The men in the Schriever family were venturesome types who immigrated to America to better themselves or took to the sea. Schriever’s paternal grandfather, Bernhard, after whom he was named, had jumped ship as a young German sailor in the port of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1860 and volunteered for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Afterward, he had made his way down to New Orleans and gone to work on the railroads, building watering towers for the steam locomotives of the time, before returning to Germany in 1870 to pursue the trade of a rigger for sailing ships.
Schriever’s mother, Elizabeth Milch, a pleasing dark brunette with bright blue eyes and a strong will, had left Germany as a teenager to work in the household of a German family who owned a pharmacy in lower Manhattan. She had initially dated Schriever’s paternal uncle, George Schriever, who had immigrated to Union City, New Jersey, and become a prosperous baker and delicatessen owner there. But George was a bon vivant determined to remain a bachelor (“He played the field,” his nephew recalled) and so he introduced Elizabeth to his brother Adolph, a tall stalk of a man with blond hair and a neat mustache who was an engineering officer on the passenger liners of the North German Lloyd Company. They were married at a Lutheran church in Hoboken in 1908, when she was twenty-two. Adolph took her back to Germany. Her first son, Bernhard Adolph, was born in the north German city of Bremen on September 14, 1910, and her second boy, Gerhard, followed two years later just before Christmas. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, while Adolph’s ship, the George Washington, was in New York Harbor, suddenly separated the family, now living in his home port of nearby Bremerhaven. (The German line had apparently built the ship in 1909 for service to the United States and originally named it in honor of America’s first president.) Adolph was stranded in New York, Britain’s Royal Navy standing by to seize the vessel the moment the liner ventured out.
By the end of 1916, Elizabeth had had enough of waiting for the war to end and her husband to come home. Holland was neutral during the First World War. She booked passage to New York for herself and her two boys out of Rotterdam. They left in January 1917 on the Dutch liner Noordam. The English Channel was closed to neutral shipping because of the war and they had to sail north around Scotland. It took them more than two weeks. The North Atlantic was rough sailing in this winter season. Looking at the heaving waves, Schriever remembered thinking that the ocean must be a series of mountains. His mother had a scare when a British gunboat hailed the ship and an inspection party came aboard. She was afraid they would be seized as German nationals and taken off, but fortunately Gerhard had the mumps, a dangerous disease for an adult. When the Dutch crew warned the British sailors, the boarding party avoided the Schrievers’ cabin. The next fright came in the intimidating immensity of the Great Hall at Ellis Island. It was a cavernous structure, 189 feet long and 102 feet wide with a 60-foot-high vaulted ceiling. Thousands of immigrants off the ships lined up within it each day to be processed, either accepted as physically fit and freed to go ashore or rejected and sent back to wherever they had come from with now vanished hope. Elizabeth spoke English well, with merely a slight accent, but her boys had only German. Anti-German feeling was reaching war pitch in much of the United States. She feared that if the immigration officials overheard a word of German, she and the boys might be turned away. “Be quiet,” Schriever remembered her whispering, taking them by the hand. “Don’t say anything.” They were cleared and released as landed immigrants on February 1, 1917. Elizabeth Schriever had given her sons an American future just in time. The United States declared war on Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany only two months later.
Adolph was allowed to join his family. Before leaving the ship, he and the rest of his engineering crew, patriotic German men, had done their best to wreck the engines of the vessel they knew was soon to be confiscated. Schriever remembered learning of it because his father appeared with a bandaged thumb, injured while smashing machinery. (The wrecking was to no avail. The George Washington was repaired and converted into a troopship to haul American soldiers to France to kill Germans and, after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, had the honor of carrying President Woodrow Wilson to and from the peace conference at Versailles. It survived through the next two decades to again serve as a troop transport during the Second World War.)
To escape the anti-German hysteria of the Northeast, the family moved to the Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio on the advice of John Schriever, another of Adolph’s brothers, who had immigrated there years earlier and made his living at cattle ranching and speculating in land and oil properties. The region had been heavily settled by Germans since the wave of exiles created by the failure of the liberal revolutions in Germany in 1848. Adolph found work as superintendent of the machinery in the local brewery at New Braunfels, still a German-speaking community in 1917. School was taught in English and Bernhard and Gerhard learned the language quickly, but they had less trouble than they otherwise might have had because the teacher could always translate when they encountered a problem. With the United States now in the war and its industries going full bore, there was a demand for engineering talent. Adolph took a job as quality control engineer at a factory in San Antonio that was making large gasoline-driven engines. The Schrievers shifted to the city. One day in September 1918, Adolph had his head down inspecting an engine. Someone accidentally flipped the starter. The flywheel fractured his skull in two places. He never recovered consciousness and died on September 17, 1918, sixteen days after his thirty-fifth birthday.