Included among the most unusual ships ever to serve with the U.S. Navy was perhaps its most unwanted—the German World War II heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (IX-300). By the end of the conflict, the cruiser was the Kriegsmarine’s largest, most modern, and most famous remaining warship.
Laid down at Kiel’s Germaniawerft in April 1936, the Prinz Eugen was commissioned on 1 August 1940, sortied into the North Atlantic with the mighty Bismarck in May 1941, and set HMS Hood on fire before the German battleship sunk her. And in February 1942’s Operation Cerberus—better known as the Channel Dash—she, along with the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, six destroyers, and 14 E-boats, ran the British blockade of the English Channel. By 1943 the surface Kriegsmarine had been marginalized, and having been heavily damaged by a British submarine attack shortly after the Channel breakout, the Prinz Eugen was relegated to supporting the retreating Wehrmacht in the Baltic.
After arriving in Copenhagen on 20 April 1945, the cruiser essentially was demilitarized when she debunkered her fuel for transfer to destroyers, which could transport troops more efficiently. With their fight over, the crew, under command of Captain Hans Juergen Reinicke, maintained their ship as they awaited her uncertain fate. At 1600 on 7 May, with the crew assembled on the quarterdeck, per orders from the new President of Germany, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the national ensign was taken down and replaced by the international white flag of surrender.
The British officially took the cruiser on 22 May, with Captain Robert F. Elkins of the light cruiser HMS Dido assuming command. In his brief inspection of the ship, Elkins found a number of innovations that would be of interest to other navies, not the least of which was her boiler construction, which allowed the ship to go from cold to seaworthy in only 45 minutes. These innovations combined with the fact that she was the last major German warship constructed with the most recent improvements, made the Prinz Eugen valuable to the victors.
Two days later, in consort with the only other remaining Kriegsmarine capital ship, the light cruiser Nürnberg, the heavy cruiser began a three-day trip ostensibly to a more secure port, Wilhelmshaven, Germany, but in reality the British hoped to prevent the ship from being scuttled.
During the Potsdam Conference (17 July–2 August 1945), Allied leaders discussed the aftermath of Germany’s defeat and the further conduct of the Pacific war; division of Kriegsmarine assets was a minor concern. The parties earlier had decided they would divide the remains equally based on the decision of a Tripartite Naval Commission, consisting of representatives from each of the three major Allied powers. The commission would discuss only surface units; each government would receive ten U-boats, and the remaining submarines would be destroyed. Deadline for completion of all transfers was set for 18 February 1946.
By agreement, vice admirals headed each delegation; however, the Soviets promoted their representative to admiral the weekend before the commission convened in Berlin on 14 August. U.S. representative Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was amused but did not relinquish the chairman’s gavel.
A subcommittee drew up a list of German ships for division—with the Russians arguing for inclusion of racing sculls. Virtually every discussion involved the Prinz Eugen and her future. Despite some interesting features, the United States saw little value in the ship and had no vested interest in obtaining her other than to prevent the Soviets from gaining the most significant naval prize. In the end, the commission agreed on 19 October to divide the ships among three lists: A—the Prinz Eugen and seven destroyers; B—the Nürnberg and nine destroyers; and C—13 destroyers. The next roadblock was to determine package distribution. After much wrangling, U.S. Navy Captain Arthur H. Graubart suggested drawing lots, which was quickly accepted. He wrote the letters on note cards, placed them in his hat, and held it over his head. The Soviets drew first; it was B. The British next drew C, leaving Vice Admiral Ghormley to draw A and the Prinz Eugen.
The cruiser, then in drydock, transferred to U.S. control on 16 December, and at the end of the month, Captain Graubart took command. At 1000 on 5 January 1946, the Prinz Eugen officially joined the U.S. Navy when Graubart put the ship “in American service” as IX-300. The transfer was not the smoothest. Graubert told Captain Reinicke, who was still on board, that he would issue the orders putting the ship in service to both the U.S. crew and the German crew. Reinicke argued that he was captain of the cruiser and would relay the orders. Graubert replied that his counterpart was ex-captain of the Prinz Eugen and that he, Graubart, was captain of the USS Prinz Eugen (IX-300). Reinicke could not argue the point.
On 13 January the cruiser departed her homeland for the last time, manned by 600 Germans and 88 Americans. Ten days later she arrived in Boston Harbor. There both crews learned that the ship would be used for conventional testing and then Operations Crossroads nucelar-bomb testing in the Pacific, to be followed by her later destruction. In early February, the Prinz Eugen moved to Philadelphia Navy Yard. There she was thoroughly inspected and certain equipment was removed for detailed testing. The two A turret 8-inch guns were removed, along with gunnery optics, antiaircraft towers and controls, and the aircraft catapult and its accompanying two Arado Ar 196 A-5 seaplanes.
Her trip to Bikini Atoll began on 11 March. En route the cruiser stopped in San Diego, California, for repairs and removal of her sonar gear. After additional testing, the German crew was released from duty on 1 May. Reinicke secretively weighted down the ship’s naval ensign that had been lowered during her surrender in Copenhagen and dropped it into the Pacific. Transit to Pearl Harbor took nine days from her departure on 10 May. The cruiser’s boilers had broken down, and she needed to be towed into port. Her final transit began on 3 June and ended six days later with her arrival at Bikini.
Situated approximately 1,200 yards from the detonation point on Able Day, 1 July, when a Fat Man bomb as used on Nagasaki was air dropped, the Prinz Eugen received only superficial damage and minimal radiation contamination. She was less fortunate on 25 July, Baker Day, when a similar weapon was detonated while suspended 90 feet below the landing ship LSM-60. Anchored farther away from the blast point at 2,000 yards, the cruiser suffered slight damage with minor flooding in both steering and engineering compartments. But it was fatal. Contamination was considered lethal, thus repairs could not be made.
Late that month the Prinz Eugen was moved to Kwajalein Lagoon—formerly German territory—where she sank on 22 December. A propeller was recovered and donated by the Navy to Germany for a naval memorial in Kiel. What remains of the wreck is significantly deteriorated.