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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three German Ships, Puerto Rico, and the Great War: the First Shots Fired by the U.S. in WWI

Theodoor de Booy in the Dominican Republic in 1916 (N04834).
In 1915, Theodoor de Booy, an archaeologist of the Museum of the American Indian, predecessor of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), took photos of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, which are now part of the Theodoor de Booy negatives and photographs collection. Included among this collection are photographs of three ships named S.S. Odenwald, S.S. KD-III, and S.S. Präsident. Considering this an oddity, I investigated further and what I discovered was a story that involved World War I, the Fortress of el Morro in San Juan harbor, a German scheme, and what many consider to be the first shots fired by the U.S. in the Great War.

The Fortress of El Morro guarding in the entrance of San Juan Harbor, 1915.
Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04073).

Three Ships and a War

The story takes place in the harbor of San Juan between August 1914 and March 1915 when the U.S. was still a Neutral Power and Puerto Rico was already an American colony. The three ships were:

The S.S. Odenwald in San Juan Harbor, 1915.
 Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04078).

The Odenwald, a German merchant freighter (a coal collier) that began to service the German Navy days after the beginning of the war. Her duty was to serve as support freighter for the cruiser SMS Karlsruhe whose mission was to patrol the eastern Atlantic in search of, raid, and sink enemy merchant vessels. She sailed into San Juan harbor around August 6 or 7, 1914, possibly seeking refuge against a British squadron of warships. Since the U.S. was a neutral state, it is possible that her crew claimed to be a merchant ship. But, the U.S. authorities seem to have been suspicious of these claims.

The S.S. Präsident in San Juan Harbor, 1915.
Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04077).

The S.S. Präsident was a German vessel that served as a combination of passenger and cargo ship before the war. When the war broke out, she, too, began to serve in the German Navy as a support vessel to the cruiser Karlsruhe by providing radio communication and supplies. She arrived in Puerto Rico on December 1914 to take refuge from British and French cruisers that were hunting her and eventually was interned (to impound or confine until the end of the war) by the U.S. government.

The S.S. K.D.-III (Farn) in San Juan Harbor, 1915. P
hoto by Theodoor de Booy (N04079).

S.S. K.D.-III, a German tender ship that was actually the captured British coal collier Farn. While not at the service of the British Navy, she was carrying 3,000 tons of coal when captured by the Karlsruhe on October 1914 off the coast of South America. It was renamed K.D.-III (K.D. standing for Kohlendampfer or coal carrier). She sailed into San Juan on the 11th or 12th of January, 1915 to obtain supplies. Declared a tender boat of the German Navy on January 15, it was interned by the U.S. authorities.

Days Before the Incident

The story begins on March 18, 1915 when the captain of the S.S. Odenwald, C. S. Segebarth, requested (1) clearance to sail back to Hamburg the next day and (2) 5000 tons of coal for such trip. Suspicious of the request the local authorities decided to consult with Washington, D.C. and, afraid that the vessel may leave without clearance, alerted the commanding officer of the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry (PRPI) at the fortress of El Morro. Washington approved the use of force if necessary and the German captain of the Odenwald was warned several times. Despite the Germans assurances that they did not intend to leave without clearance, the local authorities made preparations in case a situation developed. A machine gun platoon was placed on the Bastión de San Agustín, 500 feet from the Morro Castle (see plan of the Bay) commanded by Captain Wood and the heavy guns of El Morro were readied under the command of Lt. Teófilo Marxuach.

The Incident
On the afternoon of March 21, the customs inspector returned to the Odenwald, but his visit was cut short when the Odenwald started her engines around 3:00 pm and began moving on the main channel towards the mouth of the harbor without clearance. The custom collector was asked to leave in a small boat. As the Odenwald passed the Bastión de San Agustín, Captain Wood, standing on the parapet of the sea wall, hailed the vessel several times without success; the Odenwald stayed on course. Captain Woods ordered Puerto Rican Sgt. Encarnación Correa, to fire warning-shots with his machine-gun without any success. Failing to stop the vessel, Lt. Marxuach was ordered to fire a warning shot 300 yards across the bow of the Odenwald from El Morro’s 4.7 inch gun. This was the convincing shot and the Odenwald stopped and dropped anchor at the mouth of the harbor under the fortress. She was eventually moved that same day to the upper harbor with a local pilot.

Map of San Juan Harbor with annotations and calculations by Lt. Teófilo Marxuach for his report of the incident (National Archives).
Despite the fact that the U.S would not declare war to Germany for two more years, these shots have been considered by some American and Puerto Rican historians as the first ones fired by the U.S. in World War I. Perhaps, the main reason for this conclusion is that the whole incident took place within the context of the war. While not involved in the fighting, even the status of neutrality of the U.S. and other countries was the result of and defined by the conflict. Interestingly, these shots were fired by Puerto Ricans who did not become American citizens until Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act two years later in March of 1917.

L. Antonio Curet, Curator
National Museum of the American Indian

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