SMS Cormoran II: Local Stories
From December 1914 to April 1917, Guam was the backdrop for one of the earliest stories of the United States’ participation in World War I. The first violent shots between the US and Germany were fired on Guam. The first German casualties and deaths occurred in the waters of Apra Harbor, Guam. The first POWs were imprisoned on Guam. Indeed, the internment and scuttling of the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran II in Apra Harbor is, for historians and war history buffs, an interesting story of military strategy and early 20th century US diplomacy in the Pacific. It is an exciting narrative of encounter and exchange primarily between American military serviceman stationed on Guam and the German sailors who were trying to evade capture from the enemy Allied Forces of Great Britain and Japan in the Pacific.
Caught up in the events but largely missing from the narrative are the Chamorro people living on Guam, then a new territory of the United States, and wards, so to speak, of the US Navy. The interaction between the Cormoran sailors and the Chamorro people is not well researched, and this lack of information is glaringly obvious in light of all that has been written about World War I in the Pacific where descriptions of the fall of the German territories in Tsingtao, China and German New Guinea dominate. What did the Chamorro people think of the German “visitors,” stuck on Guam for over two years and walking the streets of Hagåtña or Piti? How did the two cultures influence each other? What stories did the Chamorros tell their children about the Germans, New Guineans or Chinese crew members of the SMS Cormoran II? Where did the Chamorros fit within this story filled with drama, intrigue, romance, and an exploding ship?
For the story of the Cormoran, a couple of notable books have been published, including Flight of the Cormoran by Herbert Ward (1970) and The Frustrated Raider by Charles Burdick (1979), that recount the challenges the captain and crew had to face in their months long journey across the Pacific that ended in Guam in 1914 and imprisonment in US POW camps in 1917. These publications do present some of the interactions between the Germans and the Chamorros in a light and amusing way. However, any critical observation or analysis of the specific activities, cultural exchanges or personal relationships of the local Chamorros with the Germans and the other crew members from China and New Guinea is left out. Stories from the perspective of the Chamorro people largely have been forgotten, with the details unclear or unverifiable.
Still, the exchanges that Ward and Burdick shared in their books are interesting to read because they describe a time in the history of Guam when the island and its people were in transition, from Spanish colony to US territory, and a fascinating mix of people and cultures lived and worked together on the island. And while Guampedia’s research into the “local stories” has been limited by time and available resources, perhaps more adept researchers will find some new insight in some of the “local stories” that are presented here and maybe eventually come across other stories that have been talked about or passed down through families on Guam. With further research, more light can be shed on the historical complexities of human and cultural interaction that have always existed between Chamorros and the people who pass through the Marianas for one reason or another, and in particular in this moment of history when Guam became a part of a new war under the American flag.
Arrival and internment
When the SMS Cormoran II arrived on Guam in December 1914, the ship was almost unrecognizable from the time of its launch from Tsingtao, China, just a few months earlier. Traveling across the Pacific as part of the German East Asia Squadron, evading capture and the constant search for coal had taken a toll on the vessel and its crew, but Captain Adalbert Zuckschwerdt believed the best course of action would be to go to the neutral United States territory of Guam in the Mariana Islands. With only 50 tons of coal remaining, the Cormoran moved into Apra Harbor and spent its remaining years afloat, interned under the naval government of Guam.
The Cormoran’s arrival was meant only as a stopover for the German cruiser to refuel and replenish supplies, but Governor William J. Maxwell, citing limited coal stores on the island, denied the Cormoran’s request for 1,500 tons of coal and enough provisions to reach another German port. Instead Maxwell gave them 200 tons of coal and provisions for 30 days. With few options, the Germans agreed to stay. The Americans already were aware of the Cormoran because Captain Zuckschwerdt had sent a small crew ahead to Guam from Lamotrek atoll where they had been hiding. The Cormoran contingent actually had been treated well by the navy. In fact, the German officers were given a place to stay with the well-known Costenobles at the Die blaue Bude, or the Blue House.
Maxwell ordered the specific terms of the internment as follows: The ship would be disarmed of its 10.5 cm gunlocks, but all other weapons were allowed to remain. The coal stocks were to remain below 150 tons; the ship’s propulsion machinery would be kept ready in case of inclement weather and the Cormoran would have to move back out to sea; the ship could receive messages through their radio receiver but was not allowed to transmit messages; and finally, the crew was permitted to go ashore but in limited numbers and only in full uniform. Their movements would be restricted to a relatively large area between Piti and Tumon. This would allow the crew members to engage with the island residents.
Personality differences between Zuckschwerdt and Maxwell, however, were very intense and made the internment difficult. The two men resented each other, and the crew essentially had to stand by and watch the drama play out between their captain and the naval governor. There were people on Guam who sympathized with the plight of the Cormoran crew, in particular, German families like the Costenobles, who were carefully monitored by the authorities under Maxwell’s orders lest they assist the Germans against the US. But the long hot months in an overcrowded vessel at times made staying aboard ship unbearable. Crew members complained of various illnesses, and at least two men had mental breakdowns which caused them to be transported to California.
For the most part, the men were well-behaved and there were no recorded incidents of criminal activities by the crew. There is one account, however, of the ship’s doctor, Karl von Gebhard, allegedly being seen in the Atantano area which was beyond the designated boundary the Germans were allowed to go. This led to a war of wills and Maxwell asserted his authority by restricting the men further with a midnight curfew to effectively cut off all social interaction and prevent—or at least control—mixing between the crew members and the island residents. This was a big blow to the men who had by this time already developed close relationships among the local people and the navy servicemen. However, after a while, Maxwell gave in a little and allowed the Germans to rent a house for overnight stays ashore. The house was for crew members who were unable to make it back to the ship, either because of inclement weather conditions, or the need to make repairs. This house inevitably also became a meeting place for crew and islanders, but only a few would chance incurring Maxwell’s wrath by doing anything improper or untoward with the locals there.
Life among the locals
Ward’s book describes a few interactions the crew members had with the local people. One activity the Cormoran crew enjoyed participating in with the Chamorros was flying “Guamanian fighting kites,” which Ward described as requiring “…considerable energy and skill. The kites were made of bamboo strips and thin Japanese rice paper, and as they had no tails, they could be manipulated to make sharp downward turns.”
The crew members also would conduct some of their exercises on shore, sometimes by marching in formation. The Chamorro boys watching the men would whistle “at a tempo just a little bit faster than the ordinary time,” which would force the marchers to speed up as well, resulting in laughter from the crew members and the boys. However, Governor Maxwell apparently did not like this and banned laughing in public. When his ban on laughter failed to work, he banned whistling!
Ward also mentions Maxwell’s irritation with the church bells ringing at the nearby cathedral. Confused, the priest listened as Maxwell ordered that he no longer ring the bells. A young Chamorro boy, however, hearing Maxwell’s order, took it upon himself to actually tie a long rope to the bell system and moving some distance away, he rang the bells in loud defiance of the governor’s demand.
Maxwell’s increasingly erratic and unreasonable behavior eventually caused him to be removed from his position and Commander W. P. Cronan took his place as interim governor. Cronan’s approach to Zuckschwerdt was completely different. When Cronan requested the ship be disarmed, Zuckschwerdt complied. Cronan also issued the order that the Cormoran crew was to be treated as guests who could enjoy the social life of the island. Dances, beach parties, dinner parties, costume balls, formal affairs and musical performances became more common and was a welcome change to their restrictive internment under Maxwell’s watch. Zuckschwerdt was even allowed to rent a small bungalow in Hagåtña.
Eventually, Captain Roy Smith was appointed governor of Guam in May 1915. A new spirit of friendliness prevailed and the crew interacted more with the locals. The Cormoran band gave regular performances at the Plaza de España and the governor’s palace in Hagåtña. Zuckschwerdt hosted dinner parties at his bungalow. As Ward described, “Moonlight parties were arranged at the various island beaches. The officers and ladies of the Naval station, members of the foreign colony, the cable station, and officers of the interned ship, all contributed in making the occasions some of the most memorable ever held on Guam.”
Hunting parties were organized with US navy men and marines. Citing a former resident, Ward described an interesting scene that highlighted the mix of people interacting on Guam at this time: “…during the concert, there passed by, going about their business, American naval officers in spotless white, Marine officers in white or khaki, German officers from the Cormoran in meticulous uniform, native men with their shirt tails always hanging out, lovely women of the island tightly swathed from the waist down in their gaily colored trained skirts with sheer bouffant blouses of pina cloth. Marines in khaki, Franciscan monks in their brown cassocks and rope belts, American women carrying bright Japanese parasols, and German sailors on bicycles with ribbons dangling from they childlike straw hats.”
Evenings provided moments to play cards, talk, listen to records, or watch movies at the theater, with film reels long worn out from repeated showings. There was romance, too, although only Dr. Von Gebhard’s marriage to navy nurse Eleanore Blain is recorded. It is hard to imagine that there were no other alliances between the young men of the Cormoran crew and the local women. Indeed the opposite was true, as Burdick described, “There was, then, scarcely a day when the lively, new German-American friendship did not have a group activity. These efforts permitted romantic interludes as well between the impressive foreigners and the local daughters. The visitors’ continental charms proved most successful, and the first of several marriages soon took place. This heady swirl rapidly overcame the morale problems of a listless existence aboard ship.”
The cordial and friendly relations between the Cormoran and the local population and the American military personnel made it uncomfortable when it became clear in early 1917 that the US would enter the war. Zuckschwerdt and the other German officers who had resided on shore moved back to the ship, as Governor Smith placed tighter restrictions on the movements of the German crew. When war was finally declared in April 1917 and the Cormoran scuttled under orders by Zuckschwerdt to prevent its being taken over by the Americans, the crew was rescued and confined in Camp Barnett and another camp in Asan, effectively separating them from the locals altogether.
When the German crew members of the SMS Cormoran II that had died were buried, and the men taken to prisoner of war camps in the US mainland, the non-German crew members, which included four Chinese and 29 New Guinean men, remained behind on Guam. The Chinese men are said to have worked as house servants or opened a laundry before possibly returning to China. The New Guinea men were hired as laborers and continued to impress the local population with their appearance, costumes and skill at spear hurling and dancing. One of the men named Bumarum, breaking the cultural taboos of his people, “married” a Chamorro woman from Sumay, but died shortly afterward in November 1918 and was buried alongside the other Cormoran dead at the US Naval Cemetery in Hagåtña. In 1919 the New Guinea men were placed under the responsibility of the British government and taken back to their homeland by a Japanese transport vessel.
Lasting legacy of the Cormoran
As the Guampedia team began to research the Cormoran’s interment and scuttling on Guam we were interested to learn if this two-and a half-year ordeal had any lasting effects on Guam’s history. Did any of the Cormoran crew marry and stay on Guam? Did they leave any descendants? Did their two and a half year stay on the island introduce German dishes, dances or musical instruments to the island that could still be seen today?
Finding answers to these questions was not easy. The story of the Cormoran had largely been forgotten among American audiences until Herbert Ward began to research and published his book in 1970. He had dived the Cormoran wreck in Apra Harbor during the 1960s when he was employed on Guam as an engineer. Ward had also connected with former Cormoran crew members that met annually back in Germany, and other former German residents of Guam, including sisters Gertrude Costenoble Hornbostel and Hilde Costenoble-Kohlhauser. According to Guam historian Dr. Lawrence Cunningham, Ward had accumulated an extensive collection of artifacts from the ship. Some of these items Ward sold, others he gave to the Guam Museum, and some pieces were displayed at the old Fjords restaurant in Sinajana. The graves of the seven men who died during the scuttling of the Cormoran, along with Bumarum’s grave, lie next to a cement obelisk at the Naval Cemetery in Hagåtña that stands in memory of the German crew’s time on Guam. The vessel itself, 120 feet deep in Apra Harbor, and the grave site in Hagåtña are registered on the Guam and National Registers of Historic Places. On the 40th anniversary of the scuttling of the Cormoran a local commemorative event was held at the Naval Cemetery, which Ward documented and photographed. On the 90th anniversary another large commemorative event was celebrated with numerous local residents in attendance and the laying of a wreath over the wreck site.
To find more local stories, Guampedia asked historians and members of the community and looked at what the Germans on Guam wrote in letters and journals found at the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam (MARC). The books by Ward and Burdick were helpful to an extent. We were extremely excited to learn, though, that Herb Ward had left a whole box of his research notes and correspondence for his book at MARC.
Thinking about possible Cormoran descendants, we first looked to long-time Guam families with German surnames, including Schnabel, Wusstig, and Scharff, and one other we knew of that does not sound German at all: Grey. Grey had also been mentioned in Pedro Sanchez’s Guahan/Guam: The History of Our Island, where he also named William Kerner as a member of the Cormoran who married a Chamorro. The Schnabel and Wusstig families were easy to rule out from personal knowledge of the families. Guampedia then found members of the Grey and Scharff families and asked if they knew if their ancestor had been on the Cormoran. It was something to check out, as we only had a partial list of the crew, but neither Kerner, Grey, nor Scharff were included among the sailors.
The Scharff family was sure that their ancestor was from the Cormoran. His name was Ferdinand George Elimar Scharff of Piti. A German man, he married Antonia Toves Flores on 22 June 1919, the daughter of Jose Diaz Flores and Concepcion De Leon Guerrero Toves of Yona. After talking to several family members, it was revealed that, indeed, Scharff was on Guam when the Cormoran was interned at Apra Harbor. However, his granddaughters had done their family history and found that Scharff came to America aboard the SS George Washington sailing from Bremen, Germany to Ellis Island, New York. He signed on as part of the crew to pay for his passage to America. He had walked from Hanover, Germany to the port city of Bremen and only had $35 in his pocket when he docked at Ellis Island.
Scharff made his way from New York to San Francisco where he worked for Spreckle’s sugar company. Then he joined the auxiliary Navy, and was put to work aboard a ship. That ship pulled into Apra Harbor in 1917 and let him and a few others disembark. The family believes he then was put into the prisoner of car camp along with the rest of the Cormoran crew shortly after the US formally entered the war in April 1917. When the war was over in 1918 he made his way back to Guam, as he had already met his future bride.
Scharff became the skipper of Atkins Kroll’s copra boat, Kavara, from 1922 to 1930 and based at Tarague, Guam. After World War II he operated the boat Miss Guam. He delivered goods throughout the Mariana Islands and did some charter fishing as well, traveling with his dog Lady. Scharff’s family is known as “Familian Alimon,” (Alimon is the Chamorro word for “German”). He and Antonia had nine children: Dora, Harman, Ferdinand, Herman, Ernst, Antonia, Ferdinand, Charles and Bertha. Scharff died in 1957 and is buried at Pigo Cemetery.
Paul Grey was another German who was on Guam during that same time period. He, too, had married a Chamorro woman, and has many grandchildren and great grandchildren on Guam. His family, though, said Paul Grey was a mystery to them—they had been told that he was a merchant marine and a pearl diver before coming to Guam. They thought he was on Guam because of the Cormoran but they were not sure if he was part of the crew, or that maybe he came to Guam after it was scuttled to help in salvage diving missions of the Cormoran with the Navy. They did know that he married Rosario Concepcion Taitano from Sumay and the couple had four children: Wilhelmina, Nicholas, Anna Dolores and Gustav.
With no other leads, we went back to Herb Ward’s research files stored safely at MARC. In the correspondence folder we found what we were looking for: a retired marine wrote Ward to say that there was a German bachelor on Guam running a store at Sumay at the time the Cormoran was here. Another letter from Hilde Costenoble-Kohlhauser, who had lived on Guam with her family since 1901, said that her father, Hermann Costenoble, actually had brought Paul Grey to Guam from Tsingtao, China to manage one of his stores in Hagåtña around 1915. Kohlhauser had worked with him briefly and at one point Grey asked her to marry him. In her letter she wrote that Grey was older than she by many years and, though he was a very nice man, she thought he was too old for her.
We were excited to learn that Grey had been in Tsingtao, China as that was where the Cormoran was rebuilt before coming to Guam. Tsingtao was a German colonial port at the time. Grey’s grandchildren said that made sense to them as he would have likely gone there as a merchant marine and may have learned to pearl dive there. Later Grey opened his own store in Sumay where he likely met his wife, Rosario Concepcion Taitano. He died in 1952 and is buried in the East Agana Baptist Cemetery.
The third Cormoran Guam connection we were advised to research is Joe Cruz of Agat, now deceased. He was a boxer when he was young and was called “Kid Cormoran.” As we reached out to people on social media, no one really knew why he was called “Kid Cormoran.” We found a Pacific Daily News column, though, by Ben Palomo, a writer and historian, saying that he got the nickname because he had been in an outhouse in Sumay when the Cormoran was scuttled. The explosion blew him out of the outhouse and into the harbor! And in typical Chamorro humor he then became known as Joe “Cormoran” Cruz. His family still carries the name “Familian Cormoran.”
Another family from Agana Heights believes their father was the son of one of the Cormoran crew members, though they do not know his name and only have circumstantial evidence. Their father, Juan Roberto, was born in 1917, just a few months after the ship was scuttled at Apra Harbor. His mother was not married and lived at Sumay at the time and claimed to have had a relationship with one of the crew members. Juan grew to be 6 foot 3 inches and had hazel colored eyes, not typical Chamorro attributes.
As for the rest of the men, we do not know if the New Guinea crew member Bumarum had any children with his wife from Sumay, or if any of the Chinese men began families here on Guam. As mentioned earlier, the name William Kerner does not appear on our partial crew list. But, considering there were 370 men interned on Guam for over two years, it is hard not to imagine there might be other descendants out there, unaware of their Cormoran connection.
What we do know, for sure, is that the ship itself is still here and draws from 1,500 to 2,000 divers each year. It is of particular interest to wreck divers because of its position on the floor of Apra Harbor, with a ship from World War II, the Tokai Maru, lying next to it. It is probably the only place in the world where divers can see wreckage of two ships from two different world wars in one dive.
For further reading
Burdick, Charles. 1979. The Frustrated Raider. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
Rogers, Robert. 1995. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Sanchez, Pedro C. 1998 Guahan/Guam: The History of Our Island. Agana, Guam: Sanchez Publishing.
Ward, Herbert. 1970. The Flight of the Cormoran. New York: Vantage Press.
Papers of Herbert Ward. Richard A. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.