Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
Copyright. All rights reserved.


Enemy or Tourist Attraction: The German Village at the Norfolk Navy Yard during World War I
Permission has been granted to reprint this research by author Bill Edwards-Bodmer
Pictures the property of Marcus W. Robbins

If you woke up in Hampton Roads on the morning of April 11, 1915, you may have had a serious case déjà vu. Looming off the beach near Ocean View was a gray, rusting behemoth of a ship, the Kronprinz Wilhelm. Despite its battered appearance, Kronprinz Wilhelm was something of a celebrity. For the past 8 months, the German luxury-liner-turned-commerce-raider had been terrorizing Allied shipping during the opening year of World War I. Now here it was. The funny thing, though, is that this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened. Almost exactly a month earlier another German commerce raider, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, paid a visit to Hampton Roads for the same reasons as the Wilhelm, and was now interned here at the Norfolk Navy Yard. So who were these ships?

In its heyday, Kronprinz Wilhelm appeared as one of the grandest and fastest passenger liners of its era. Think Titanic but a bit smaller and minus Leonardo DiCaprio. Named in honor of the young heir to the German throne, the ship was launched on March 30, 1901, by A G Vulcan Shipbuilding Company at Stettin, Germany. Built for speed, the Wilhelm plied the Bremen-New York route, setting record times for Atlantic crossings. The ship was advertised as part of the “Royal Family” of the North German Lloyd Steamship Line and its lavish accommodations made it especially popular among wealthy passengers. Prince Heinrich of Prussia even chose to sail on the Wilhelm for an official state visit to the United States in 1902.

Prinz Eitel Friedrich was a fellow North German Lloyd steamship also built by AG Vulcan and launched in 1904. The ship served on routes in the Asia Pacific region. Like the Wilhelm, Prinz Eitel Friedrich was also prized for its speed. Speed would soon come in handy for both ships.

But these were no ordinary liners anymore. At the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the German Navy pressed both ships into wartime service as auxiliary cruisers. Their mission: sink Allied merchant shipping. And sink Allied merchant shipping they did: the Wilhelm some 60,000 tons over a 251-day, 37,666 mile cruise and the Eitel some 33,000 tons.

The Wilhelm had a particularly interesting, and well-documented, run. With war looming in Europe during the summer of 1914, the Wilhelm was docked at New York. Recently overhauled, the ship had been scheduled to make a passenger run to Bremen in early August, but all North German Lloyd trips were cancelled in late July, as tensions mounted in Europe. Then, on that fateful August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, the Wilhelm’s captain received two sets of orders: one to take on supplies and proceed at once to a sea, and second set of sealed orders to be opened once cleared of U.S. waters. The Wilhelm began at once to take on extra quantities of coal, food, and other provisions. At 8:10pm the following evening, August 2, assisted by eight tugs and empty of any passengers, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed out of the New York harbor towards the Atlantic. Speculation mounted as to what the ship was up to. The New York Times and Washington Post both noted that the ship was officially cleared by U.S. Customs to sail for Bremen. Both papers also pointed out that this was highly unlikely and surmised that the Wilhelm was heading to refuel German naval ships at sea. Adding to the mystery was a large, unusually shaped crate on the ship’s forward deck, which, according to the New York Times, “might very well cover a naval gun, mounted for use.”(1) The contents of this crate have never been confirmed. Even Alfred von Niezychowski, a lieutenant on the Wilhelm, makes no mention of the mystery crate in his memoir, The Cruise of Kronprinz Wilhelm.

Rendezvous and Transformation To Commerce Raider

Once at sea, the captain opened his sealed orders and saw that he was to sail to a specified rendezvous with the German cruiser SMS Karlsruhe. When the two ships met on August 6, Karlsruhe transferred two 88 mm guns and other arms and ammunition to the Wilhelm in exchange for coal and provisions. The Wilhelm also received a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Paul Thierfelder, formerly Karlsruhe’s navigation officer. With this change in command, Kronprinz Wilhelm officially became an auxiliary cruiser in the Imperial German Navy. Its mission: to hunt down and destroy Allied merchant shipping.

Under Captain Thierfelder’s command, the crew continued the transformation of the Wilhelm into a war ship. Exterior surfaces were painted a dull gray to help disguise its identity and act as camouflage at sea. They also set about removing glass and wood paneling to prevent flying shrapnel in the event of battle. Mattresses and carpeting was used to pad vulnerable areas on deck. The first-class smoking room was converted into a sick bay and, in the words of Niezychowski, “the now purposeless grand saloon, which from a chamber of palatial magnificence was thus brutally metamorphosed into a reserve coal bin.” Carrying extra coal was of particular concern as the ship burned through it the furious pace of 500 tons a day. The crew also mounted the two 88 mm guns, nicknamed White Arrow and Bass Drum, to the port and starboard sides of the forecastle. A movable machine gun christened the Riveter was installed on the bridge.(2) Kronprinz Wilhelm was now ready to prey on Allied shipping.

First Prize

It didn’t have to wait long. On night September 4, crew spotted a one-funneled steamer that turned out to be the British merchant ship Indian Prince. After a brief chase, the British ship surrendered. Passengers and supplies, including the always-needed coal, from Indian Prince were transferred to the German raider. Passengers were given rooms in the first-class accommodations on Kronprinz Wilhelm. Later accounts from prisoners taken by the German raider attest to the hospitable treatment they received aboard Kronprinz Wilhelm. After all needed supplies had been brought over, the seacocks on Indian Prince were opened and the British ship soon slipped beneath the waves. Kronprinz Wilhelm had taken its first prize.

Over the next 251 days, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed 37,666 miles around the south Atlantic and destroyed some 60,000 tons of Allied shipping from fourteen ships, a majority of which were either British or French. Most ships were scuttled be opening their seacocks and/or exploding dynamite in the bottom of the hulls. On one occasion, though, Captain Thierfelder decided ramming was the best option, and set about cutting the British schooner Wilfred M. in two by plowing the massive German ship straight through the much smaller sailing vessel. Word of Kronprinz Wilhelm’s path of destruction soon reached Allied authorities, and the British sent several ships to the Atlantic to track down and destroy the German raider.

Meanwhile, out in the Pacific, Prinz Eitel Friedrich was cutting a similar path of destruction. The German raider sank several merchant vessels deemed aiding the Allies before deciding to round Cape Horn in early January in an attempt to make it back to Germany. Along the way, the raider sank several more merchant vessels, including the American sailing vessel, William P. Frye.

By the spring of 1915, though, both ships’ luck, and coal, were running out. After the Eitel had rounded Cape Horn, it intercepted a wireless message intended for the Wilhelm giving the Wilhelm’s captain permission to head for a neutral port once the cruise was completed. The Eitel’s captain thought this was a safer option for his ship, too, and so he ended up steaming for Newport News. Unlike the Wilhelm, the Eitel steamed into Hampton Roads relatively easily early on the morning of Thursday, March 11, 1915. There were no British war ships waiting as the Royal Navy thought the German raider was still in the Pacific. After a visit by quarantine officers, the Eitel proceeded to the James River and Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company, in the process frightening sailors on a British merchant ship who, the Virginian-Pilot reported, were so startled at the sight of German flag that “there was a wild stampede from the decks.”(3) Newspaper reporters were soon allowed on board and marveled at “freshly holy-stoned” decks and sharp-dressed crew. The arrival of the Eitel was a national sensation and soon telegrams bearing family news and updates began arriving for crew members from relatives in the states. American authorities set a strict time limit for the Germans to make their repairs, and speculation immediately began as to whether the Germans would leave to continue their fight or choose to sit out the rest of the war in internment. The Daily Press recently published a wonderful article detailing the suspense surrounding the question of internment for the ships.

Kronprinz Wilhelm was able elude the British navy for months on its cruise of destruction. However, with supplies of coal and provisions rapidly dwindling and the ship’s engines needing repair from months of continuous service at sea, the Wilhelm’s captain decided to head for a neutral port for repairs and replenishment of coal and supplies. The captain had heard from wireless reports (which Americans suspected came from the Eitel) that the Eitel had recently interned at Newport News, and so ultimately decided upon Newport News for his ship, as well.

Upon reaching the Virginia capes, the Wilhelm found British ships waiting for the possibility that the Eitel, still pondering internment at this point, might make a run for the open sea. Under the cover of darkness on April 10 (and possibly encouraged by a secret wireless message from the just-interned Eitel), the Wilhelm made a daring dash between the waiting British vessels, which never spotted the German behemoth. Kronprinz Wilhelm anchored in Hampton Roads on the morning of April 11. Upon arriving, Kron Prinz Wilhelm had less than 25 tons of coal left in its bunkers and many of the crew suffering the effects of beriberi, a disease brought on by lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. The ship was soon allowed to proceed to the shipyard at Newport News to receive basic repairs and receive coal. Like the Eitel, the Wilhelm was given a strict, but secret, timeline to make necessary repairs and was strongly requested not to use their wireless systems. After that, the Germans would have to decide run the gauntlet of British ships waiting for them outside the Chesapeake Bay or intern. For weeks after each ship arrived, speculation was rampant as to what the ships would do. Would they attempt to leave? Would they stay? American authorities were insisting that the ships would intern while the German commanders insisted they had no intention of sitting out the rest of the war. The commander of the Eitel declared to a newspaper reoporter: “We haven’t given up by a long way.” In the end each chose internment. By May 1915, both German ships had been moved across Hampton Roads to the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth. Here, they were put under the supervision of the navy yard’s commandant, but according to the laws of internment were not prisoners but guests of the United States government.(4)

Because of their well-documented exploits at sea and American fascination with the war in Europe, the ships and German sailors instantly achieved celebrity status with locals. Local steamboats immediately began offering excursions to see the big ships and The Virginian Pilot was filled with articles about the ships and the sailors. If cell phones existed, there would have been selfies-galore taken with the ships. These ships were the giant rubber ducky of the time.

During the late spring and summer of 1915, the German sailors, numbering around a thousand, were allowed liberal leave from their ships and mingled with the surrounding communities. The captains and other officers were popular dinner guests with local politicians and officials. The sailors became common sights in downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth and at local beaches. Local businesses appreciated the surge in business. Local breweries, like Consumers Brewing Company in Norfolk, supplied the German ships with beer. The sailors soon opened Prinz Eitel Friedrich to tourists and even served beer on Sundays, which soon drew the ire of local religious leaders, who soon shut the Sunday beer sales down.

The Germans garnered national attention, as well. Newspapers like The Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlanta Journal & Constitution printed stories about the ships’ arrival and internment and kept readers informed with the latest developments.

Despite the excitement in the air over these famous visitors, there was a world war going on and some of these sailors had no intention of sitting it out. There were a few escapes and attempted escapes by some German sailors soon after the ships interned. The most famous escape was when six officers were allowed to purchase a small yacht, named Eclipse, ostensibly for the purpose of recreational sailing around Hampton Roads. On the morning of October 9, 1915, in plain sight, the Eclipse sailed out of Hampton Roads never to seen or heard from again. There were many reported sightings of the vessel or its wreckage, but none could be confirmed. More than likely, the ship was lost at sea. Its former owner was quoted at the time as saying “it would have taken only one sea to smash her skylights and deck openings and sink her.”(5) However that didn’t keep people from speculating. Were these Germans spies trying to make it back to Germany? Some reports had the Eclipse on its way to Mexico. Overall, according to one author, the Eclipse episode contributed to the growing “feeling, in the post-Lusitania period, that Germans couldn’t be trusted.”(6)

By mid-1915, the overall national mood was beginning to turn against Germany. German U-boat attacks, the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic, which took American lives, and reported incidents of German espionage and intrigue in U.S., had all begun to turn national opinion against Germany.(7) However, events would soon show that local view towards these particular Germans had not dampened one bit.

After the disappearance of the Eclipse, leave policy was restricted and the Germans were confined to their ships and the immediate area of the shipyard. Beginning in January 1916 men from both ship constructed a miniature German village on unoccupied land at the Navy Yard from scrap materials found around the shipyard and on their ships. The sailors had been planning their village months before the U.S. government gave them a small strip of land next to the ships to construct their village. This little village, named Eitel Wilhelm after both ships, included not only houses but other buildings and services a typical German town of the time would have, including a church, school, gymnasium, other public buildings, and police and fire departments all laid out neatly on streets with German names. Houses were painted red, green, or blue. The Germans also had farm animals and a small zoo populated with animals taken from their prizes that included typical livestock as well as more exotic creatures like birds and black pigs from the tropics. The sailors supplemented their meals with vegetables grown in gardens. They even had a village newspaper, which routinely poked fun at the British war effort. The village soon became a popular local tourist attraction. Visitors were charged a ten cent entrance fee, with the proceeds benefiting the German Red Cross. The German sailors also crafted toys and other souvenirs, along with baked goods, that were sold to visitors. The village became something of a national sensation, too, with The New York Times and other papers regularly reporting on it, and people along the east coast making the trek to see the village first hand.(8)

So, why was this village so popular despite growing anti-German feeling across the nation? From the outbreak of war, neutrality was America’s official position, with President Wilson declaring the U.S. neutral “in fact as well as in name” and calling on Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.” How Americans actually felt about the war, though, was a bit more complicated. Many Americans supported the neutral stance and wanted nothing to do with the war, which they viewed as a purely European conflict. While some felt America’s natural ally was Great Britain, there were many others who were uneasy or outright hostile to support of the Allies. Many Irish Americans still displayed great animosity towards Great Britain, resenting continued British occupation of Ireland. Likewise, millions of German Americans, including many Virginians, maintained close ties to their homeland. In fact, a number of the interned German sailors had close relatives in the United States, people who had immigrated to America in the years and decades before the war. The State Department received many requests from these Americans asking permission for their interned cousin or nephew to visit.(9)

There were even reports of Americans among the crews of the ships, especially the Kronprinz Wilhelm, which was said to have a number of former sailors from the U.S. Navy.(10) One writer who interviewed the former the Collector of the Revenue in Hampton Roads for an article on the Eclipse, quoted the former Collector as saying, “they [the officers who bought the Eclipse] were mostly from Milwaukee, not native Germans but second-generation German-Americans who, in their enthusiasm for the Fatherland, had volunteered for the German Navy and found themselves on the Kronprinz.”(11) Other newspapers reported similar stories at the time, such as The Patriot of Harrisburg, PA, which quoted a Kronprinz Wilhelm sailor for a story and identified him as being “formerly of the United States Navy.”(12) These American ties contributed to the feeling that the German sailors were not necessarily enemies.

So, despite increasing American commercial ties to the Allies at the official level, the German sailors and Eitel Wilhelm were quite popular with locals and Americans in general. The story of the German raiders added a bit of romance to an otherwise very unromantic, destructive, and bloody war. American resentment of overbearing British maritime tactics, such as stopping and searching American ships, contributed to the German ships’ popularity. The German raiders were seen as the underdogs fighting the British bully. Some Americans, such as John F. Becker, showed their support of the interned Germans both monetarily and with beer. Becker was treasurer of the William Ulmer Brewery in Brooklyn, NY and was made an honorary citizen of Eitel Wilhelm for his “repeated liberal donations for the benefit of the interned ones and their families.”(13) While Americans’ opinions of the war were complex and evolving, the most obvious reason for the friendly relations between the German sailors and Americans was a natural curiosity and fascination with their foreign (and in some cases, American) visitors.

This would soon to an end, though. By the end of that summer in 1916, the United States was rapidly increasing its preparations for war, including appropriations for expansions at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The Germans and their village would have to go. The village was soon destroyed and on the morning of September 29, 1916, the German ships and sailors were transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the German sailors became prisoners of war and were moved to Fort McPherson in Georgia. Perhaps indicative of their new relations, the German sailors attempted to sabotage their ships before being sent to the POW camp. The ships, though, were confiscated by the U.S. and became troop transports during war; Kronprinz Wilhelm becoming USS Von Steuben and Prinz Eitel Friedrich becoming USS De Kalb.

After America entered the war, the village was quickly forgotten and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would admit to visiting and enjoying the hospitality of the German sailors. Only a few months before, Americans were eagerly visiting the quaint little German village. With war, the Germans were now a brutish enemy vilified in propaganda and you could jailed for opposing America’s war effort against them. But for a little over a year, Americans in Hampton Roads came face to face with the future enemy and had good time.


1 New York Times, August 4, 1914.
2 Edwin P. Hoyt, Ghost of the Atlantic: the Kronprinz Wilhelm, 1914-1919, (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1974), 18-21; quote from Niezychowski, 28.
3 Virginian-Pilot, March 11, 1915.
4 Wing, 269.
5 Wing, 272.
6 Wing, 272.
7 Jonas, Manfred, The United States and Germany: A Diplomatic History, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), p.108-109
8 Phyllis A. Hall, “The German Village at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” Olde Times, v.2 no.5, Summer 1987, 2-3; “A German Village on American Soil,” The Popular Science Monthly, v. 90, January 1917, 424-425.
9 Phyllis A. Hall, “The German Village at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” Olde Times, v.2 no.5, Summer 1987, 5-7.
10 Mark St. John Erickson, “Daring German sea raiders bring World War I to Hampton Roads,” The Daily Press, April 25, 2015.
11 Wing, 270.
12 “Second German Cruiser Slips Into U.S. Port,” The Patriot, April 12, 1915, p.2.
13 “Personal Mention,” The Brewers’ Journal, Vol. 40, Oct 1, 1916, 492.



The Daybook, Summer 1999: 40,000 Tons of Trouble Drops Anchor in Hampton Roads
The Norfolk Historical Society Courier, Fall 2007: The German Village at Norfolk Naval Shipyard
The Daybook, Vol. 7, Issue 4: German Raiders in Hampton Roads by Elijah Palmer