The USS Schurz is a 295 foot long World War I cruiser that is in 110 feet of water with the highest part, the boilers, rising to about 100 feet. About 28 miles south of the Beaufort Inlet, it usually takes about an hour and thirty minutes to reach this dive site after leaving the inlet. It is sometimes called the "World War I wreck". The wreck is spread out on the sandy bottom. If you look under the deck plates, you can still see rifle ammunition in clips of five. There is a deck gun lying in the sand. Some of the sighting mechanisms have already been recovered.
During the summer, the water temperature ranges from the upper 70's to the low 80's. Visibility averages 60 feet but can get up over a 100 feet. There are usually schools of amberjack and baitfish swimming around the USS Schurz.
The USS Schurz was originally named the SMS Geier, an unprotected cruiser in the German Navy. It is ironic that a German made ship wound up fighting against Germany in World War I. The SMS Geier had an iron hull, but was covered in wood so that sheets of copper could be attached. The sheets of copper were added to keep barnacles from growing of the hull because its oxide is toxic to the barnacles. In addition to having engines, she also had three masts for sails.
The SMS Geier was an independent commerce raider, which meant that she overtook unarmed merchant ships at sea or trapped them in isolated ports. After her presence became known, she became a hunted ship. For a month, she eluded being captured but was still searching for new victims. Unfortunately for the SMS Geier, there were no victims and her coal was running low and her engines needed repairs. She put into port in Honolulu, which was still a neutral territory because the United States hadn't become directly involved in World War I yet.
After putting into port, the Japanese battleship Hizen and the armored cruiser Asama started patrolling the three-mile limit outside the harbor. They couldn't enter the three-mile limit, but they knew that according to law, a warship could only stay in a neutral port for 24 hours. If they stayed longer than 24 hours, they would become interned, taken into possession by the country of the neutral port. Karl Grasshof, the captain of the SMS Geier, knew the Japanese ships were waited for his ship to leave the port so they could start firing. There was a clause in the law that allowed a warship to dock as long as possible so that necessary repairs could be made that would make the ship seaworthy. Grasshof used this clause to try and wait out the Japanese. He hoped they would get tired of waiting and would leave to go after other targets.
This stalemate lasted for three weeks until the United States seized the SMS Geier and her crew. Since the United States wasn't at war with Germany, they were only detainees and not prisoners of war. Under international treaty, they were not allowed to advance the war effort of their country. The guns and ammunition aboard the SMS Geier were turned over to the United States.
The SMS Geier stayed docked in Honolulu for two and a half years as a detained ship. The diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany were becoming strained and it appeared that a declaration of war was forthcoming. The German government issued secret orders to Grasshof to wreck the ship so it couldn't be used against them. On February 4, 1917, the crew drained all of the water out of the boilers and lit the fires beneath them causing damage to the boilers and to the regulating machinery. The damage wasn't as severe as they had hoped. The officers and enlisted personnel were locked up in the stockade and the SMS Geier was moved to Pearl Harbor. The Navy inspected the ship and found hidden machine guns, which violated the neutrality of the ship, and that the crew had removed parts from the main battery of guns and tossed them overboard.
After reading Grasshof's logbook, the Navy discovered that the crew violated the neutrality treaty again by advancing the war effort of their country by relaying messages from German agents in the United States to Japan. When they were transmitting the messages, they played loud music to cover up the crackling of electricity from the radio.
The crew was arraigned for sabotage of their ship. The U.S. District Attorney released them from detention, but not internment. This was done because the ships belonged to Germany and the United States couldn't exercise any control over the crews because the ships were voluntarily interned.
The United States entered the war against Germany on April 6, 1917. On May 22, 1917, an executive order was issued that all interned German ships were to be officially seized in the name of the United States. The SMS Geier was seized, as well as nine other ships in Honolulu.
The boilers and other broken machinery were repaired that summer. The center mast was removed, leaving the fore and aft masts. Divers recovered some of the parts from the main battery guns. The parts that weren't recovered were machined. All of the ammunition and munitions that had been confiscated was put back on the ship. There were 867 shells for the main battery, 5 torpedoes, 14,000 rounds for the rifles and machine guns, and 12,000 rounds of 8.8 mm pistol ammunition. There were also 80 1906 Mauser rifles and 39 9 mm Luger pistols.
On September 15, 1917, the USS Schurz was commissioned and Commander Arthur Crenshaw took command. The USS Schurz was named after Carl Schurz, a liberal who fled Germany after the 1848 revolution. He came to the United States and became a writer, an editor, a public speaker, a general in the Union Army, a Senator from Missouri, and the Secretary of the Interior. The final crew totaled 12 officers and 185 enlisted men when the USS Schurz left Pearl Harbor on October 31, 1917.
After serving on submarine escort duty, the USS Schurz passed through the Panama Canal and continued on to New Orleans and Key West. On February 20, 1918, Commander William Wells relieved Captain Crenshaw as the commanding officer. On March 19, 1918, the USS Schurz was put in dry dock in Charleston, SC for hull maintenance and to have her main battery guns replaced with four 5-inch guns. The Mausers were replaced with 72 30-calibur Springfield rifles and the Lugers were replaced with 15 Colt .45 pistols.
On Aril 27, 1918, she put back to sea. On June 19, 1918, the USS Schurz left New York bound for Key West with 215 men onboard. In the early morning hours of June 21, 1918, the USS Schurz was in a dense fog 10 miles past Cape Lookout. A tanker, the Florida came out of the darkness directly toward the USS Schurz. They were both running without lights to evade enemy submarines. As they were 900 yards apart, the Florida turned on her running lights and blew four short blasts on her horn. The warning came too late as the Florida's bow cut into the starboard side of the USS Schurz. One crewman was killed on the USS Schurz in the initial impact.
The USS Schurz sent out an SOS that was heard by the Saramacca, an American steamship returning from the West Indies. The Saramacca picked up the sailors in the water and the ones picked up the Florida. One of the sails was left up and caused the ship to drift for 12 miles. As the last survivor was picked up, the USS Schurz was still afloat and the Captain and executive officer discussed the possibility of moving the ship inshore to the beach at Cape Lookout. Before a small crew could reboard, the USS Schurz listed to port and slid beneath the water. The Florida continued on to port under her own power.