Mystery Surrounds Theft of Pirate Skull
The skull of a medieval pirate was recently stolen from a German museum, and investigators continue to grapple with the mystery.
The spike-pierced skull, believed to be that of legendary 14th-century freebooter Klaus Störtebeker, was reported missing by the Museum for Hamburg History on 9 January. "We are all very upset about the theft," said museum director Lisa Kosok in a press release. The museum has offered a reward of several thousand euros for information leading to the skull's whereabouts, while a spokesman for the Hamburg Police announced, "We have opened a larceny probe."
Störtebeker (roughly translated from Old German, the nickname means "drain the mug in one swig") is the region's most famous pirate, a folk hero to Germans of diverse political persuasions. A statue of the Baltic sea-rogue is a landmark in the bustling port city of Hamburg, and everything from a brewery to a hotel to an annual festival to a punk club has borne homage to his name.
Investigators of the skull theft grilled area soccer hooligans notorious for rowdy pranksterism, then also dug for information among the Hamburg Goth-scene demimonde. By February, a new lead in the case had opened up: Had the skull been stolen to serve as a totemic weapon in a biker-gang turf war?
The Hell's Angels, lords of the lucrative northern German illegal drug trade, are being encroached on by a rival motorcycle outfit, the Bandidos, also referred to in street slang as "the Tacos." The Hamburg Morgenpost reported in February that "an insider from the biker scene" had indicated that the skull had ended up in the hands of a local Hell's Angels chapter. A different skull, meanwhile, appeared outside the Morgenpost office with "No Tacos" scrawled on it. "The piratical skull and crossbones is certainly part of the insignia of aggressive motorcycle gangs," an investigator told the Morgenpost.
The purloined pirate skull, missing its jawbone and impaled through the crown by a giant rusted nail, had been on display at the Hamburg museum since 1922. Construction workers unearthed the skull in 1878 while digging in a waterfront warehouse district. Centuries earlier, this had been a site where pirates were decapitated and their heads nailed onto poles as grim admonishment to any who might ponder such a career.
In the 1990s, DNA testing of the skull and of possible Störtebeker descendants proved inconclusive, but forensic analysis was able to date it as that of a man executed circa 1400-about the time Störtebeker's infamous beheading took place.
Like so many other sea raiders through history, Störtebeker began as a privateer and segued into piracy. He sailed at the head of a privateering band called the Victual Brothers, hired by Sweden during a war with Denmark to capture Danish prizes and run supplies into besieged Stockholm. The war ended, but the Victual Brothers carried on, robbing not just Danish ships now, but English, Dutch, Prussian, and Hanseatic League merchant vessels as well. Störtebeker and his crew were finally caught and taken to the Hanseatic city of Hamburg for execution. Historians debate whether Störtebeker met his end in 1400 or 1401.
His death became fodder for much popular legendry. He is said to have made a deal that, however many crewmen his headless body was able to walk past after the executioner's axe had swung, those men should be spared the same fate. According to the story, Störtebeker managed to lope along, without a head, past 11 of his fellow pirates before the executioner maliciously tripped him.
When the authorities dismantled Störtebeker's ship, they allegedly discovered that one mast concealed a core of gold, another mast silver, and another copper. The celebrated beer mug from which the pirate's nickname had derived was salvaged and taken to the Hamburg town hall, where it remained until destroyed by fire in 1842.
The vast treasure hoard that Störtebeker is believed to have amassed continues to feed speculation to this day; it has never been found. Hopefully, though, his skull will be.
Who Will Save the Olympia?
She is the world's oldest floating steel warship and the sole surviving naval vessel of the Spanish-American War. She served as Commodore George Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, and her last official naval mission was to carry the body of the Unknown Soldier from France to the United States after World War I. Launched in 1892, the USS Olympia is a one-of-a-kind relic steeped in history-but sadly, her future is now in jeopardy.
The aging cruiser, a National Historic Landmark, is in need of substantial and costly hull repairs to prevent her from sinking. Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, the Olympia's home since 1995, has spent in excess of $5.3 million on maintenance, repair, preservation, and restoration. But another $10 million is required to restore the hull and deck, and possibly as much as $20 million for a complete restoration.
Unfortunately, the museum announced on 26 February that it was unable to raise the money needed to dredge the Penn's Landing Marina, transport the Olympia to dry dock, and finance the repairs necessary to ensure she will remain afloat. In short, the Olympia needs a new residence and a new caretaker.
"We have advised the U.S. Navy that Independence Seaport Museum will relinquish its stewardship of this national naval treasure and its valuable artifact collections," said Peter McCausland, chairman of the Independence Seaport Museum Board of Port Wardens. "Because every staff and board member deeply cares about and respects this historic ship, we stand ready to assist the Navy in an aggressive search to find a new home for the Olympia and its related collections."
The gloomy announcement comes on the heels of a futile two-year effort to try to secure funding for the Olympia's preservation. The museum approached the city of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Department of the Navy, the federal government, and private funders-with no success.
A recent feasibility study determined that the museum could not raise the money needed to preserve the Olympia "while also financing the implementation of the museum's new strategic plan," McCausland said.
Ideally, a historic steel-hulled ship such as the Olympia is dry-docked about every 20 years for maintenance, but this ship has been in the water continuously since 1945. Those six and a half decades afloat have taken a terrible toll on her hull.
The Olympia's prognosis is grim, unless restoration of her hull and rotted exterior decks, necessary to protect the historic fabric of the ship's interior, is begun soon.
Sunken WWII Navy Sub Discovered in Philippines
Rarely has there been a more unusual tale of survival than the one told by those who sailed the USS Flier (SS-250). Now, 66 years after the submarine disappeared in World War II, the U.S. Navy has confirmed that the Gato-class boat has been located on the bottom of the Balabac Strait in the Philippines at a depth of 330 feet.
The wreckage was discovered in 2009 by divers from Toronto-based YAP Films. Armed with information provided by the family of Ensign Al Jacobson, the last survivor of the Flier, the dive team succeeded in anchoring directly over the sunken sub. After studying images of the wreckage, the Naval History and Heritage Command announced it was indeed the missing Flier. The finding was confirmed in February by Rear Admiral Douglas McAneny, commander of Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet.
The Flier's first war patrol from Pearl Harbor, which began on 12 January 1944, ended ignominiously four days later when she ran aground while entering the harbor at Midway Island during a storm. She was freed and towed to Mare Island Navy Yard, California, for repairs. On 21 May 1944, the Flier arrived off Luzon in the Philippines and engaged the enemy. She sank the transport Hakusan Maru on 4 June. On 13 June near Subic Bay, the sub attacked an 11-ship convoy that countered with a depth-charge attack. Climaxing a long chase on 22-23 June, the Flier claimed damage to two ships after firing seven torpedoes off Mindoro.
While transiting Balabac Strait at 15 knots on the night of 13 August, the Flier hit a mine and sank in 30 seconds. Only 14 of her 86 crewmen escaped. Barely able to see in the dark, Commander J. W. Crowley mustered the survivors around him; they treaded water until moonrise revealed the direction they should swim. During the night, six men drowned. The remaining eight set off on what would become an 18-hour ordeal to reach desolate Mantangule Island. Sunburned, their feet ravaged by poisonous coral, the men could find no water or anything to eat on the island. Fashioning a raft out of bamboo tied together with vines and using palm fronds for paddles, the group island-hopped for four days, searching for water and food without success. On the fifth day, they reached Bugsuk Island and discovered several buildings, one of which had a cistern full of fresh water.
The next day a young Filipino discovered the men asleep. He led them to a group of guerrilla fighters sent from a base on the much larger island of Palawan to search for survivors of another submarine. The Filipinos fed the men and transported them by boat to Palawan, a three-day journey. There, the Flier's survivors made a 100-mile trek up the east coast to a U.S. Army coastwatcher unit smuggled ashore by a submarine. Radio contact was made with the Seventh Fleet commander in Brisbane, who sent the USS Redfin (SS-272) to rescue the submariners. The survivors borrowed two motorboats from a native chief and in darkness maneuvered around an anchored Japanese merchant ship to meet the Redfin, which took them aboard on 31 August.
The Flier earned a battle star for her World War II service; she is credited with sinking 10,380 tons of enemy shipping. Commander Crowley, two lieutenants, and five enlisted men survived to tell their amazing story.
As the last survivor, Ensign Jacobson never gave up trying to find his boat. It was a year after his death at age 86 that his dream was realized. His son Nelson was with the YAP film crew when the Flier was found. Earlier this year, he and his family prepared a tribute to the Flier at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum in Muskegon, Michigan. "Dad would have liked that-to help publicize what it was like for the submarine corps and the supreme sacrifice they made," Nelson Jacobson told the Muskegon News. "The most important thing is this is about the crew and family and to bring closure."
Calling All Sea-Scribes
Attention, naval historians and other lovers of the sea: A call for papers has been issued for the ninth Maritime Heritage Conference, being held 15-19 September in Baltimore. The deadline for submitting paper proposals is 1 June.
Held every three years, the conference brings together individuals from the numerous naval, military, maritime, education, and preservation communities to share information and exchange ideas. The 2010 conference venue, the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, overlooks the venerable USS Constellation in her home berth. Hosted by Historic Ships in Baltimore and the Naval Historical Foundation, the forum will welcome the annual meeting of the Historic Naval Ships Association. Commander Fleet Forces Command Admiral John C. Harvey Jr. has agreed to address the opening plenary about U.S. Navy heritage efforts.
The conference theme is "The Maritime Nexus: Reconnecting Landsmen with Their Seagoing Heritage." The maritime environment, from oceans to rivers, is a world unto itself, where navy personnel, merchant sailors, and others toil; it is a busy realm largely unnoticed by the land-bound populace. Goods imported and exported find their way to and from the marketplace in ways seemingly mysterious to ordinary citizens. The navies that protect these goods and the nations they represent are also often invisible to the public at large.
Conference topics include but are not limited to: shipbuilding, naval history, the War of 1812, historic ships and preservation, and underwater archaeology.
Paper proposals should include an abstract not exceeding 250 words and a one-page curriculum vitae. Panel proposals are also encouraged and should contain an abstract and vitae for each panelist. Mail proposals to David F. Winkler, c/o Naval Historical Foundation, 1306 Dahlgren Avenue SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20374-5055. Inquiries and electronic proposals may be sent to [email protected]. For registration and more information, visit the Web site of the National Maritime Historical Society, www.seahistory.org.
Airship Wreck Site Added to National Register
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the loss of the airship USS Macon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in February that the Macon wreck site on the seafloor of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Macon, a 785-foot dirigible, was one of the largest airships in the world-comparable in size to the Titanic. She was intended to serve as a scout ship for the Pacific Fleet and had the ability to launch and recover Sparrowhawk biplanes. In service less than two years, the Macon was damaged in a storm on 12 February 1935 and sank in the Pacific Ocean off Point Sur, south of San Francisco. All but two of her 83 crewmen were rescued by nearby Navy ships.
The wreckage of the Macon, lying at a depth of more than 1,500 feet, was first documented in 1990 by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary conducted a sonar survey in 2005. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries spearheaded the first archaeological expedition in 2006. Four of the airship's Sparrowhawks also lie in repose at the wreck site.
Hailing the February announcement, Paul Michel, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent, said, "The National Register listing highlights the importance of protecting the wreck site and its artifacts for further understanding our past."