Free Relic Room lecture tells the story of Capt. von Trapp, naval war hero

COLUMBIA, S.C. – If you’ve seen “The Sound of Music” – and who hasn’t? – you know that the Nazis very much wanted Austrian Capt. Georg von Trapp to serve in their navy. But the captain risked everything dear to him, including his many musical children, by refusing Hitler. The Trapp family then escaped to America.

The reason the Germans wanted him so badly is the subject of a free lecture at noon on Friday, Feb. 23, at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. Joe Long, Relic Room curator of education at the museum, will tell the story of the captain’s heroic service in the Austro-Hungarian Navy during the First World War.

Audiences know the patriarch of the Von Trapp family as the dour, if brave and distinguished, man whose household is transformed by his children’s governess, Maria. How closely, though, does the character from the musical resemble the real historical figure? And why did Hitler’s navy so concern itself with an officer who was, by then, too old for active service?

In real life, he was a bold naval leader with a flair for unconventional tactics and a knack for motivating his very diverse crew, assembled from across the empire that would collapse by the war’s end. He was a U-boat captain, a staunch monarchist, an Austrian patriot, and a man of character, compassion and wry humor.

He had a pretty full and thrilling life before the period dealt with in the musical. His first wife, mother of those children Maria was hired to teach, was the daughter of the man who invented the torpedoes that the captain would fire at Allied shipping. (She died of scarlet fever in 1922.)

He literally wrote the book on Austrian naval tactics, which was a best-seller and required reading for young officers between the wars. After the collapse of the empire, Austria was a land-locked country, but it had a wealth of naval talent, and von Trapp was a role model to all the young officers. If, after annexing Austria in 1938, the Germans could get him to join their navy, the others would follow.

You know about the man from the musical. Come learn about the man who was a hero when he served – and an even greater one when he refused to.

Coincidentally, on that same night in Columbia, the captain’s own granddaughter will be performing in Columbia. Elisabeth von Trapp will sing at Shandon Presbyterian Church at 7:30 as part of the church’s Arts at Shandon series.

About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum

Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to

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