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Ghost Ship: 1916

Ghost Ship: 1916

September 1916. "Kron Prinz Wilhelm, German ship, interned in U.S. in tow." The former passenger liner, pressed into service as a commerce raider by the Imperial German Navy at the start of World War I, being towed from the Norfolk yards to Philadelphia. During its eight months on the high seas -- after leaving New York Harbor with 2,000 tons of coal -- the converted 15,000-ton cruiser sank more than a dozen Allied ships and took hundreds of prisoners. Running low on supplies, its crew and prisoners beset by a variety of illnesses, the battered vessel sought refuge in April 1915 at Newport News, where its sailors were interned for over a year. After the United States entered the war, the ship was seized by the government, rechristened the USS Von Steuben and converted into a troop carrier. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.


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Named after the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm

Kronprinz means Crown Prince, or heir to the throne. The German term usually translated as "Baron" is "Freiherr" and is the lowest title of German nobility. This ship would have certainly been named after the Crown Prince of Germany, Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Know as "Little Willie" by the allies, he served during WWI as commander of the German 5th Army until the battle of Verdun, and then in command of an Army Group until the end of the war.,_German_Crown_Prince

The Baron came to America - Twice.

The ship's namesake is Baron (Crown Prince) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. It's interesting to note the Germans used his title and first name(s) while the US used his title and last name. He was a Prussian trained command officer who met Benjamin Franklin in Paris just as the War for Independence was breaking out in America and volunteered to come to America to help the effort - he was looking for work to help alleviate his personal debt and had heard Benjamin Franklin was going to be in Paris and travelled to meet him. He was endorsed by the French government just as France was forming their alliance with the Americans. He volunteered at first to come (later he was paid) and assist the American war effort and was immediately dispatched to join the American forces. He arrived in the US shortly before the American government was being driven out of the capital in Philadelphia by the British and was present during the exodus. He met up with Continental Army General George Washington at Valley Forge during that cold winter and began his efforts at organizing and training the Army. It's from him that the US developed its concepts of military structure and training programs still in practice today, including command structure, elementary concepts of boot camp and right down to the "in your face" training methods of Drill Sergeants still in use today. He was one of the three Commanders in charge of one of the Divisions when General Cornwallis was trapped and forced to surrender at Yorktown, VA - effectively ending the War for Independence. Incredible photo!

Dazzle Camouflage

If you've ever used a typical manual-focus 35mm camera, you might be able to picture one of the intended effects of "dazzle": making it hard to line up the linear elements in the split image of a rangefinder. Optical rangefinders, using two widely spaced lenses, were the principal method used in warships of this era to determine the distance between them and the target. In principle, you could see a dazzle-painted target plainly but still have difficulty hitting it with guns or torpedoes.


I have no doubt that Dazzle Camouflage is (or rather was) effective in the days when visual sighting rather than radar or sonar was the principal means of identifying a target. The thing is though that for a modern viewer it is difficult to imagine how it could be. We see the images in monochrome and usually under ideal conditions - the ship is in port or stationary. But of course the paint jobs weren't all - or even usually - black and white and the ships that the U-Boat skippers saw were moving through seas at various states and weather conditions. I guess what I'm saying is that when we see black & white photos of ships in Dazzle Camouflage we aren't even getting part of the true effect.

High-Difference Camouflage

Some great photos of dazzle-painted ships here and here.

Early camouflage

I don't think that early camo schemes like dazzle were intended to deceive the viewer in the sense of not seeing the target but to confuse the outline to make identification more difficult. If a ship could be identified (or at least its class) then the apparent size of the image could make the range estimation much more accurate if looking though a periscope, and the size of the bow wave could improve the speed estimate, raising the probability of a hit. I have seen pictures of ships painted with a false bow wave so that its speed would be overestimated, resulting in a torpedo miss instead of a hit. Anything that reduced the probability of a hit was helpful.

Painting Ship

Looking over the images on Shorpy's there aren't many times when I wish that a black & white photo were in colour, but some of these ship pictures are among them. The photos of the Santa Olivia are a huge contrast, but would she have looked as much like a rust bucket in the second photo in colour than she does in black & white. The paint work on the dazzle camouflage patterns in the first picture are so sharp and clear that you'd wonder that it deceived anyone. How much of the appearance of the "rust bucket" version of the ship is dirt and grime and rust, and how much is a more effective effort to deceive?

I think Kronprinz Wilhelm was a rust bucket, almost certainly after almost a year of internment following her time as a raider.

Coming to America

This is the ship my great great grandfather came to America on!

Hard-used Navy ships

The USS Santa Olivia was a civilian cargo ship taken over by the Navy as a troop ship. My grandmother's uncle was an officer on her.

Below: the ship on completion in July 1918 and then probably in May 1919, when she looks like a rust bucket. I think they just ran the ships back and forth across the Atlantic constantly with no time to paint them.

Passenger ships of that era.

Those wires are cables for supporting the masts. In regards to captured German cruise ships, there were quite a few that had serious electrical problems. In some cases wiring inside the walls would short and cause fires inside the walls themselves. A few ships burned completely. The Kron Prinz Wilhelm from what I read was used by the US Navy until 1923 and scrapped. A shame. Ships of this era are works of art.

World War I Emergency Shipbuilding

The answer to Miguel Chavez's question is yes (I'm tempted to write of course). There was a program to produce -- I'm not sure we can say mass produce in that period -- relatively simply designed cargo ships called Hog Islanders at a shipyard at that location (I think it might have been near Philadelphia). Also there was a crash program to produce concrete ships (they would be called ferrocement ships today), becasue steel was in such short supply. Rather surprisingly, they looked just like contemporary steel cargo ships. Also, shipyards in Maine swung into high gear to produce large numbers of wooden, mostly sail-powered schooners, although I don't think there was any Government program behind this, just private industry sensing a chance for a profit.

The last of the concrete ships is partly visible above the water off Cape May Point, New Jersey, to this day.

I believe these programs were almost complete failures. The innovative new designs, while they were economical of materials and labor to produce, didn't start hitting the water in numbers until the war was practically over. In addition, many of them had mechanical or reliability problems and were not successful in a functional sense, either. The Hog Islanders were the most effective at carrying cargo and many of them remained commercially viable until 1929, when the bottom fell out of the shipping market. A few of the Maine sailing ships remained viable till World War II.

Possibly Mr. Kaiser and his associates studied this period's failures and that's how the Liberty ships were so successful.

A Warship

I believe that Kronprinz Wilhelm's decrepit state is due to the fact that she was considered a warship, and under international law she couldn't be repaired or even maintained once she was interned. On the other hand, ships like the Imperator, which weren't converted to warships could be maintained by their crews, and could even sail back to Germany. The big problem for them was the blockade - at both ends of the trip. The Royal Navy and the dominion navies (the Royal Canadian and Royal Australian Navies) maintained a blockade of American ports. Their ships would lurk just outside the territorial limit waiting for German ships to try to make a run for it and then seize them. HMCS Niobe operated off New York until 1915 when she was declared "worn out" and HMCS Rainbow operated off Seattle. She even managed to capture a pair of German schooners that tried to escape that port.

[The ship could have been fixed up before heading out to sea, but the captain chose to stay put. Below: New York Times. - Dave]

Wait a minute: Timeline?

So the picture is from Sept 1916, and the ship is (still?) completely messed up. In April 1915 the battered ship had sought refuge; sailors interned for over year; and then sent home sometime in 1916? (US enters the war in April 1917.) Is one of these dates incorrect?

[The dates are all correct. After the United States entered the war, the sailors (who, after their ship was sent to Philadelphia, remained at Norfolk in a "German village" they constructed that became a popular tourist attraction) became prisoners of war and were sent to POW camps in Georgia. - Dave]

The Q-Ship

Spot on... Like you said, a Raider (or Q-ship on our side) depended on spoofing by fooling the warships and preying on the unarmed (or lightly armed) merchants and so did not need heavy arms. Some cut away portions of the gunwale and covered with painted canvas (or other material) sections that could drop away to expose the guns.

I met an old man that was a victim of some German raider during WWII off the west coast of Africa. He was on a sailing merchant ship when they were captured, put adrift on a lifeboat, and witnessed the scuttling of their ship. They were a week at sea before landing at some fishing village in Africa and made their way back to a port and in time back to the USA where he continued in the merchant marine through the remainder of the war.

Armed Merchant Cruisers

Kronprinz Wilhelm, like most fast passenger liners including British ships like the Lusitania, were designed (in their blueprints) to serve as armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. For example Lusitania had gun mounts on her port and starboard sides, although guns were never mounted. This was all part of a scheme in which the various governments could subsidize the construction of civilian liners with funds from their navies on the grounds that they could be used as warships. Their speed made them faster than just about anything else on the seas, but that speed meant burning a lot of coal, which was a problem for a country like Germany that couldn't send out regular supplies to its raiders. They also couldn't stand up to even an obsolete warship, as the Kronprinz Wilhelm's sister ship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse found out when she went up against the aged HMS Highflyer. Later, more successful German raiders tended to be slower more nondescript merchant ships like Wolf II which sank 35 merchant ships and 2 warships in a 451 day cruise, or the sailing ship Seeadler, which sank 15 ships in a 225 day cruise.

Wartime shortages

I've read in many accounts that things became quite hard in the States when they finally entered the Great War, and that there were many shortages in raw materials and goods and services due to the conversion to a wartime economy. But interestingly enough, even though there was a very important use of American infrastructure to turn out war materiel, there was not a complete production reconversion as in WWII. Many car companies, for example, did reduce their output and produce trucks and ambulances for the armed forces, but they nevertheless were still able to produce (and sell) cars to the civilians.

This photo is very interesting, because it shows the importance of these huge and heavy pieces of manufactured equipment in the war effort of any economy. Ships were still the main way to carry large amounts of supplies and soldiers across the Atlantic, and yet they were of strategic importance to any country involved in the war effort. Being a pirate ship under an enemy flag, and considering the cost and time it would take to build an equivalent ship in war conditions, it is evident why the government commissioned this ship to serve under the U.S. flag.

I just can't help wondering; of course I know the States had an active shipbuilding industry back then, but, did they build special-purpose ships during the first World War, like they did with the famous Liberty Ship of the 1940's? Where, how, how many ships they built? And what happened to the many converted steamboats that were used for transporting troops during the war? Were they returned to their owners? Did any of them resume civilian passenger service after the war?

Like is always the case with Shorpy, a very interesting and educational photo, worth a lot of research. Thanks for sharing!


Halfway up the mast there's a crow's nest, which would have dated from the ship's use as a liner. Viewers of "Titanic" will remember the scene just prior to the collision with the two sailors in the same post.

No Sails

No sails on that ship. The rigging lines visible in the photo are heavy stays to support the masts for the lookout (crow's nest), for cargo handling when a boom is slung, and for the ship's wireless. The antennas would run fore/aft between the masts, but they were much thinner wires and don't show in the photo.

The Masts

I believe the masts and rigging are cranes used to lift cargo out of the ship's holds.


Wow, what a rustbucket.


Very interesting. Even though it is obviously a coal powered ship it has masts and rigging indicating that it could also be sailed under wind power.

[That "rigging" might be antennas for the ship's wireless. Experts? - Dave]

Wilhelm's Guns

It would be interesting to know what kind of armament this ship carried as a "raider." It certainly looks innocent enough from this view. What a great story this would make for a period-piece motion picture!

[Exactly what I was thinking. The Wilhelm led quite a dramatic life. The ship seems to have been lightly armed. Wikipedia says two 88mm guns, one machine gun and two 120 mm guns. And of course a lot of small arms. Attacking mostly unarmed and much slower merchant ships, it didn't need much in the way of guns. It was basically a modern-day pirate ship that sailed around under the British flag. It would hail an Allied ship, steam alongside and then raise the German flag instead of the skull and crossbones, send a boarding party, take prisoners, scuttle the enemy ship and be on its way. - Dave]

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