The First U.S. Shot of the War
Millions of bullets were fired on the battlefields of Europe during the Great War, but few Americans realize that the very first bullets fired by their troops were shot on a small island deep in the Pacific.
The German merchant raider SMS Cormoran II began its career as the Rjasan, a Russian mail carrier in the North Pacific. On August 4, 1914, the first day of World War I, the Rjasan fell victim to the German raider SMS Emden in Japanese waters, making it Germany’s first prize of the war. The Rjasan was a quick, modern vessel, reaching 17 knots during the chase. For this reason, Captain Müller of the Emden decided to not sink her, but rather to convert her into an auxiliary cruiser. The Rjasan was taken to Tsingtao, China, a German port and re-coaling station, where she was converted and renamed SMS Cormoran, replacing a small shallow draft cruiser of the same name that had been laid up with serious maintenance issues.
On August 10, 1914, the SMS Cormoran left Tsingtao harbor, sailing throughout the South Pacific, constantly trailed by Japanese warships. Eventually, pursuing British and Japanese cruisers cornered her. Captain Adalbert Zuckschwerdt of the Cormoran sought a hideaway near the U.S. Territory of Guam. On December 15, 1914, she pulled into Apra Harbor in Guam short on coal and looking for a resupply. Because of strained relations between the United States and Germany, Governor William John Maxwell refused to supply the ship with the necessary amount of coal. The Cormoran was stranded in the harbor for two years, from December 15, 1914 until April 7, 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany.
On the day the U.S. joined the war, Lt. W. A. Hall was ordered to seize the Cormoran as a war prize early on the morning of April 7. With his crew of eighteen and a marine guard of fifteen, he encountered a small boat belonging to the Cormoran. Hall decided to capture the little craft and ordered marine Cpl. Michael B. Chockie to fire a shot ahead of the German boat. As it turned out, Chockie’s shot was the first American round fired in the Great War.
Before Hall and his men could reach the Cormoran, Captain Zuckschwerdt and his crew scuttled the ship, sinking her to the bottom of the harbor. Nine of the crew perished and the rest were taken as prisoners of war.
Today SMS Cormoran II rests 110 feet below the waters of Apra Harbor on her port side. By chance, the Japanese cargo ship Tokai Maru sank in nearly the same spot on August 27, 1943 and rests against the Cormoran’s screw. It is one of the few places where divers can explore a ship from World War I next to a ship from World War II.
Burdick, Charles Burton. The Frustrated Raider: the Story of the German Cruiser Cormoran in World War I. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
Micronesian Divers Association. “Tokai Maru Shipwreck in Guam.” Accessed August 14, 2011. http://web.archive.org/web/20070930111854/http://www.mdaguam.com/tokaimaru1.htm
Pacific Wrecks. “SMS Cormoran.” Last modified August 1, 2011. http://www.pacificwrecks.com/ships/german/sms_cormoran.html.
Van der Vat, Dan. Gentlemen of War: The Amazing Story of Captain Karl von Müller and the SMS Emden. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1984.
Wikipedia. “SMS Cormoran (1909).” Accessed August 14, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMS_Cormoran_%281909%29