The day – the birth of the eagle: How a Nazi training ship found its way to the Coast Guard Academy

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Editor’s note: This report is from the books “The Skipper and the Eagle” by Gordon McGowan and “The Barque of Saviors” by Russell Drumm “and the archives of The Day.

The three-master that appeared in the harbor on the morning of July 12, 1946 looked like something from New London’s past, but belonged to the future.

Almost 100 meters long, with a graceful, white painted steel hull, it was rigged up as a barque: square sails on fore and main mast, fore and aft sails on mizzen mast. The ship docked at Fort Trumbull and was later inspected by 1,200 curious people.

This week, 75 years ago, New London got its first glimpse of what would become one of its enduring icons: the Coast Guard’s Bark Eagle.

The arrival fitted in with a pattern of events that shaped 1946: the joining of the loose ends of World War II. The US Maritime Service Officers School at Fort Trumbull has completed and closed its final class. Electric Boat launched its last submarines from war treaties. EB’s closed Victory Yard was sold to a pharmaceutical company called Pfizer.

There was also unfinished business at the Coast Guard Academy. During the war, 5,000 cadets had the unusual chance to study on a square sail. The training ship Danmark, which was in American waters when the Nazis invaded his homeland, offered its services to the USA and was assigned to the academy. Denmark had since left, but officials learned that a replacement was available in the ruins of Germany.

A ship built by the Third Reich found its way to New London to become a mainstay of the Coast Guard.

* * *

Cmdr. Gordon McGowan taught seamanship at the academy, but says his experience as a square sailor was limited. He had spent his early years in service on a destroyer during Prohibition.

So he was pleased when he received the order in early 1946 to fly to Bremerhaven in occupied Germany, to take command of a naval training ship and to sail it back. The Allies split up the German fleet and the US claimed the ship as spoils of war.

McGowan might not be fully qualified for the job, but he knew more than most of the others in attendance.

“The argument ‘In a village with the blind is a one-eyed king’ must have guided those who wrote my orders,” McGowan later wrote. “I was the one-eyed Coast Guard man.”

In Bremerhaven, McGowan saw a city that had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. He found what he was looking for in a destroyed shipyard. The training ship Horst Wessel rested on the bottom of the Weser at low tide.

It looked deserted, but when McGowan got on board, he found the German crew there. Without orders and without a purpose, they served in a navy that no longer existed.

* * *

Ten years earlier, Bertha Wessel, the mother of the namesake, had christened her ship with champagne in the pomp of the Third Reich at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg.

“Horst Wessel” was an unusual name for a ship even during the Nazi era. Most ships honored German naval heroes of yesteryear, but Wessel was a supporter of Adolf Hitler, who composed the Nazi anthem. At the age of 22, he was murdered by his girlfriend’s ex-lover, but the propaganda turned the pathetic incident into a martyr’s death.

“This ship is supposed to bear the name of the fighter and poet at the head of the German revolution,” said the deputy leader Rudolf Hess at the baptism, while Hitler listened behind him.

Horst Wessel was the second of three square sailors built for the sailing training fleet after a disaster in 1932 in which the training ship Niobe capsized in a storm and killed 69 people.

The war stopped Horst Wessel’s mission to travel the North Atlantic. The barque served for a few years to train members of the Navy Hitler Youth before it was reactivated as a naval ship towards the end of the war.

In April 1945 the ship loaded with refugees sailed west along the German Baltic coast, away from the advancing Soviet army. It was intercepted and disarmed by a British prize crew. After Germany surrendered, its flag was lowered.

While the Allied navies haggled for the spoils of war, Horst Wessel was dragged to Bremerhaven to await his fate.

* * *

McGowan didn’t become captain straight away. Horst Wessel was initially under the nominal command of Bertold Schnibbe, a tall, slim 35-year-old whose team affectionately addressed him as “Ka-Leut”, a diminutive of his rank, captain-lieutenant.

McGowan wondered how the military of a defeated nation would treat him and was surprised to find Schnibbe who showed respect and kindness to his successor and crew members who stood out every time he showed up.

Schnibbe explained that the German Navy saw itself as a professional combat force largely without Nazi fanaticism. Nevertheless, by order of Hitler, the ship was equipped with an explosive charge and was to be blown up in the event of a surrender. After Hitler’s death, the order was lifted.

Impressed by the complex rigging of the ship, McGowan faced a major task in making it seaworthy. Everything he needed – canvas, linen, paint – was hard to find, and supply officers kept sending his men to warehouses across Germany that were nothing more than four roofless walls. A replacement engine block turned out to be the wrong model, despite researching it down to the serial number.

The overhaul took months, but there was more of a challenge. McGowan had 50 coast guards on hand, 250 fewer than he needed to fully man the ship. But others were not available. So he forged a plan to “borrow” some German ex-marine volunteers from a British minesweeping project plus Horst Wessel’s crew to strengthen the ranks.

The ship’s new name was to be “Eagle”, which had a long Coast Guard pedigree. But when McGowan brought the news to Schnibbe, the German giggled and put his hands a foot apart.

“Hedgehog?” he asked. “In German this word means small animal, what is called ‘marmot’.” McGowan explained that “eagle” was English for “eagle”. Understanding, Schnibble said: “That’s a beautiful name, Captain. It couldn’t be better.”

The new name also corresponded to the ship’s figurehead. The shipyard doing the repairs gave the crew a piece of teak that was hand carved into a shield to replace the swastika that the wooden eagle held in its talons.

On May 15, 1946, the Eagle was ceded to a commissioned Coast Guard ship in a ceremony on board. With McGowan in command now, he was afraid of having to ask Schnibbe to vacate the captain’s quarters. But the German had moved to another cabin alone.

When McGowan went to thank him there, “his head was on the desk, his arms outstretched. His shoulders trembled slightly. Seeing that he hadn’t noticed my intrusion, I quietly crept away.”

* * *

On sailing day, McGowan was faced with an unpleasant task. A boy named Eddie, orphaned by the war, had joined the crew. He displayed a military demeanor and spoke perfect English, endorsed himself and was clearly looking for a ticket to the United States

Knowing McGowan should have discouraged the stubbornness, McGowan sternly ordered the crew to bring out Eddie, who had disappeared, probably with the intention of reappearing as a stowaway once the ship was at sea.

“It took about half an hour, but they kicked and biting him against the side of the ship,” wrote McGowan. “Reproachful looks were directed in my direction as they gently lowered it over the side.”

After a stop in Falmouth, England, Eagle went out to sea and visited two Atlantic paradises: Madeira and Bermuda. With most of the route behind them and the crew having few problems, the trip seemed enchanted.

But McGowan had the nagging feeling that he had overlooked something. Two days from New York, he decided the weather was suspicious but let himself be dissuaded from changing course. When he awoke to the noise of the wind at night, he knew he had made a mistake. Eagle was soon in the middle of a hurricane.

“The voice of the storm was more than a roar,” wrote McGowan. “There was the sharp, tearing sound – the ripping of the fabric of the gates of Hell. … The front top and bottom tops were the first to go. A moment they were there, a second later they were gone. ”A total of $ 20,000 sails burst like balloons.

Amid towering seas and 80-knot winds, McGowan struggled to lift himself and let Eagle ride the storm. He made the difficult maneuver and the ship survived.

Beaten but triumphant, Eagle sailed to New York, put the Germans in a POW camp, and then went to his new home in New London.

“Our initiation was strict,” wrote McGowan. “… I had my proof that a square sail ship is a good place for a novice to get his introduction to the sea.”

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