File No. 300.115P44/17

The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Austria-Hungary (Penfield)


1263. Your 1164,1 February 23. Evidence obtained from the captain and members of the crew of the steamer Petrolite and from examination made of the vessel under direction of the Navy Department, convinces this Government that the Austro-Hungarian Government has obtained an incorrect report of the attack on the steamer. With particular reference to the explanation made by the Foreign Office, the following information, briefly stated, has been obtained from sworn statements of the captain and members of the crew.

No shot was fired across the bow of the steamer as a signal to stop. When the first shot was fired the captain was under the impression that an explosion had taken place in the engine room. Not until the second shot was fired did the captain and crew sight the submarine which was astern of the steamer, and therefore they positively assert that neither the first nor the second shot was fired across the bow of the vessel.

The steamer did not swing around in a course directed toward the submarine, as alleged in the report obtained by the Austro-Hungarian Government, but the captain at once stopped the engines and swung the vessel broadside to the submarine and at right angles to the course of the vessel, in order to show its neutral markings, which was manifestly the reasonable and proper course to follow, and it ceased to make any headway. On the steamer was painted its name in letters approximately six feet long, and the name of the hailing port, and, as has previously been made known to Austro-Hungarian Government, the steamer carried two large flags some distance above the [Page 277] water line, which it is positively stated by the officers and crew were flying before the first shot was fired, and were not hoisted after the first shot, as stated by the submarine commander.

The submarine commander admits that the steamer stopped her engines. The captain of the Petrolite denies that the vessel was ever headed toward the submarine, and the examination of the steamer made by an American naval constructor corroborates this statement, because, as he states, the shell which took effect on vessel, striking the deck-house which surrounds the smokestack, was fired from a point 45 degrees on the starboard bow. This was one of the last shots fired and indicates that the ship was not headed toward the submarine even up to the time when the submarine ceased firing. The captain states that the submarine appeared to be maneuvering so as to direct her shots from ahead of the steamer. The submarine fired approximately 12 shots. The majority of the shots were fired after the ship had stopped and had swung broadside, and while, as even the commander of the submarine admits, the steamer was flying the American flag. The captain of the steamer denies that he advised the commander of the submarine that the damage to the steamer was insignificant. He states that he advised him that steamer had been damaged, but that he had not then had an opportunity to ascertain the extent of the damage. The seaman who was struck by a fragment of shell sustained severe flesh wounds.

If the ship had intended to ram the submarine, she would not have stopped her engines and this must have been evident to the submarine commander. Naval authorities here agree that there could have been no danger of the ship’s ramming the submarine until it was headed straight for the submarine and was under power and even then the submarine could have so maneuvered as to avoid a collision. The Petrolite was two miles away from the submarine. The engines and funnel of the Petrolite were at the stern, and from the general appearance of the ship no experienced naval officer could have believed that it had opportunity or sufficient speed to attack even if it had been steaming directly toward the submarine. The conduct of the submarine commander showed lack of judgment, self-control, or wilful intent amounting to utter disregard of the rights of a neutral.

According to the sworn statements of the captain of steamer and a seaman who accompanied him to the submarine, the commander of the latter stated that he mistook the steamer for a cruiser. This statement is at variance with the statement in the Austro-Hungarian Government’s note that the captain of the submarine asserted a false maneuver on the part of the steamer prompted the submarine to continue to fire.

The captain of the steamer swears that he informed the commander of the submarine that he had only sufficient provisions to reach the port of Algiers, and that he would deliver provisions only under compulsion. He states positively in his affidavit and in conversation with officials of the Department that he did not give provisions readily, nor did he say it was the duty of one seaman to help another, and that he refused payment because he felt that he was being compelled to deliver food in violation of law. The statement of the captain of the Petrolite is entirely at variance with the report of the submarine commander. The correctness of the captain’s opinion [Page 278] that the wounded seaman was held as a hostage to guarantee the delivery of food seems clear. Obviously the commander of the submarine had no right to order the seaman to remain on board. The fact that this order was given showed that the commander insisted that food was to be delivered to him; otherwise the seaman would naturally have accompanied the captain back to his vessel. The outrageous conduct of the submarine commander and all the circumstances of the attack on the Petrolite warranted the captain in regarding himself as being compelled, in order to avoid further violence, to deliver food to the commander of the submarine.

In the absence of other and more satisfactory explanation of the attack on the steamer than that contained in the note addressed to you by the Foreign Office, the Government of the United States is compelled to regard the conduct of the commander of the submarine in attacking the Petrolite and in coercing the captain as a deliberate insult to the flag of the United States and an invasion of the rights of American citizens for which this Government requests that an apology be made; that the commander of the submarine be punished; and that reparation be made for the injuries sustained, by the payment of a suitable indemnity.

Please communicate with Foreign Office in sense of foregoing.

You may add that this Government believes that the Austro-Hungarian Government will promptly comply with these requests, in view of their manifest justness, and the high sense of honor of that Government which would not, it is believed, permit an indignity to be offered to the flag of a friendly power or wrongs to its nationals by an Austro-Hungarian naval officer without making immediate and ample amends.

  1. Ante, p. 175.