Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Friends and Enemies

The freighter Victoria lay quietly alongside Pier Q in North Charleston, South Carolina. It was late in an October evening in 1981, and most of the crew had gone ashore. No work, except for routine watch keeping, was being done. All was peaceful and quiet. A few of us were watching the TV news in the lounge. After a while, the chief mate came along and sat down, too. With no cargo to carry, the Victoria was spending the latter half of October in port, and the extended inactivity was starting to get tiresome.

Suddenly, one of the deck seamen burst through the door. Clearly agitated and panting heavily, he gasped out, “Mate! Mate! You gotta come right away! There’s a big fight down below and someone’s gonna get killed!!” In an instant the chief mate jumped up and ran after him into the unlicensed crew’s quarters.

By the time the mate reached the scene, the intensity of the altercation had lessened. A few other men had already intervened and disarmed the principal assailant, but the arrival of an authority figure brought the entire incident to an immediate conclusion. The combatants, both reeking of alcohol, were packed off to bed, and peace was restored. In the quiet aftermath, the mate wanted to know what exactly had happened.

It was really quite simple. The two men involved in the brawl had gone ashore to have a good time, and they returned to the ship after several hours and too many drinks. They had always been good friends, but some small disagreement had escalated to the point of violence. One of them grabbed a fire axe from an emergency station, and swinging it wildly, chased the other all around the ship. His aim being poor, the fire axe never met its intended target and clanged against doorways, bulkheads, and handrails instead. This racket woke up the few men on board who were sleeping. Rushing out into the passageway, three or four of them subdued the axe-wielder while one went for the chief mate.

After a sound night’s sleep and nothing more to drink, the two fellows who had gone to war against each other were friends again. Neither one of them remembered very much of the previous evening’s combat; in fact, neither remembered the initial point of disagreement that had started the battle. A fresh new day had dawned upon them. They ate their breakfast, did their work, and got along just fine. All was forgiven and forgotten.

A popular song by the rock group War bears the title and asks the rhetorical question, “Why can’t we be friends?” A lot of food for thought resides in this simple inquiry. If two men can still be friends after a potentially fatal axe fight, why can’t the rest of us be friends? Or if we can’t actually be friends, can we at least not be mortal enemies? In a world whose history has too often been saturated with bloody violence, these questions suggest far preferable alternatives. I think most people would readily agree to a program for peace. Unfortunately, there are always some who refuse to control their mouths or their actions, and then the trouble starts. Heads of governments through the millennia have had this problem, and brutal wars causing millions of innocents to suffer have resulted. There must be a better way!

In the first of the two brutal wars between Germany and the Western Allies, one Captain and his crew proved that there is a better way. This was Kapitan Felix Graf von Luckner,1 who held both a Master’s license in the German Merchant Marine and a commission in the Imperial German Navy. During the war he commanded the sailing ship Seeadler,2 a naval vessel disguised as a neutral merchant ship. Her mission was to seek out and destroy Allied merchant shipping without inflicting casualties.3

To this end the Seeadler was fitted out with extensive dormitory and dining accommodations. The German Navy provided these facilities for the housing and feeding of Allied merchant seamen captured by Captain von Luckner and his crew. The strategy called for the Seeadler to break through the British blockade of the North Sea by presenting herself as a Norwegian cargo ship. Once out on the open Atlantic, she would carry out her attacks on enemy ships through a combination of disguise, deception, and the threat of force.

This plan worked well. From January to July of 1917, the Seeadler prevailed against fifteen Allied ships, twelve in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific. Fourteen of these vessels were sunk; one was used to transport prisoners to a Brazilian port when the Seeadler’s dormitory had reached capacity.4 In each attack, the Germans took the enemy crew aboard and then sunk their ship when they were certain that no one was left on board. Once on the Seeadler, the Allied prisoners were treated as and called guests. They enjoyed fine dining and recreational activities with their German hosts, and they were not restricted to their quarters but could roam the ship at will. In this atmosphere wartime enemies became friends.

Eventually, one thing did go wrong, however. During an attack on the British freighter Horngarth in the South Atlantic on March 11, 1917, the Seeadler fired a shot at the Harngath’s radio shack. The objective was to prevent the transmission of a message calling for help by destroying the apparatus. At the time the shot was fired, the radio shack was empty, and therefore no casualties were expected. The shell which was fired did the intended damage to the radio equipment, but also ruptured a steam line. The resulting discharge of high pressure steam and hot water injured four British seamen. All of them were subsequently taken aboard the Seeadler and given medical treatment. One, unfortunately, died from his injuries.5

This sole fatality in the Seeadler’s entire campaign was Douglas Page, age 16. The Germans held a funeral service for him at sea with full military honors, his body reposing under the Union Jack prior to burial. Afterwards, Captain von Luckner wrote to the boy’s family in Great Britain, telling them in English that:

It is an old German custom to honour the dead of our enemies, & we are now standing on the pall of this young knight.  He is not our enemy any more, he is now our friend & is at present where our forefathers are gathered, where all are brothers.  God has his future destined.  God has called him to his side, he is now happy because he is looking into the face of Jesus Christ.6

To this day, Douglas’ family believes that he was “treated very well by the Germans.”7

Several months later, in August of 1917, the Germans reached the end of their mission when the Seeadler was shipwrecked in the South Pacific.8 Subsequently, they were obliged to surrender to the British. The Captain and most of his crew spent the remainder of the war as prisoners in New Zealand; the rest were interned in Chile. Repatriated to Germany after the armistice, Captain von Luckner became an international hero because of the peaceful manner in which he conducted his wartime campaign at sea. Among other laudations, he was called to the Vatican where he received a decoration from the Pope, who described him as “a great humanitarian.”9

Captain von Luckner’s military campaign aboard the Seeadler demonstrated that the citizens of belligerent nations can become friends instead of remaining enemies even in the midst of a major world conflict. In a postwar memoir directed primarily to an American audience, he wrote from practical experience of a lofty vision:

As a sailor who has sailed under many flags and whose friends and pals are the citizens of many countries and many climes, it is my dream that one day we shall all speak the same language and have so many common interests that terrible wars will no longer occur.10

These wars, and for that matter all forms of human conflict, will become obsolete when all the governments and all the peoples of the world consistently heed the scriptural instruction, “Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another” (D&C 136:23). When instead of speaking evil, all nations and individuals greet each other with the Lord’s gentle valediction, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (John 14:27), the time will have arrived when “terrible wars will no longer occur.”

The two men aboard the Victoria who became friends again the morning after a midnight fire axe fight and the wartime captors and prisoners who became friends aboard the Seeadler demonstrate that it is possible to overcome both personal and political enmity. Once enmity is removed and replaced with a less hostile and more positive outlook on others, there should be no reason why we can’t all be friends.

1 The hereditary title Graf, meaning “Count” in English, identifies Captain von Luckner as a member of the old German aristocracy. Since he was also a career merchant seaman who held a Master’s license and commanded a ship, and for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to him here by the respectful English language Merchant Marine title “Captain.”
2 In English, Sea Eagle.
3 The information in the narrative is drawn from two sources: Lowell Thomas, Count Luckner, the Sea Devil, Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1927; and Oliver E. Allen, The Windjammers, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, Inc., 1978. Specific points are cited below.
4 Allen, op. cit., p. 133-134.
5 Allen, op. cit. p. 133.
6 Images of Captain von Luckner’s correspondence and other memorabilia located at http://luckner-society.com. This is the website of the Felix Graf von Luckner Gesellschaft (Felix Count von Luckner Society) of Halle, Germany, established to preserve his history and legacy.
7 Ibid.
8 Allen, op. cit., p. 134.
9 Thomas, op. cit., p. 4.
10 Thomas, op. cit., p. 308.

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