A Classic Wreck Dive
Story and Images by Mike Gerken
(As Published in Wreck Diving Magazine; Issue 28; 2012)
The sight of a ship suddenly emerging from the darkness of the night and bearing directly down upon you would be any captain’s nightmare. During the height of World War I, Commander Wells of the gunboat USS Schurz was regrettably in this exact situation on the evening of June 18, 1918, approximately 28 nautical miles from the North Carolina coast. The merchant ship SS Florida, with her lights extinguished in order to evade enemy submarines, suddenly appeared out of the night on a collision course with his unsuspecting ship. The Schurz crew, acting instinctively, attempted to avoid a disaster by performing evasive maneuvers, but to know avail; it was too late. The Florida slammed in to the starboard side of the 255 foot long Schurz just aft of the bridge killing one sailor and injuring the commander. The Florida immediately reversed engines and backed away from the Schurz revealing a gaping wound in the hull.
With water filling the holds rapidly, it was determined that the ship was doomed. Commander Wells, while enduring a painful chest injury, supervised the evacuation of nearly 210 officers and crew from his now sinking vessel. The damage sustained by the Florida, although serious, was not fatal. Both vessels transmitted SOS signals while the Schurz crew prepared to abandon ship and seek safety on board the Florida.
Responding quickly to the SOS calls, the steamship, Saramacca arrived at the scene nearly one hour after the collision and the transfer of sailors from the damaged Florida, to their ship, was carried out. The Saramacca also rescued those swimming for their lives in the rough ocean and still others adrift in rafts.
Three hours after colliding with the SS Florida, at 0758, all 1630 tons of the USS Schurz succumbed to the rising water within her holds and disappeared head first beneath the waves of the Atlantic forever. At that very moment, a wreck was born; there she would wait patiently on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to be explored by those from contemporary times.
The USS Schurz did not begin her career sailing as part of the US Navy. She was built in 1894 in Wilhelmshaven, Germany and christened, the SMS Geier. (Geier meaning “vulture” when translated to English.) Commissioned by the German Imperial Navy, this heavily armed cruiser with a compliment of 8 – 4.1” guns and a top speed of 17 knots, would serve the next 20 years protecting and representing Germany’s interests around the world.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Geier was berthed in the neutral port of Honolulu, Hawaii. It was here where she would seek coal and repairs after being hunted across the Pacific by enemy Japanese warships. Soon after arriving, however, the Geier was interned by the United States. There she would remain for nearly two and a half years until the US entered the war on April 6, 1917. It was at this time where the Geier was seized by the US Navy on June 9 and renamed the USS Schurz after the famed writer, politician and Union Army general, Carl Schurz.
After undergoing a complete refitting in dry dock in Honolulu, the Schurz was ready for duty. On October 31, 1917, with the stars and stripes flying from the masthead, she set sail from Pearl Harbor on escort duty for the Third Division Submarine Force. For the next eight months the Schurz would serve her adopted country loyally in convoy and patrol duties until she met her end on that fateful night 28 nautical miles south of Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.
The stories of the early days of discovery of the USS Schurz vary depending on whom you speak with, but most would all agree that a local fisherman, Jack Lewis, first discovered the Schurz in the 1950’s and frequented it from time to time as one of his favorite fishing holes. Not knowing the true identity of the wreck, most aptly called it, “Jack’s Wreck”.
In 1972, George Purifoy, Rod Gross and Dale McCulloch of the Atlantis Dive & Salvage Company were on board the vessel, Atlantis II running grid patterns with a depth sounder in search of the remains of the German U-boat, the U-352. (The tale of the search and discovery of this historical wreck could fill volumes and must be told another time.)
A radio call came in to the Atlantis II from a fishing vessel in the area that believed they had found the secret spot where ‘Jack’s Wreck’ lie. The fishing boat had buoyed the wreck off only three miles from where George was running search patterns and invited them over to investigate. Not wanting to pass up the rare opportunity to dive this shipwreck for the first time, George and the team postponed their hunt for the U-352 and headed to the location of the site.
Once the Atlantis II had anchored to the wreck, George and the team donned dive gear and headed down to inspect. Descending to an unknown wreck for the first time is always a thrill and with the visibility that day at well over 150 feet, the remains of the USS Schurz must have been a stunning sight to behold. This was first time anyone had set eyes on her since sinking 55-year’s prior. Before George Purifoy passed away in 2008 he would fondly reminisce of the event to me as I sat next to him in the wheelhouse of the M/V Olympus some years ago; “There she was lying hard over to port with rows of brass portholes just lying in the sand” he would say. Team researcher, Rod Gross recalled, “The first time I saw her she looked like an underwater junk yard with lots of brass, bronze and wooden structure still intact”.
The dive team collected up a pile of portholes and raised them to the surface with a wire basket and large capacity lift bags and then began heading for home. The identity of this mystery wreck was still unknown although it was suspected to be the USS Schurz based on National Geographic survey that was done in the 1960’s that indicated the known wrecks in the area. The team would have to return another day to continue their exploration to find out for sure the true identity.
For several years, George, Rod and newcomer Mike Sheen would dive the Schurz many times and recover numerous artifacts from the wreckage, which offered clues as to the identity of the wreck. The dead giveaway was the numerous brass plaques that labeled parts of machinery and emergency equipment. On the front of these labels the instructions were in English while on the backside they were labeled in German. This is an obvious indication that the US warship was once a German vessel.
As more artifacts were recovered and the history explored of the loss of the Schurz , it was deemed that “jack’s Wreck” was indeed the SMS Geier and the very same USS Schurz.
Due to her plethora of WWI artifacts the Schurz became one of the most popular dive sites for wreck divers on the east coast. Portholes, nautical equipment, weapons, bullets and crews personal effects are but a few of the historical items retrieved by divers over the years. George Purifoy eventually went on to start the dive charter business, Olympus Dive Center and took many an excited wreck diver out to see the Schurz first hand.
In 2004, the United States government passed a law prohibiting the taking of any artifacts from US warships. However, even before this law was passed there was a movement in the dive industry in North Carolina that strayed away from artifact hunting. “Brass hounds”, as they had come to be known, were a dwindling crowd that were replaced by sightseers armed with digital video cameras in search of sharks and marine life to capture on film.
With visibility averaging 70’ feet, the colorful ‘Schurz’ is often a show stopping experience when divers behold the sheer numbers of fish life that now call this wreck home. On many days the baitfish are so dense and plentiful that visibility on the wreck is reduced to a mere few feet. Rod Gross recalled how difficult it was navigating a wreck that was “teeming with marine life”.
Some of my earliest personal memories diving the Schurz are descending down the anchor line with over 100 feet of visibility and seeing nearly half the wreck lying below me. Although the appearance of the Schurz has changed over the years, I still imagine seeing her as George Purifoy had on his first dive.
When I dive the Schurz today it is immediately apparent that this WWI relic is showing significant signs of age. There is very little left of the ‘Schurz’ that would indicate it once was a proud warship. Most of the upper sections of hull have all collapsed spilling the innards of the ship out in to the sand on the port side in 110-115’ of water. A large pile of rusted heavy gauge chain in the middle of where the foredeck once stood marks the location of the anchor chain locker. Off to the port side a pair of large 5” guns lie atop one another. The Schurz original battery of 4.1” guns was replaced with these larger caliper weapons in a refit at Hampton Roads, Virginia shortly before her final journey.
As I head aft, the next prominent piece of wreckage to come in to view is the four enormous boilers that are stacked side by side in pairs. These remnants of the ships source of propulsion mark the shallowest section of the wreck, measuring in at a depth of 100’ to the top. It is around here where most often the largest conglomeration of fish is seen including groupers, sea bass and in modern times, the invasive lionfish. Once endemic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, lionfish were first discovered off the Carolina coast more than ten years ago. They have since survived and flourished on many of the wrecks including the ‘Schurz’. One need not look hard to find them on any given day.
Looking out to the starboard side I can see a defining line where the wreckage ends and the sand begins with only a few feet of intact hull rising out of the silt. Off to the port side however is a jumble of wreckage including curved lifeboat davits and a pair of masts where hoisted sails once assisted the ship make speed when the wind was in their favor.
As I continue to make my way to the stern, signs of where the engine room once stood come in to view. Large ducts, flanges and a maze of pipes are evident. Adjacent to the aft deck the second pair of 5” guns can be found lying off to the port side where schools of Atlantic spade fish regularly assemble beneath these now dormant gun barrels.
After the sinking of the Schurz the US Navy entertained the idea of locating the wreck and salvaging these large guns since they were in sharp demand during the war. The salvage of course was never carried out and must have been a loss to the Navy at the time, but is a bonus for divers today when they can get a glimpse of these massive vintage weapons of war.
As I round the stern the last piece of wreckage that is readily identifiable is the steering quadrant and tip of the stern. Only the very bottom part of the hull is still intact. Once to the end, it is time to make the 250-foot swim back to the tie off point up on the bow.
As I make way down the starboard side of the ship I examine the Schurz once again from up high and reflect in thought. I cannot help feeling a little guilty for thoroughly enjoying a wreck site that was provided to me as a result of other’s tragedy. I also think of all the men who served on board and wonder of the stories they could tell if this shipwreck could talk.
The SMS Geier and later the USS Schurz were home to men who fought on opposing sides of a world conflict. These men, who were determined to destroy one another during war, may very well have been pals in peacetime. This is an irony that is a difficult to contemplate, but then again the results of war always are.
Hopefully, divers for many years to come will continue to explore the ‘Schurz’ and pass on their experiences of diving this historical shipwreck. It will be their accounts along with the written history that will help keep the story of the ‘USS Schurz’ alive long after her physical remains vanish from sight.
In fond memory of George Purifoy
Upon George Purifoy’s passing in 2008, his son Robert Purifoy, in the proud family tradition, has continued on with Olympus Dive Center today. For anyone interested in diving the USS Schurz or the many wrecks off the Carolina Coast, contact Olympus at 1-252-726-9432 or visit www.olympusdiving.com for more information.
About the Author
Mike Gerken is a professional underwater photographer, documentary filmmaker and writer who markets his work through his company, Evolution Underwater Imaging. Mike was also the captain of Olympus Dive Center’s charter vessel, the Midnight Express from 2009-2012. Please visit his web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to preview his films and to see his complete portfolio.