Walter Kurze

Erinnerungen an meine Seereisen 

(Memories of My Sea Voyages)


This is about my Grandfather, Walter Kurze, and his photo album from his years in the German Navy.  While the photos speak for themselves, most of the rest that I know about him is mainly in the form of family legends.  His father was a minister to the royal family (I presume this means Kaiser Wilhelm) and he was on track to grow up and take his place.  But he was a bit of a free thinker and questioned much of the church's dogma.  This did not sit well with the church heirarchy, and he was told to accept and believe without question.  Finally he concluded that this was not for him and he broke away to join the navy.  This broke a long family tradition and was quite a bit of a shock to the family, as back in those days you did what you were expected to do.

This photo was taken during his second wedding (of 3), only a few years before emigrating to the USA (it was a short marriage). The seated couple on the lower left are his father (the Minister) and his wife. Standing behind them is his son from his first marriage, and the girl holding flowers is his daughter.

There are many other stories that I grew up with, but I have no way of knowing whether there is any truth to them.  One story has it that my grandfather was the result of an extra-marital relationship between the minister and a "Princess Matilda", and that the princess and the minister's wife gave birth about the same time.  As the story goes, the minister's wife gave birth to a girl and the princess to a boy (my grandfather) and they traded babies because the minister wanted a son.  Sounds pretty far out to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened.  As the legend goes, the Kaiser had a slightly shorter left arm, as did my grandfather.  I also have this trait, so supposedly there is some genetic link between myself and the Kaiser.  I can't say it matters much to me one way or the other, and have relegated this story to the "legend" category.

The title above was taken from the cover of his photo album.

I know very little of the history behind the photos in the album.  According to my grandmother, he fought in 4 wars, although the only ones I can name for sure are the Spanish-American war (Germans were hired as mercenaries by the Spanish), the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the beginning of WW I.

Most of these photos stand on their own, although I'll add details where I know them.  A couple of the photos in the album I have also seen in books, so many of them could have been purchased during his travels, although there are also some of him and his shipmates.  I do not know if he was the actual photographer for any of them, although he had a great deal of photographic equipment in his later years.

My grandfather is in this photo, which is aboard the S.M.S. Luchs, according to the hats.

What little history I could find on this ship was that it was a gunboat of the German Imperial Navy, built in 1899 and "self sinking" in the port of Tsingtau/ Kiautschou, China in 1914.  This was once a German colony in China, and the ship was probably sunk by the crew with the onset of WW I.

Many of the photos in the beginning of the album appear to be of China:

Note the tiny feet of the woman in the bottom right photo.  Apparently the feet of wealthy women were bound from birth to keep them tiny, so much so as to be nearly useless.  This was a sign of wealth, as they could afford servants to carry them around.

Apparently one of the fabled "Opium Dens" of old China:

Many of the photos are of executions, which I presume were during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900):

This exact photo appeared in a history of the Boxer Rebellion, so it may be that many of the other photos here were purchased, rather than taken by my grandfather:

Military formations and the aftermath of battles are common themes:

Punishment in China appeared to be pretty harsh:

And while this guy may be smiling,
These guys are certainly not:
In fact I'm not sure they are alive - their feet appear to be unsupported.  I don't think you would live for long suspended by your head.

There are also a great many pictures from Japan, although almost all of those appear to be colorized postcard types of photos.  However this one lady appears in a number of the photos.  Perhaps she was a famous person of the time, or maybe she was his local sweetheart.

And being a sailor, many of his photos are of ships and life at sea.  This is the cocky young buck himself:

This is a sight that will never be seen again:

While there was a ship named the Bismark of World War II fame, it was the second German ship to carry that name.  This is apparently the first:

Apparently my grandfather served on ships of both sail and steam:

Climbing into that rigging during a winter storm was not a pleasant or safe thing to do.  He told of being up in the rigging and encrusted with ice that would crack when he moved.

And of course, a lot of it was just plain hard work.

It is possible these were taken of a naval battle, although they may have just been normal operations at sea:

This last photo is what makes me think it is pehaps a battle, note the white smoke to the left of the ship at the right edge of the picture - that looks as though it could have been from a battery of guns firing.

His Navy career ended when he had a fall and severe injury on a ship. After that he became an engineer and involved in munitions production and raising sunken ships.

His ship raising duties led him to become a deep-sea diver (of the hard hat variety), in order to better understand the 'hands on' aspects. He was apparently highly regarded at the time, and he claims to have set some sort of world record in ship raising.  He supposedly had the "bends" a number of times, which my grandmother claimed affected his health in his later years.  He told her tales of being on sunken ships and having decomposed bodies float by - some of his mates apparently went insane after coming face to face with corpses in the dark depths. He continued to have nightmares about those dives for the rest of his life - what we would now recognize as PTSD.

He claimed to have been on the sunken wreck of the Lusitania (one of the events which got the US involved in WW I).  For years the US had claimed that it was strictly a passenger vessel, but I grew up with the story that my grand father had personally seen the munitions that were aboard the ship (which is now acknowledged).  There is some history of diving suits which mentions a dive on the Lusitania in 1912:  From this page (near the bottom) there are some photos of the diving suits of the time - quite primitive!  I am seeking further information about this.

There are a great many other family legends that I heard from my grandmother.  One was that my grandfather was nearly executed for something he didn't do.  Apparently, only hours before his scheduled execution at dawn, a clerk found some evidence which cleared him.  Another, according to her, is that he lived the rest of his life with a bullet lodged next to his heart from one of the wars he had been in.  The surgeons of the day felt it was too risky to try to remove.

He came to the US in 1922.  I found his signature in the Ellis Island on-line records for May 18, 1922:

His arrival in the US was the beginning of  a long period of heartbreak and frustration, which you can read about in  the later years.

(1/26/04 - updated 3/21/20)

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