The Liberty Clipper in Boston Harbor on a calm day. This view is looking East from the inner harbor.
So much of Boston Harbor’s modern history and the landscape of its islands and shores was shaped by war. The story of the Pauline Freiderich is one of the more obscure WWII-era events that occurred here.
It was September 4th, 1939 when the Captain Ernest Heintzmann of the Pauline Freiderich received an important telegram off the coast of Nova Scotia. The vessel was several days into a return voyage after taking on a cargo of oil from Port Arthur, TX, en route to her home port of Hamburg Germany. After what he heard, Captain Heintzmann knew that there would be little chance of crossing the Atlantic and arriving home in Hamburg unharmed. Hoping for the best, he turned the ship around and set a course for Boston Harbor.
An artistic rendition of the Pauline Freiderich:
Little did crew or captain know of the events of September 1st 1939 as they headed out of the bayous of Port Arthur, around the Florida Panhandle and onto a Northeastern course. What did happen on that fateful day- the sudden and devastating invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany- the “Blitzkrieg” -set into motion a series of events leading to the beginning of WWII, starting most promptly with the declaration of war on Germany by Great Britain.
The Pauline Freiderich awkwardly entered the port of Boston, and was permitted to dock given the neutrality of the United States at the time. While docked at Battery Wharf in the City’s North End, she was likely both a spectacle and an annoyance for British ships passing through the port. According to most reports in the news, the crew was treated well- they were allowed to attend events on the mainland and entertain visitors. While not to their knowledge at the time, the crew and their visitors were begin heavily monitored by the FBI. One visitor to this ship that caught their attention was William Colepaugh, an American traitor who would later accompany SS spy Eric Gimpel on an espionage mission through the US after being dropped off by a Nazi U-boat at Point Hancock, ME.
Maritime law at the time granted a visiting ship 60 days in port. Toward the end of that time frame, the crew sabotaged the ship, destroying the engine room so as not to have to cross the Atlantic and return to Germany. Following this incident, the cargo of oil was confiscated, and the crew members were charged with sabotage. They were permitted to stay on the ship, but that all changed after December 7th 1941 when the US entered the war against Germany and Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The crew of the ship was immediately arrested and interred at a military camp for the duration of the war. As the US entered the war, Nazi ships went from being tolerated to greatly feared: A giant field of mines lined the entrance to the harbor to prevent attack or espionage. Still, German submarines lurked off the coast of Boston and were said to even enter the harbor, with a documented encounter happening on a June evening in 1942.
Given her age and obsolescence- her capacity of 1.75 million gallons was only about half that of modern tankers of the time- one may have thought the Pauline Freiderich would be scrapped during or shortly after the war. However, with capacity in high demand and shipbuilding facility working at full steam, the tanker was repaired and used in the United Nations Merchant Marine. This was not the only German Vessel seized by the united states- famous examples include the Horst Wessel, Now the Coast Guard Eagle, and several U-boats, one of which was scuttled offshore, and one which is on display in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
A view of Provincetown from all the way across Cape Cod Bay, as seen from the bluffs at Manomet, Plymouth: