The Capture of the ex-USS Schurz of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

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The only German Imperial Navy warship the U.S. Navy was able to capture during World War I was the ex-USS Schurz (formerly named the SMS Geier). The ship was built in 1894 and sailed for nearly 25 years before sinking in 1918 after colliding with the SS Florida. It now lies at a depth of 110 feet near Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in North Carolina alongside other historic ships from WWI and WWII eras. The ship holds significance due to its then-innovative use of sail and steam power and mixed materials, showing in the archaeological record a transition point in modern transportation and warfare. 


History of the Ship

The Geier was a 255-foot-long Bussard-class cruiser built for the German Imperial Navy in 1894, experimenting with the use of both wood and steel in its hull and use of both sails and triple expansion steam engines for locomotion. It first traveled overseas in 1898 to Haiti to suppress a native uprising. From there, the ship traveled the world’s ocean and participated in the Spanish American War (1894), the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1905), and the Turkish-Italian War (1911-1913). In WWI, Japanese naval forces chased the Geier, forcing it to find cover at the neutral port in Honolulu, Hawai’i. After 3 weeks there, the U.S. Navy intervened and detained Geier to prevent advancement of the German war effort. It stayed in Honolulu for three years while hostilities escalated between the U.S. and Germany until 1917 when the US entered WWI. 

Through use of an executive order, the U.S. detained and overtook the Geier. During its stay in Honolulu the German crew attempted to flee with the ship back to Germany and used the radio on board to relay false messages to the German vessels to cause friction with the U.S. and its neighbors. After the detainment of the Geier, it became property of the U.S. Navy and underwent minor modifications to fully transition to the ex-USS Schurz – named after Union Army General, Senator, and Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz.  

The ex-USS Schurz spent the remainder of its life conducting escort duty and coastal patrols. On June 21, 1918 it collided with the SS Florida and sank off Cape Lookout, NC. 217 passengers were on board, only one passed away, though 12 officers and crewmen were injured. The Naval Court of Investigation ruled the collision at the fault of the SS Florida’s captain due to incorrect navigation. 

Today, the Schurz shipwreck is mostly intact and makes for a great diving spot. The majority of the wreck is contiguous, and its size means divers can easily explore the entire site in a single dive. The hull of the ship sits upright with many features still clearly visible and structurally sound, including its riveted hull and engine machinery. The ship also provides in its final resting place habitat and shelter for marine life like fish and invertebrates. 


Click here to learn more about the wreck site, its history, and ongoing exploration of shipwrecks throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System.  

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