declared the Geier  needed boiler and machinery repairs. After an inspection, the State Department granted him three weeks to make the repairs. At the end of that time the warships had to leave or be interned for the duration of the war. While repairs were being made, two Japanese warships, Hizan and Asama, appeared outside of Honolulu harbor, intending to wait until the German ships tried to leave. On the day scheduled for the Geier's departure, a crowd of spectators, many of whom were Japanese, came to watch the confrontation. They were disappointed, however, because Captain Grasshof turned his ships over for internment. 

Honolulu gave the men of the Geier a hearty welcome to the islands, and until the U.S. entered the war, relations between the crewmen and Honoluluans were very cordial. The Advertiser apparently stated the majority opinion regarding these men in a December, 1914, editorial; "It is said that somebody is objecting to the sailors of the  Geier  having shore liberty. If this be so there is 'somebody' in Honolulu who has the soul the size of a peanut." Having dealt with the opposition, Editor Matheson went on to say that "The sailors on the Geier are a lot of clean cut young gentlemen. They have committed no wrong. By the fortune of war they are our guests." 

Crewmen of SMS Geier Relaxing in Hawaii

The men of the  Geier became a part of the Honolulu scene. The German community especially tried to make them feel at home and sponsored Christmas parties for them in 1914 and 1915 at the Phoenix Lodge on Beretania and Fort Street. Gifts were exchanged, carols sung to the music of the Royal Hawaiian Band, and Georg Rodiek, German consul and Hackfeld manager, led the toasts to the Kaiser. The Geier returned the hospitality. In celebration of their successful completion of English classes at the YMCA, the Geier's crew invited the entire German community to an evening which included music and athletic exhibitions.

Things began changing, however, in early 1917 when Germany and the United States appeared headed for war.  The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February 1917. On 4 February, Honoluluans discovered that several days previously all the German crews had systematically destroyed as much of the machinery on their respective ships as possible so they could not be used by U.S. forces. The 14th Naval District took immediate control of the warships while civilian officials dealt with the sailors. The crews were taken to the Immigration Station where they could be held without formal charges.

A final resolution of the problem came after the U.S. declared war on Germany on 6 April  1917; U. S. officials then seized all interned ships. Matson Navigation Co. received the contract to tow the merchantmen to San Francisco for repairs, while the Geier and the Locksun went to Pearl Harbor for renovations and to allow the ship to serve in the U.S. Navy. Ironically, the Geier was rechristened the Schurz that same year in honor of a German-American who had served with distinction in President Lincoln's cabinet.

The Kaiser Visited SMS Geier in Calmer Times

The German attempt to disable the interned vessels and the fear that they might attempt to disable the harbor created a feeling that these men had betrayed the community's trust.  In response, the Spanish Consul, who was now handling German affairs, wanted the District Attorney to prosecute the Advertiser for calling the Geier's officers "worthless" and thereby impugning their honor. The paper retorted that the Germans had already demonstrated their complete lack of honor by accepting Honolulu's s hospitality and then abusing it.  No more was heard of German honor.

Into this simmering cauldron fell the revelations of Geier Captain Karl Grasshof's diary which was discovered in December, 1917, several months after the Geier was seized. The betrayal by those "gentlemanly" sailors had been greater than hitherto imagined. Messages had been sent to Germany via the Geier's wireless which was supposed to have been sealed upon internment. The Germans were also involved in smuggling sailors back to Germany and supporting Germany's Hindu Spy Conspiracy.

Honoluluans were shocked that those nice young men, so much a part of the community, had behaved with duplicity the entire time. The men from the Geier were a part of the community just as the local Germans were. If they had behaved in such a dishonorable manner, it seemed natural, to some,  to assume that all Germans in Honolulu would behave in the same way. Relations between the German community in Hawaii and the non-German declined dramatically through the rest of the war By the end of the war there was no longer a German community in Hawaii, as there once had been. Germans had lost their jobs, church leadership, and the respect of their neighbors. Many eventually migrated to the West Coast to escape persecution. 

As for SMS Geier, it went to war. On April 6, 1917, the US entered hostilities. Geier was seized and refitted for United States Navy service; renamed USS Schurz on June 9; and commissioned on 15 September 1917, Comdr. Arthur Crenshaw in command.

Warship USS Schurz (American Flag)

On October 31, Schurz left Pearl Harbor to escort Submarine Division 3 to San Diego. At the end of the November, the convoy transited the Panama Canal.  Eventually, assigned to the American Patrol Detachment, Schurz departed Charleston toward the end of April and, for the next two months, conducted patrols and performed escort duty and towing missions along the east coast and in the Caribbean.

On June 19, she departed New York for Key West. At 0444 on the 21st, southwest of Cape Lookout lightship, she was rammed by the merchant ship, Florida. Florida hit Schurz on the starboard side, crumpling that wing of the bridge, penetrating the well and berth deck about 12 feet, and cutting through bunker no. 3 to the forward fire room.

One of Schurz’s crew was killed instantly; twelve others were injured. Schurz was abandoned. Three hours later, she sank. The name Schurz was struck from the Navy list on August 26, 1918. 

Sources:  "The Effect of World War I on the German Community in Hawaii" Sandra E. Wagner-Seavey, Hawaii Historical Society, Worthopedia, and Wikipedia

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