When the U.S. Coast Guard’s cutter Eagle sails into New London harbor at 10 o’clock this morning, Tido Holtkamp will be at the dock waiting for his ship to come in. The tall ship may be the Coast Guard’s now but Holtkamp, like many sailors who have served on her, still feels a sense of ownership of the vessel. When he knew her, however, she belonged to Germany and was named Horst Wessel, after the Nazi storm trooper leader who was named after the Germany’s national anthem under Hitler.
Holtkamp, who now lives in Avon, was at Waterford Public Library last night for a slide presentation and to sign copies of his book, A Perfect Lady: A Pictorial History of the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, which is just going into its second printing. The book is a compilation of 280 images and stories collected by Holtkamp that depict the ship’s 75-year history.
The vessel was built in 1936 at the Blohm & Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, under orders from the navy that it be completed in 100 days and that it be a ship that “wouldn’t sink and wouldn’t turn over on its side.” Hitler, Holtkamp said, "didn’t understand ships at all.”
The Horst Wessel was part of a fleet of three sailing ships that was built for the same purpose that the U.S. Coast Guard uses the Eagle today—as a training sailing ship to teach cadets the basics about sailing, the wind, the currents, and the weather. No matter what kind of ship you’re on, Holtkamp says, “You have to know those things.”
Born in Germany in 1925 in a small town close to the Dutch border, Holtkamp was just eight years old when Nazi leader Adolf Hitler came to power. By the time he reached draft age, World War II was not going well for Germany. When the Nazis lost Stalingrad in 1943, Holtkamp, who was then 16, says he felt for the first time that Germany wasn’t going to win the war.
“It’s difficult to become a member of the armed forced knowing your country is going to lose,” he says. As a high school graduate, Holtkamp faced the immediate prospect of being drafted into the army as an officer cadet and being sent to the Eastern front where, he noted, “officer cadets lasted about six weeks.”
With no way out, Holtkamp decided that rather than waiting to be drafted, he’d volunteer for the navy. As his aunt pointed out, “the smallest bunk on a ship is better than the biggest fox hole.” After four months of basic training at boot camp—which is apparently hellish no matter which country you’re in—the naval officers were given their assignments.
The navy's initial plan was to have Holtkamp serve on one of the new Nazi submarines but the new U-boats weren't completed yet. So he was sent for sailing training aboard the Horst Wessel instead.
Safely out of harm’s way in the Baltic Sea by Poland, Holtkamp said, the crew only fired the one gun they had one time—and that was when they nearly shot down a Nazi colonel’s sea plane by mistake. (Ships exchanged signals with incoming aircraft to make sure they were all on the same side, Holtkamp explained, but someone aboard the Horst Vessel had forgotten to turn the page over to that particular day’s code.)
Holtkamp was one of 200 crewmembers aboard the Horst Vessel. The men slept where they ate, in a large open room on each of the ship’s four decks. By day, they sat at folding tables and chairs, which were packed away at night to make room for hammocks. Every hammock was numbered so each person knew which one was his but, Holtkamp said, “they all smelled the same.”
In the evenings they’d entertain themselves by singing sea shanties and listening in secret to verboten American jazz. Holtkamp said he, like many of his shipmates, dreamed of going to the United States someday.
Holtkamp never did make it to a submarine. The navy found out that he was color blind and couldn’t distinguish between blue and grey, which disqualified him. Instead he ended up in the infantry and was ultimately captured by U.S. forces. Holtkamp did, however, make it to the United States, although initially he came here as a prisoner of war.
When World War II ended, he applied for U.S. citizenship, living first in Brooklyn before settling down in Connecticut. In the 1950s, he faced a second draft and ended up serving in the Korean War, although that time it was as part of the American armed forces. Something else happened in the 1950s too.
In 1959, Holtkamp was driving over the bridge in New London on his way home from Mystic to Hartford when he looked down to see a familiar sight. “There was my ship!” he said.
After World War II, the victors claimed the spoils of war and the United States, after a little chat with Russia which was also eyeing the vessel, took the Horst Wessel. When Holtkamp saw it anchored in New London’s harbor, she’d been refitted for the Coast Guard and renamed Barque Eagle, but she was unmistakable.
Holtkamp couldn’t help himself. He drove down and asked permission to come aboard, which after hearing his story, the captain graciously granted. “Where I had been sleeping there was a coca cola machine!” Holtkamp recalled.
Holtkamp has been aboard the Eagle many times since then. He’s given tours and even sailed back over to Hamburg for a reunion with other German officers who served on the ship when it was the Horst Wessel.
Holtkamp even met President George H.W. Bush aboard the Eagle one time, although he recalled that Bush seemed less than pleased to meet him when Holtkamp explained exactly when and how he’d served on the ship. For Holtkamp, however, that’s all water under the bridge now.