How a ship once sailed by Nazis remains in the US fleet

uscg photo chas How a ship once sailed by Nazis remains in the US fleet

Then and now: What was launched in 1936 as the German Navy’s training ship Horst Wessel was seized at the end of World War II by the U. S. — which renamed it Eagle.  It has been used ever since to train prospective U. S. Coast Guard officers. (German Federal Archives/US Coast Guard)

By Chas Henry

It’s name when first commissioned couldn’t have been more evocative of the 1930s Nazi movement in Germany.  The name on its hull now couldn’t be more American.

How did a ship on which many World War II Nazi warriors got their first taste of life at sea become a sea-going classroom for Americans training to save lives on the water?

It’s an amazing story of war, transformation and seagoing longevity.

The tall ship now known as U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle was built in Hamburg in 1936, just as Germany — questing for empire — was gearing up for set of violent international invasions.  Intended to train newly-recruited German naval crews, it did so, off and on, through the end of the Second World War.

The ship was named for Nazi party member Horst Wessel, a stormtrooper killed in 1930, as the Nazis battled with political enemies in Germany.  Lyrics Wessel had penned to a piece of march music became the Nazi anthem, and included the infamous words “Deutschland über alles.”

At the end of World War II, Germany was forced to pay reparations for damage caused in nations its forces had invaded.  Some of those payments were in the form of cash, others involved handing over things of value.  One such thing of value: the Horst Wessel.  A lottery system — including the British, Russian and U. S. Navies — determined the ship would be awarded to America.  In June 1946, commissioned the Eagle — the tall ship was sailed across the Atlantic — crewed by U. S. Coast Guardsmen — assisted by the Horst Wessel’s former captain and a number of German sailors.

Seventy-one years later, the Eagle is still providing prospective Coast Guard officers — and officer candidates in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — introductory understandings about life at sea.

“The reason we went after this ship way back when…is it teaches leadership like nothing else,” says Capt. Matt Meilstrup, the Eagle‘s current commanding officer.  “To make it all work, you’ve got to work together — you can’t do your own thing in the middle of the ship when the two ends are doing something else” — particularly he says, when trying such challenging maneuvers as turning the vessel at sea.

eagle 2 How a ship once sailed by Nazis remains in the US fleet

Commissioned in 1936, the then-Horst Wessel was the 508th ship built by ship-maker Blohm and Voss. The firm’s Schiff 509 was the battleship Bismarck. (Photo/Chas Henry)

Eighty-one years after it first went to sea, the ship is still an ocean-going classroom.  Still capable, under full sail, of plowing through the waves at 17.5 knots — just over 20 miles per hour — and of operating in all sorts of conditions.

“You don’t know what Mother Nature is going to dial up for you the next day,” says Capt. Meilstrup.  “Sometimes you’ve got to go up when it’s stormy, sometimes you have to push through your fears.  If you climb aloft — most of us are rather sane, and going up 50 or 100 or 150 feet in the air is not that comfortable — but you push through some element of fear and build your confidence.”

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