Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Transfer Day: The Inspiration (Part Two)

Now that I had my main character, I needed to introduce the element of danger. From scouring old New York Times articles, I knew that an important office of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line was located on the island
of St. Thomas. In fact, the German holdings in the Danish West Indies were quite extensive, consisting of modern buildings, docks, villas for the managers, warehouses and coaling facilities. Thoughts began swirling in my mind over what went on in this operation. Who was behind it all? What was its true purpose? Were the Germans there actively engaged in helping the war effort?  And if so, how?  I was also curious to find out if the Germans on St. Thomas had any contingency plans in case the Americans took over and then entered the war. And how the Danish Government viewed the activities of the Germans on their island and if there was an friction between the two groups. I decided to focus on a character from the Hamburg-America Lines as my antagonist.           
To find out more about this Hamburg operation, I turned to a Danish contact of mine who has a personal interest in the Danish West Indies. To my good fortune, he put me in touch with a gentleman in Germany, which proved to be a major breakthrough in this writing project. As it turned out, the gentleman's grandfather was in charge of the entire Hamburg-America (HAPAG) operation on St. Thomas since 1913. Not only had he been the Director of the steamship office, but he had also served as the island's German Consul. Several days after the islands were transferred, and shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany, he was rounded up as an enemy alien along with some other Germans, put on a cruiser and taken to the U.S. for military detention.

I turned to the National Archives in Washington to fill in the holes. The name of this gentleman's grandfather did indeed come up in their records; according to State Dept. records, he had been a WWI German POW. At the soonest possible opportunity, I flew to Washington, D.C.
to analyze the records and photocopy them. By the end of the day, I came home loaded with precious documents about his grandfather's dramatic last days on the island.            

I had uncovered hand-written letters, formal memos and documents written by Swiss diplomats and State Department officials, emotional telegrams where he reaches out to his wife and colleagues, official documents regarding his internment in Fort Oglethorpe, his protestations of innocence, his hearing, and his inevitable deportation to Europe. The picture that emerged was a dramatic one. After all, war-time espionage is not a risk-free endeavor. I discovered that even in this quiet, neutral little Danish enclave, human lives were not exempt from the vagaries of war.

St. Thomas
society in the years leading up to and during the Great War contained a well-entrenched, affluent, influential German colony that invested huge sums of money in real estate,  docks, warehouses, and a coaling depot. The German captains, officers and engineers who operated the steamships were all reserves in the Kaiserliche Marine. The upper management in the steamship office were German nationals as well, maintaining close contact with Berlin via coded radio transmissions over a Telefunken wireless radio station hidden in at least one of their steamships. Other documents I uncovered showed some heated, angry confrontations between HAPAG steamers presumed to be carrying war contraband and American Customs officials on the island of Puerto Rico, confrontations that resulted in cannon fire and seizures that had been ordered from the highest levels of the State Department. This was fascinating stuff! But how do I turn it into a novel?

In my next posting, I will describe how I developed my story.

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