“The German raider, Alexander Agassiz, being sighted, the United J- States gunboat Vicksburg gave chase at full speed.”
The above reads like tomorrow’s newspaper. Actually it is copied from the U. S. Navy Official War Diary of the Vicksburg dated March, 1918, in the files of the Navy Department.
The Diary continues:
This German raider was flying the United States colors and was attempting to escape but was stopped by a shot across his bow. A German flag was found on board and arms and ammunition. Also five Germans, one American spy, two women, six Mexicans. Many ship’s papers. . . .
The raider was seen to throw other articles overboard during the chase .. . The Germans were placed in single irons for safe keeping.
The action took place approximately 3 miles from the Mexican seaport of Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast.
What were “the other articles” which this German raider was “seen to throw overboard” when he was halted by the shortest naval signal ever made: A shot across a ship's bow?
They were incriminating—these other articles—heavy guns; secret code books; secret instructions from the German Ambassador, very likely; and also detonators.
Detonators for certain. All German raiders carried detonators. Standard equipment for that kind of business—for sinking captured merchant ships at sea, quickly and without a trace. First used in large- scale ship explosion work by that master saboteur, Dr. Bunz. He it was, according to that famed Captain von Rintelin, a convicted spy, who first brought detonators to Von Rintelin’s attention in New York in the early days of the World War.
Please get me some detonators. We need them for sinking merchant munition ships bound for England. We work this way: I charter a peaceful looking American tramp steamer and after disposing of her officers, I put German mercantile officers in their places. These are German naval reservists. Our tramp steamer then puts to sea in the regular way, flying the American flag. We meet another tramp loaded with munitions for England. Then we hoist the German war flag and send an armed party on board with a supply of detonators. These are used to blow up the ship and munitions on board.
How strikingly similar was the Bunz-Rintelin disguised raider of the 1915-17 era to the actual war raider, Alexander Agassiz, which the Vicksburg caught in the practical act of ocean raiding the following year.
Guilty in circumstance as was the action of the officers of the Agassiz in throwing overboard these articles the moment they discovered themselves being chased by an American gunboat, that action unquestionably saved them from being convicted later in the U. S. Federal Admiralty Prize Court.
To get the background let us enter the seaport of Mazatlan, Pacific coast of Mexico, in the World War days. Germans in Mexico City and German naval reservists in Mexican ports conspired and plotted to make war directly and indirectly on the maritime interests of the United States. It was Von Eckhardt, German Ambassador to Mexico, who, acting on instructions from Berlin, sought an offensive alliance with Mexico. The price offered—Mexico was to “recover the lost provinces” of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
German agents south of the Rio Grande, plentifully supplied with gold marks and German naval reservists, eager to strike a blow for the Fatherland, paced the decks of their interned ships in Rosario, near Mazatlan. The master minds of these groups collaborated with the German consulate personnel in the port in a plot to loose a raider on the Pacific trade routes between California and New York by way of the Panama Canal. Everything was made to order for these people: rich pickings in unarmed U. S. ships; daring and skilled German sea officers. It had only to be decided what ship would be best to (1) deceive the U. S. Navy ships on patrol; (2) deceive unarmed ships that nothing need be feared from a sea wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The ship fulfilling the German plotters’ needs was in Mazatlan Harbor—the Alexander Agassiz. She conformed almost perfectly to the pattern approved by Bunz-Rintelin: she would be unsuspected by merchant vessels as well as by naval patrol craft. She was a well-known, harmless, banana-boat trader along the Central American coast. Certainly not the kind to take up with enemy commerce raiding.
But better than all else to recommend the Agassiz to the Germans in Mazatlan— the vessel had the right to fly the American flag; she was duly registered as of the United States and had never been under any other flag. Practically speaking the ship and her citizenship were above suspicion and if that were not enough, the vessel’s owner was an American woman.
Revert a moment to the War Diary quotation: “A German flag was found on board and arms and ammunition. Also five Germans, one American spy, two women . . .”
The two women—who were they? One was the owner of the Agassiz, by name Maude M. Lochrane, described as of red hair and face hardened to sea life. Known in all the ports from San Francisco to San Pedro, to San Diego; thence on south, maybe to the Bay of Panama and the Galapagos Islands; capable of coping with seamen and sea serpents. She was the owner of the Agassiz and had the papers to prove her claim when the pinch came later in the Prize Court. The other does not enter importantly into this narrative; she claimed to be the wife of the American spy listed in the War Diary who as it will be noted later turned Government witness in the U. S. Admiralty Court. His name was listed in the Vicksburg’s war diary as Cornelius N. Heintz and he was known to have been serving as chief engineer on board the Agassiz.
The secret plottings of the Germans in Mazatlan eventually became known to the American consul at Mazatlan. Some of the vital information seems to have been acquired by American naval personnel during their shore liberties.
Much credit for the discovery of the Agassiz plot seems to be due the American consul at Mazatlan. Of him the official records state:
The American consul at Mazatlan, Mexico, on 11 March, 1918, informed the U. S. Secretary of State that he had what he believed to be reliable information that the 32-ton, 75-foot, gasoline powered, American schooner, Alexander Agassiz was being fitted out as a raider by a German captain and several other Germans and that a machine gun, charts, sextant, etc., had been placed on board. The American Navy took immediate steps to investigate and the U.S.S. Vicksburg and the U. S. submarine chaser No. 302 arrived off Mazatlan on 13 March. The boat was in charge of an American woman, Miss Maude M. Lochrane.
Here follows a statement from the official record that is difficult to understand: “One Cornelius N. Heintz, mechanic for Miss Lochrane, gave information to the American consul concerning the Agassiz.”
This is the identical Heintz who is listed in the War Diary and also in the log of the Vicksburg as “an American spy.” Was it meant that he was a spy in the employ of the Germans or in the employ of the United States? Heintz did in fact testify in the subsequent court trial in the U. S. Admiralty Prize Court, Los Angeles, California, to the effect that a Captain Fritz Bauman, attached to one of the German interned ships at near-by Rosario, was planning to fit out the Agassiz with a crew of his “compatriots” and that Miss Lochrane negotiated with this Captain Fritz Bauman.
Captain Fritz Bauman, it was believed in Mazatlan, was an officer in the Imperial German Navy and it was further told there that he brought romance heavily into the negotiations with the Lochrane woman—Romance plus German gold marks. In this latter connection it is recorded that Miss Lochrane was in debt to the University of California (mortgage and interest on the Agassiz).
And then came the fatal day for the Agassiz and the Germans on board, not to mention Maude M. Lochrane. A part of the narrative is well told in the official log of the U. S. submarine chaser No. 302, Ensign Leland P. Lovette, U. S. Navy, commanding:
Subchaser 302—LOG. En route Corrientes to Mazatlan, Mexico. 17 March, 1918, at 11.25, important message received as to enemy activities and reporting enemy raider. Broke out 6 pounder ammunition on deck. Also rifles and ammunition. Made best of speed to the U. S. S. Vicksburg which was sighted off the port bow.
Closed in on Vicksburg giving chase to two masted schooner, supposed to be enemy raider, taken as prize by Vicksburg, No. 302 arriving on the scene about 15 minutes late. With Brutus blocking southern entrance to Mazatlan harbor preventing escape. 11.25, two women transferred with part of Mexican sailors and five German men. . .
The narrative of the capture of the Agassiz, as recorded in the log of the old Vicksburg, Lieutenant Charles E. Reordan, commanding, is as follows:
Meridian to 4:00 p.m. At 12:25 sighted the auxiliary yawl Alexander Agassiz standing out of Mazatlan harbor. At 12:31 got underway and stood out toward Alexander Agassiz at full speed. At 12:34 called crew to general quarters. At 12:50 sighted U.S.S. SC 302 and U.S.S. Brutus standing in from the southward. At 12:49 fired shot from #1, one pounder gun across the bow of the Alexander Agassiz. At 12:50 she hove to. At 12:51 sent away armed boarding party to board the Agassiz.
At 1:46 boarding officer returned to the Vicksburg, bringing a German flag, 2 rifles, 3 pistols, ammunition, many papers found on the Agassiz and the following named prisoners ... all of whom . . . were handcuffed and put under guard. Took the vessel as a prize on account of having attempted to escape; having no proper papers, and evidence at hand and found on board that she was outfitting as a German raider. Put following prize crew on board the Agassiz. . . . Turned Mexicans in crew of Agassiz over to Mexican Captain of the Port to be landed ashore.
Then ensued a “discussion” in the Vicksburg’s cabin, attended by the three naval commanding officers, the American consul at Mazatlan; the British consul there, and the Mexican Captain of the Port. The last named, the War Diary says, “demanded that the Agassiz be released on the ground that she had not been properly cleared from the port. This was refused after a three hour discussion.”
The return of the Agassiz was demanded on at least one other ground. It was asserted in behalf of the Germans and Mexicans that the capture of the Agassiz took place in Mexican national territorial waters and was therefore illegal and should be voided. In this connection it can be stated that the capture was made in the general vicinity of the 3-mile limit but whether a few yards inside or a few yards outside can never be definitely fixed. At the time of the capture the navigator of the Vicksburg was engaged in the performance of other duties, as directed by his commanding officer. No other person concerned with the seizure is known to have taken navigational fixes.
The matter of the 3-mile limit was finally smoothed over but not before it “threatened to be of serious diplomatic consequence with Mexico” in the judgment of Rear Admiral William F. Fullam, then in command of the naval forces in the Pacific.
The very next day after the capture (losing not a moment), the Vicksburg “got under way and stood out to sea,” followed by the raider, Alexander Agassiz.
On the fourth day at sea, it became evident that the Germans characteristically had sabotaged the Agassiz’s engines when they saw themselves being captured by our Navy. A crowbar was used to smash certain engine parts.
The Vicksburg’s war diary states in this connection: “March 22, 1918. Made repairs to the engines of the Agassiz which had been damaged by the [German] crew before capture. Supplied her with necessary gasoline, water, and stores.”
The raider’s machinery had been smashed beyond the capacity of the mechanics of the Vicksburg to enable her to proceed under her own power, it appears. “At 3.44 p.m. on 23 March,” the war diary states, “took the raider in tow, her engines having broken down.”
Outside the harbor of San Diego (this being the nearest U. S. port where American Admiralty Court officers were available), the raider’s engines had become serviceable again and “at 9.57 a.m., cast off the tow [Agassiz], to proceed under her own power and stood into San Diego harbor.”
And then came the deluge! The war diary states: “At 10.18 a.m., the U.S.S. Broadbill came alongside with the Flag Lieutenant, officials of the Department of Immigration, Customs, Department of Justice, Army Intelligence, and newspaper reporters.” A half hour later the Vicksburg was able to come to anchor.
From this point on, as prescribed by statute law, the raider Agassiz, being a prize of war, had to be turned over to our Federal officials. The diary states:
March 28, 1918. United States Attorney, United States Marshal and Prize Commissioners came on board the Vicksburg to take charge of the prize. All property was turned over to the United States Marshal. Turned over to the U. S. Prize Commissioners several packages containing all papers belonging to the prize.
Thereafter, it appears, the captured German raider continued under Federal surveillance in San Diego Harbor but the Agassiz prisoners “marched up the hill and then marched down again.” The war diary says: “March 29th delivered prisoners taken from the Prize, Alexander Agassiz, to the United States Marshal” but four days later the prisoners were back on board the Vicksburg. “At 5.05 p.m. received the prisoners taken from the Alexander Agassiz from the Civil authorities for transportation to San Pedro” and the next day the Vicksburg “stood into Los Angeles Harbor and anchored at 7.35 a.m. Turned prisoners from Alexander Agassiz over to the Federal authorities.”
At this point, this strange case passed out of the hands of the U. S. Navy and entered the admiralty jurisdiction of the United States District Court, sitting at Los Angeles, Federal Judge Bledsoe presiding. One of the witnesses to the subsequent proceedings was the commanding officer of the Vicksburg. It was for the jurist to find on the evidence adduced whether the personnel responsible for the movements of the Alexander Agassiz on or about noon on March 17 had or had not fitted the vessel out with the intent to raid the seaborne commerce of the United States. It was also for Judge Bledsoe to rule on the question as to whether the seizure of the vessel by the Vicksburg was justified by the circumstances and visible evidence at the moment and by the facts previously ascertained by agents of the United States.
It was allegeable in this case that the judge could find the personnel on board the Agassiz to have been engaged in acts of piracy. As a matter of fact they were so engaged if one is willing to accept the assertion of a Mexican consulate official that the Agassiz was not properly cleared from the port and the companion allegation that papers found on board signed by officials of the German Embassy in Mexico City authorized certain persons on board the vessel to engage in naval operations in behalf of the German Emperor. Such a paper could not be equivalent to a naval commission, countersigned by the German Emperor and therefore was without worth in the circumstances.
Judge Bledsoe found that the Agassiz was seized justifiably but he also ruled that no overt act had been committed by the personnel on board (which was of course, a fact), and in view of the fact that no overt act had been committed, the Court handed down the decision that the Agassiz was not condemned but on the contrary should be restored to the vessel’s owners. This would be Miss Maude M. Lochrane.
There appears to have been considerable evidence of a contradictory nature before the Court, directly or indirectly. Cornelius Heintz, for example, one of the captured crewmen, testified that the Agassiz was fitted out as a raider but this seems to have been ruled as inadmissible. The testimony of Heintz in this particular is the same as the statement he made to the U. S. Consul at Mazatlan that “the vessel intended to act as a German raider, evidently hoping to capture some bigger ship after installing Captain Bauman, an interned German, and German crew on board.”
If other evidence is to be believed in the case of Heintz he received orders from the German Consul at Mazatlan which he swore to obey to “go to Venados Island, near Mazatlan, and get the captain and then to Santa Rosalia for ammunition, rifles and pistols, gasoline, and water for 500 miles. The Customs have been bribed as to registry.”
The owner of the Agassiz, it was developed, was the owner subject to a chattel mortgage plus interest held by the University of California from whom the purchase was made by Miss Lochrane. The total amount due, $5,400, was not collectible and accordingly a civil libel was “filed in behalf of the Agassiz prize and thereafter a monition was issued and the ship was attached by the U. S. Marshal. Answers were filed by San Diego persons for debts for fuel and provisions and by Maude Lochrane, as owner, and by the University of California as claimant.
A hearing was had and the opinion by Judge Bledsoe justified the seizure and ordered the vessel returned to the owner, Lochrane.
The costs of this civil action were ordered to be paid—half by the claimant, University of California, and half by the United States.
The aliens connected with this case were interned for the duration of the war.
The end of this case cannot be written without mention of the German man-of- war flag which was found on board the Agassiz as she was en route to sea and was stopped by a U. S. Navy shot across her bow. (At the moment of the capture, the vessel was flying the United States flag.)
The enemy flag thus captured that day was given over to the custody of the commanding officer of the Vicksburg (by proper authority) and thereafter the flag hung in the captain’s cabin of the ship until on a day unknown it was stolen by some person never discovered.
It was the only German man-of-war flag captured by the United States Navy during the first World War. What became of the flag at the time and its whereabouts now, not the slightest clue has ever been discovered.