Steady clouds of steam poured from the four large stacks of the USS San Diego as it powered away from the New York Harbor during the height of World War I. Shortly before 11 a.m. on July 19, 1918, an explosion rocked the middle of the ship’s hull. Crewmen scrambled to their gun posts and began firing wildly and rapidly in all directions, though at nothing in particular. The gunfire didn’t last long. The 503-foot vessel, weighing 13,680 tons, sank in just 15 minutes. Fortunately, all but six of the 1,114 men on board survived.

Eighty years later, the San Diego lies on the floor of the Atlantic, 11 miles off the coast of Long Island in 115 feet of water. The ship attracts scuba divers by the dozen, each searching for an underwater treasure, a firsthand view of world history. Why did the San Diego sink? The secret lay obscured, as dark as the sea water surrounding the ship. A ray of light recently appeared, thanks to a collection of documents obtained by Russel Van Wyk.

Ironically it was the Russian government, infamous for its own cloak-and-dagger secrecy, that helped Van Wyk, professor of history, acquire access to the documents. They are a mixture of official German documents and the 1945 interrogation of a German spy named Kurt Jahnke and his wife, Johanne-Dorotheja. The 70-some pages bring clarity to once murky assumptions while raising additional questions. Jahnke and his wife describe underground dealings of German operatives during a momentous period of world history. From the beginning of World War I in 1914 to his capture and arrest in the Soviet Union near the end of World War II, Jahnke engaged in a series of operations around the world supporting the German government.

Among the reports of dozens of incidents, Van Wyk found Jahnke’s confession to the Russians that he had placed a bomb in the boiler room of the San Diego.
“He talks about what he did and did not do in the U.S. and also against Western Europe, and how he headed up an intelligence organization during the Weimar government, and really quite a number of interesting, if not completely verifiable, bits of information,” Van Wyk says. “From my perspective, it clarifies a bit what the Germans did, and Kurt Jahnke is often named by scholars as the head of German activity against the U.S. during World War I.”

Jahnke is such an elusive figure to historians that any information about him fills in large gaps of knowledge concerning his actions. Reinhard R. Doerries, an expert on German-U.S. relations, described Jahnke with the following passage in his 1989 book, Imperial Challenge:

(Jahnke) appeared only briefly at any location, and his identity is not always absolutely clear, yet his apparent lasting contacts in the various centers of power would suggest that he was a top agent in the Empire as well as in the Weimar Republic and under the National Socialists. The irregular traces left by Jahnke in the records of various countries have made it difficult for the historian to draw an accurate picture of the operations in which he was involved.

Jahnke described many of these operations in the documents obtained by Van Wyk. He admitted to the Russians that he led the diversionary activities of German intelligence in the United States from 1914-18. Jahnke worked in San Francisco and helped provoke a famous dockworkers strike that eventually spread to all western ports in the U.S., in an attempt to hinder the country’s shipping of ammunition and weaponry. He also admitted to contributing to the sabotage of more than a dozen U.S. ships.

Approximately during 1917, I with the help of my agents managed to organize diversionary acts on 14 American steamers. As a result of these diversions, all the steamers were sunk,” Jahnke told the Russians during his interrogation.

According to the naval archives, two possibilities are listed for the sinking of the San Diego: an unexplained explosion in the boiler room, or a mine left by U-156, the German submarine known to have laid mines near the area. The U-156, in turn, was sunk on her return voyage after entering a mine field and never had a chance to claim the San Diego as a victim.

Smersh, the Russian intelligence group whose name means “Death to Spies,” interrogated Jahnke and his wife in March and April 1945. The interrogations were recorded and held by Russian Intelligence Services in their criminal files.

Van Wyk procured access to the documents partly through a pro-fessional relationship with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Van Wyk helped orchestrate faculty and student exchanges between UNC-CH and MGIMO, and eventually became acquainted with a former KGB Vice General, Sergei Kondrashev. Through Kondrashev, Van Wyk discovered that the Russians had captured and interrogated Jahnke. Van Wyk, whose research interests focus on German intelligence and activity in the U.S., was thrilled by the possibilities of this information. After some negotiation, the Russian government agreed to allow him access to the records that deal with the United States and Western Europe, but not those that discuss what Jahnke says he did against the Soviet Union.

The interrogation provided details of Jahnke’s dealings during several different periods. After World War I, Jahnke returned to Germany and worked as a political advisor under the military ministry—conducting intelligence activity against England and the U.S. In 1923, he led a covert infiltration into the Ruhr region of Germany while it was occupied by the French military. His secret underground movement helped sabotage the French operations and disrupted the railway system, preventing efficient transportation of natural resources from the region. In less than a year, the French withdrew their troops.

What stands out in these documents is what the head of the ring claims they did in this country,” Van Wyk says. “And then the fact they continued these intelligence operations in the twenties and thirties.”

Following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, direction of the bureau transferred to Rudolf Hess, according to Jahnke. Once Germany declared war on Poland, Jahnke was drafted into the army and appointed by Admiral Canaris, chief of German intelligence, to be the intelligence commander of the 800th battalion of the Brandenburg special designation regiment.

As Jahnke told the Russians, the Branden-burg battalion’s mission was to penetrate the enemy’s front line in small groups wearing the enemy’s uniform. The German spies under Jahnke’s direction then sabotaged military communications and generally disrupted the enemy’s operations until the main force arrived.

Without any apparent reason, Jahnke was removed from his intelligence assignments in 1940. He speculated that his “negative attitude” toward Hitler’s foreign policy, as well as an effort by Hitler and Heinrich Himmler to have the Gestapo assume control of the intelligence bodies, led to his dismissal.

Van Wyk, who is also an assistant dean in the school of Arts and Sciences, plans to publish the documents with his commentary as soon as possible, but he has yet to find the time.

Here we have one of those historical secrets that we may now have an answer to,” Van Wyk says about the sinking of the San Diego. “Little of this is known. It’s fascinating material.”

Mark Briggs was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.