File No. 763.72111Od2/14

The German Ambassador ( Bernstorff ) to the Secretary of State

J. Nr. A 2400]

Mr. Secretary of State: On the 18th of last month the German steamer Odenwald lying in the port of San Juan, P. R., applied for clearance for Hamburg. The collector of customs then declared that he had to inquire of Washington whether the steamer could be cleared. On the 19th the steamer was subjected to a thorough search, alleged to have been ordered from Washington. The search, according to the statement of the collector of customs, proved satisfactory in every respect. The ship’s cargo consisted of 1,500 tons of coal and provisions. On the 20th of March the same official again conducted another strict inspection. Clearance papers were nevertheless again refused as they had been the day before on the plea that no answer had yet come from Washington. The collector of customs, urged by the agent of the Hamburg-American Line, promised, however, to send an urgent telegram that night to Washington.

Again on the next day (March 21) the ship’s captain waited in vain for a final decision. Thus he decided to put to sea without clearance papers. The captain, so he asserts, found himself in a critical situation as further delay made the danger of enemy cruisers gathering worse every day. With that situation he tried to deal fairly in taking the course he did.

[Page 861]

Just before passing buoys 4–B and C–3 the ship met with a brisk machine-gun fire from Morro Castle. A few minutes later a solid cannon shot struck the water a short distance in front of the ship’s bow, raising a column of water from ten to twelve feet high. The engine was immediately stopped and backed at full speed. The forward motion of the ship ceased at once, in spite of which she was fired upon about three minutes longer. Marks of the bullets can be plainly seen in various places of the ship and hull. It was only through luck that no human life was lost in that onslaught.

A few affidavits fully describing the occurrence are respectfully enclosed with a request that they be returned.1

I have the honor to beg your excellency kindly to let me know why her papers were not delivered to the Odenwald though in the opinion of the harbor officials after two thorough searches of the ship they had no ground upon which to refuse the said papers. Finally, I am unable to conceal from your excellency that the reckless action of the harbor authorities in opening fire on the steamer without warning does not seem to me to have been justified by the circumstances of the case. It could hardly be the intention of the American Government to endanger, without imperative cause, the lives of a ship’s crew for the mere sake of insuring orderly traffic in the harbor.

Accept [etc.]

J. Bernstorff
  1. Not printed.