Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Blog: Sophie Schiller on the History Behind “Transfer Day”-Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part series by author Sophie Schiller.  You can read part one here.


By Sophie Schiller
Typical WWI U-boat
The idea intrigued me greatly. No doubt, creating a believable German U-boat character posed a tempting intellectual challenge for me. But there were still many barriers to cross. For one thing, could I actually create a believable German soldier character? And even if I did, how on earth would I get him to St. Thomas in the middle of a war? And finally, were World War I era U-boats even capable of reaching the West Indies?
To tackle these questions, I dove into the study of U-boats.
Late in 2007, I made the fortuitous acquaintance of a recognized Croatian U-boat scholar, Robert Derencin, who became my most-important advisor and sounding board for plotting out my character's journey, in addition to his becoming a warm and supportive friend. For me, making my story as believable as possible was vitally important. With a military expert like Robert on board, I was confident that my story would not go too far off the rails.

I discovered that a famous WWI German submarine, Deutschland (U 155) was engaged in sinking dozens of ships off the coast of the Azores Islands. Realistically, that's about as far as U-boats were able to travel from their bases in Europe. I reasoned that if my U-boat character could desert his ship in the warm waters of the Azores, he could swim ashore and somehow talk his way aboard a tramp steamer bound for the West Indies, where he could reach St. Thomas. I laid this idea out to Mr. Derencin, who wholeheartedly supported the premise. In addition, drawing upon his own long naval career, Robert explained the ground rules that apply to soldiers who find themselves on enemy territory. Now that I had passed this important milestone, I had to tackle my next dilemma: finding a good antagonist.

From poring over old New York Times articles, I knew that a substantial office of the Hamburg-America Line had been located on the island of St. Thomas since the 1870's. In fact, the German holdings in the Danish West Indies were quite extensive, consisting of modern buildings, docks, villas for the managers, warehouses and coaling facilities. Thoughts began swirling in my mind over what went on in this operation. Who was behind it all? What was its true purpose? Were the Germans there actively engaged in helping the war effort? And if so, how? I was also curious to find out if the Germans on St. Thomas had any contingency plans in case the Americans took over and then entered the war. And how the Danish Government viewed the activities of the Germans on their island and if there was an friction between the two groups.

I approached a Danish contact of mine and, to my great fortune, he put me in touch with a close, personal friend of his from Germany, Halvor Jochimsen, who has a family connection to the Danish West Indies. To my utter shock, I discovered that Jochimsen's grandfather, Julius Jochimsen, was the Director of the Hamburg-America office at the time of the transfer, as well as serving as the German Consul for the Danish West Indies. Just days after the transfer, Jochimsen was arrested by the Americans as an enemy alien, and hauled away to a POW camp. In August of 2008, I contacted the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and asked for any information available about a WWI German POW by the name of Julius Jochimsen. A few weeks later, I got my answer.

At the same time, I contacted Mr. Jochimsen in Germany and the result was a long-lasting correspondence. After a brief introduction, I related that the only historical tie I could find between the Germans on St. Thomas and Berlin was through his own grandfather, Julius Jochimsen. I asked for any information about him. Specifically, I asked if his Grandfather was operating a secret (Telefunken) radio communication station directly with Berlin. If he was, I was positive he was involved in espionage, something I was sure I could develop a plot around. When I finally got my reply, my heart was pounding so hard, I could scarcely believe my luck. Mr. Jochimsen confirmed that his grandfather had served as head of the Hamburg-America headquarters in St. Thomas in 1913 until his arrest as an enemy alien in 1917. Aside from these few details, he didn't know much about what happened. Jochimsen promised to go through his grandfather's papers, but he firmly denied that his grandfather had been involved in any espionage activities. This contact became the biggest breakthrough of my project and a major turning point.

Finally, on September 25th, 2008, my researcher over at NARA confirmed they had had a "hit" with the name "Julius Jochimsen" in their files. He had indeed been a WWI German POW according to State Dept. records. I flew down to Washington, D.C. to pore over these records myself. When I caught my return flight home, I was loaded down with precious documents about Jochimsen's dramatic last days in his position, the reproaches of the U.S. Government, his letters of protest, his dealings with Swiss diplomats and State Department officials, his reaching out to his wife and colleagues in emotional telegrams and missives, his internment in Fort Oglethorpe, his protestations of innocence, his hearing, and his inevitable return trip to Europe. On the matter of espionage, Jochimsen protests his innocence with the following statement dated September 14th 1917: "…all code books and code messages found in my possession were of purely commercial character. Have ceased using codes as soon as Cable Office demanded plain language. Have not despatched (sic) or attempted to send any secret messages, as stated already in my letter of 18th May." Signed, Jul. Jochimsen, War Prisoner Nr. 499.

The picture that emerged was a dramatic one. On the 5th of May, Jochimsen's office and private residence was raided by members of the U.S. Marine Corps under command of Major Salady. Papers and documents were searched and confiscated. Jochimsen was taken into custody and put on board the naval ship Vixen and carried off to Puerto Rico. From there, he was taken to a POW camp in the states. Even this quiet, neutral little Danish enclave was not exempt from the vagaries of war.
HAL Building St. Thomas_thumb[2]
A View of the Waterfront with the
Hamburg-America Line Building Prominently Displayed
Julius Adolph Jochimsen is a heretofore unknown historical figure whose colorful life is worth describing in detail. He was a handsome man, sporting a full head of sandy-colored hair, an affable face, and a large walrus moustache that was typical for that period. Family pictures of him show a confident man with piercing blue eyes, tailored suits, and a firm, resolute look. Jochimsen left behind few clues as to the exact nature of his activities on St. Thomas. Years later, he would relate that he had three distinct jobs for which he was responsible upon the outbreak of WWI: 1) German Consul; 2) Director of the HAPAG office; and 3) something he referred to as "B.E./V.M". Subsequent research suggests that B.E. stands for "Bevollmächtigter der Etappe", which means an assigned agent of the Etappendienst, Germany's secret intelligence-gathering and logistics service which supplied German warships, raiders and U-boats from neutral ports around the world with coal, money, provisions, and even ships.. The "V.M." portion probably stands for "Vertrauensmann", which literally means "Confidence Man". They were discreet, confident, reliable German nationals who were used for naval military purposes. Whether or not Jochimsen actually supplied Berlin with intelligence remains a controversial subject, one in which I will defer to military historians and experts. However, I believe that when Jochimsen signed his name with the initials "B.E./V.M.", he was leaving behind credible evidence that he was, indeed, an intelligence officer of the Etappendienst.

Undoubtedly, Jochimsen's foray into espionage was more bureaucratic in nature than the James Bond-like plot I devised in which my German spy character, Lothar Langsdorff, plots to commit high-level assassinations and pave the way for a German invasion. That part of "Transfer Day" is solely a product of the writer's imagination and doesn't bear any resemblance to anything that happened in the historical record. Therefore, to create my Germany spy character, I turned to real life for inspiration.
Probably one of the most colorful and fascinating spies to come out of WWI was the South African Boer-turned German spy named Fritz Joubert Duquesne. Duquesne was a Boer soldier, adventurer, big game hunter, saboteur and spy. He was accused of sinking 22 British ships, including the HMS Hampshire in which Lord Kitchener was killed. Theorists claim that he signaled the U-boat while on board the vessel, escaped on board a life raft, then was rescued by the very same U-boat. Duquesne led a long and colorful life, leading the largest spy ring ever captured on U.S. soil, but died an indigent in a public hospital on Roosevelt island. Duquesne's larger-than-life character became the blueprint for my German spy character, Lothar Langsdorff.

Best Wishes to Dave Lynch and to all the readers of 200 Years in Paradise, past, present and future,

Sophie Schiller

Brooklyn, NY
July 2012

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