Thursday, April 6, 2017



Although the first war between Germany and the United States was fought thousands of miles away in Europe, Guam had a historic role in it. The first shots fired by an American against the Germans in that war were fired on Guam. And, a German ship was scuttled in Apra Harbor, the first German naval loss in the war with America.

                                                                The SMS Cormoran


In 1914, World War One broke out. The United States was not involved in the war yet. But Japan was, and Japan joined the allies in fighting Germany. Germany owned all of Micronesia, except Guam, and the Japanese were out to take Micronesia over from the Germans.

A German ship, the Cormoran, was sailing in our part of the Pacific, trying to avoid meeting up with Japanese ships. But she was running low on coal, the fuel source enabling the ship to sail. Hiding out near Lamotrek in the Carolines, the captain of the Cormoran, Adalbert Zuckschwerdt, sent a small boat to Guam asking for coal. The Americans interned the Germans. The U.S. was not involved in the war and didn't want to give the Japanese a reason to accuse them of aiding the Germans.

When the small boat did not return to the Cormoran, the Cormoran itself sailed for Guam, arriving in December. The Americans refused to give the Germans coal and gave them one day to leave Guam or be interned. When the ship was still in Apra Harbor the next day, the Cormoran was interned. For more than two years, the Cormoran sat idle in Apra Harbor. During that time, the crew generally was able to come ashore and spend time on the island, at designated places and at designated times. Depending on the governor, the Germans actually became part of the social life of Guam, attending dinners and parties. A German crew member and an American nurse actually fell in love and married on Guam.

German crew members of the Cormoran and a Chamorro boy


By 1917, relations between the U.S. and Germany had gotten so bad that the U.S. was more willing to enter into the war.

On April 7, 1917, the Governor of Guam at the time, Roy Smith, got word from Washington, DC that the U.S. was now at war with Germany. Smith sent a lieutenant to inform Captain Zuckschwerdt of the Cormoran of the fact and that he was being ordered by Smith to turn the ship over to U.S. hands.

Zuckschwerdt refused. As the American party was sailing back to Piti to inform Governor Smith of the German refusal to surrender the ship, the Cormoran exploded. Zuckschwerdt had decided to blow up his own ship rather than let it fall in American hands. A bomb which he had successfully hidden from American inspection (by disassembling it) was used to blow a hole in the hull of the ship. The sick crew members and those who couldn't swim had been let down moments before in the ship's one and only life boat. The rest dove into the water. Seven crew members did not survive.

A U.S. Marine, a Major Ethelbert Talbot, had shot his rifle at the Germans in the midst of all this commotion; the first shot fired by an American at a German target in World War One.


The Cormoran sank and remains to this day under water in Apra Harbor. Twenty-seven years later, another ship sank in Apra Harbor and came to rest just above the Cormoran. This time it was a Japanese ship, the Tokai Maru, sank by American attack in World War II.

This is another Guam first and only. Only in Apra Harbor can one find a naval casualty of both world wars resting in the same exact location.


The German casualties of the Cormoran explosion were buried in the Naval Cemetery in Hagåtña. A marker was made by the Germans themselves, with a German inscription : The dead of the SMS Cormoran. It can still be seen in the Naval Cemetery, 100 years after the event.

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