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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sunday Ship History: An attack on the United States

Yesterday. agents of the government revealed a plot to attack part of the transportation infrastructure of the United States. As noted here, four men have been charged with planning to attack Kennedy International Airport and some of its supporting operations.

About 91 years ago, there was another plot to attack a center of American transportation - but in this case, the attack was successful and resulted in a massive explosion, death and damage to New York, New Jersey and to that icon of freedom, the Statue of Liberty.

In 1914, war had erupted in Europe. The British and French and their allies were engaged in a mighty struggle with the Germans and their allies. Some countries, like the United States, were neutral, allegedly favoring neither side in the European war.

Even for neutrals, there are certain rules of war to be obeyed. Shipping belonging to "belligerent" powers can be "interned" (definition: "to impound or hold within a country until the termination of a war, as a ship of a belligerent that has put into a neutral port and remained beyond a limited period."). Prior to the U.S. joining in WWI, 91 German merchant ships were held in U.S. ports (80 interned in the New York area), totalling about 595,000 tons. See here, pp.487-488. The internment of these ships, coupled with a blockade of the Central Powers by the Royal Navy, limited the ability of Germany and its allies to acquire munitions from the U.S. and transport them across the sea, though there were not corresponding limitations on the Allies buying and transporting such materials, because of the limitations of the German Navy.

It should be noted that one of the justifications for the "partially restricted" submarine warfare practiced by the Germans, which resulted in the torpedoing of the Lusitania, was that such Allied ships were carrying war materials to England. See here.

Whether the Lusitania was, in fact, carrying munitions is a matter of some controversy. What is clear is that the Germans were concerned with the ability of the Allies to transport munitions by sea from the U.S. to England and France. In such a case, there a couple of approaches that might be taken to slow the flow of weapons. One approach is to blockade the ports from which such supplies flow - or to disrupt the sea lines of communication. This approach includes the use of submarines to sink shipping entering into those sealanes.

A second approach is to attack the shore infrastructure through which the munitions flow- attack on ammunition factories, railroads and port facilities, for example.

In July, 1916, the Germans, already using the submarines to disrupt the flow of goods to the Allies, undertook a plan to attack a significant base of ammunition operations in the United States. They struck at "Black Tom Island" off Jersey City, New Jersey - and very close to Manhatten, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
Prior to American entry into World War I, Black Tom was a depot where war materiel manufactured in the northeastern states was sent for transport to the Allied Powers (England, France, Italy and Russia). The Allies were engaged in World War I against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). President Woodrow Wilson had declared a policy of neutrality, but American rights to "freedom of the seas" were affected by British naval control of the Atlantic sea-lanes. According to Jules Witcover in Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917, this situation resulted in the work of German saboteurs to prevent British receipt of munitions from the US (257, 266-267).
As set out here, the attack was deadly:
On Sunday morning, July 30, 1916, at 2:08 a.m., Jersey City residents were awakened by a major explosion and a succession of smaller explosions that lasted for several hours, sending shock waves as far as ninety miles away. The explosions occurred at Black Tom Island--no longer an island--but a mile-long pier on landfill that connected the island with the Jersey City waterfront (formerly old Communipaw). The pier stood opposite the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company owned and used the pier as a work yard where the National Dock and Storage Company had warehouses. The origin of the name "Black Tom" is said to come from a "dark skinned" fisherman who lived at the site for many years.
On the evening of the Black Tom incident, barges and freight cars at the depot were reportedly filled with over two million pounds of ammunition waiting to be shipped overseas. The munitions at the depot included shrapnel, black powder, TNT and dynamite. The Johnson Barge No.17, for example, held some one hundred thousand pounds of TNT. Given these incendiary devices, the Black Tom facility was not securely gated to safeguard the nearby civilian population from the potential of foul play.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, small fires on the pier were discovered and the eight guards on duty gave flight. One of the guards, however, sounded the fire alarm alerting the Jersey City Fire Department. The fires gradually set off a succession of exploding shrapnel shells. After the terrifying 2:08 a.m. blast, the well-stocked arsenal was ablaze, even casting the barges at Black Tom afloat in New York Harbor. Pieces of metal from the explosion struck the Jersey Journal building clock tower at Journal Square, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m.

During the explosion, Jersey City residents took to the streets and gathered at the waterfront to witness the ongoing fire works. Emergency vehicles in the city responded to alarms without full comprehension of the emergency and a disruption in telephone service created an information blackout. Witcover reports: "The blast jolted the Hudson Tubes [PATH system] under the river connecting Lower Manhattan with Hoboken and Jersey City . . . . in the Bay View and New York Bay cemeteries monuments and tombstones toppled and some vaults were jolted askew" (13). A larger than usual number of worshippers had turned out for the six o'clock morning mass at the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary (today Holy Rosary Church at Sixth Street).
Accounts of the total number of fatalities differ, but it is known that a policeman, a guard at Black Tom, and the barge captain of the Johnson Barge No.19 were killed; a ten-week old infant was thrown from his crib. Hundreds of individuals were injured. The reported property damage was enormous--over $20 million. The Black Tom depot with its freight cars, warehouses, barges, tugboats and piers was completely destroyed. In the nearby harbor, the Statue of Liberty sustained $100,000 in damages from the spray of shrapnel, and newly-arrived immigrants at Ellis Island had to be evacuated for processing at the Immigration Bureau at the Battery in New York City. Some five hundred people living on houseboats and barges in the harbor also required evacuation.
Across the river, windows blew out in lower Manhattan and windows panes shattered in the Times Square area. Repercussions from the explosions were reported along the Jersey shoreline from Hoboken to Bayonne and over to Staten Island and Brooklyn and from as far away as Philadelphia.
The Statue of Liberty was affected:
The Statue of Liberty sustained 100,000 1916-dollars worth of damage from a shotgun-blast of shrapnel.One long-term result was the closing of her torch to tourist traffic, according to a U.S. Park Service Officer.
What caused the explosion? According to this:
For years no one knew what or who caused Black Tom's hundreds of freight cars, and 13 warehouses and six piers, to rise into the heavens. Only gradually did evidence point to sabotage directed by the German Embassy in Washington. The ambassador, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, naturally denied all knowledge, and so did his Government and its successors, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. Through investigation in part guided by the New York lawyer John J. McCloy (who, after World War II, was the American High Commissioner in Germany) the truth at last came out. In 1953, companies and individuals seeking restitution for Black Tom and other unneutral German deeds between 1914, when the war began, and 1917, when the United States became a combatant, divided $95 million in compensation.
And it seems to have been an "inside job"
Two of the guards who had lit the smudge pots were immediately arrested. However, it soon became clear that the blast had not been an accident. It was traced to a Slovak immigrant named Michael Kristoff (probably a stolen identity), who had served in the U.S. Army, but admitted to carrying suitcases for the Germans before America entered World War I. According to him, two of the guards were German agents. It is likely that the bombing involved some of the ingenious techniques developed by a group of German agents surrounding German ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, probably using the pencil bombs developed by Captain Franz von Rintelen.
See also here:
...Colonel Nicoiai knew that it was now time to rush in a reserve professional sabotage tean. It consisted of one man -- the suave, aristocratic army reservist, Capt Franz von Rintelen.

"Munitions," von Rinelen confided to his friends at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, "munitions ,my job -- what I can't buy I'll blow up , kaput schlagen!"

Buying was an empty boast. Already, the Allies' investment in U.S.-made materiel of war was approaching an annual $3 billion. Blowing up munitions was more within the realm of practicability.

Von Rintelen perfected the "pencil" bomb, a devilishly simple incendiary device which ignited cargoes when ships were far at sea. It was estimated later that he alone had destroyed $10 million worth of cargo on 36 ships.
See also here for more on the espionage aspects of the matter. See here for a discussion of the Etappendienst (Secret Naval Supply System)and techniques used by the Germans to communicate about ship movements to U-boats. It is also worth viewing a Time magazine article on "Black Tom" from November 1930, which asserts that the explosion was an accident. See here.

The effects of the Black Tom Explosion did not stop with the destruction of munitions. In addition, new laws were enacted:
The Black Tom blast and related acts of German terrorism resulted in the passage of the federal Espionage Act in June 1917. The statute went beyond its principal purpose of curtailing Teutonic terrorists. Section 2 embargoed from the U.S. mails "every letter, writing, circular, postal card, picture, print, engraving, photograph, newspaper, pamphlet, book or other publication... containing any advocating or urging of treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States," and subjected the authors to a $5,000 fine and five years imprisonment. A potent precedent favoring the Constitutionally-questionable provisions of the United States Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Nine-Eleven attacks, the 1917 law was given the Supreme Court seal of approval in Schenk v. United States, where no less a civil-libertarian than Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the high court majority, "When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its efforts that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight...."

Additionally, the U.S. Justice Department was given a Bureau of Investigation, which would soon be re-christened the FBI. Shortly after the 1918 Armistice, the new agency launched the now-notorious Palmer Raids against suspected-communists and other "subversives," initiating the nation's first Red Scare. Immigrants deemed to be pro-communist or else Anarchists --- including Sacco and Vanzetti, now viewed by many civil-libertarians as martyrs to an hysterical attack on First Amendment free speech and free association --- were targeted for deportation and worse.
Further, after entering the war, the U.S. converted many of the interned German ships into U.S. flagged ships and used them for troop transport, among other things. See here and here.

Also of historical note:
Black Tom was only one of a number of homeland attacks in retaliation to the British naval blockade of Germany. In New Jersey, on January 1, 1915, a fire took place at the Roebling Steel foundry in Trenton. And after the Black Tom incident, on January 11, 1917, a fire took place at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Kingsland. These facilities had contracts for goods being sent to the Allies. The US entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, after numerous claims of German espionage and violations to American neutrality.
A fairly recent book about the Black Tom Explosion is The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice by Chad Millman. A review of the book here:
If, like me, you thought that the 9/11 attacks were the first terrorist attacks on U.S. soil then you are sadly mistaken. The Detonators, Chad Millman’s new book brings back to life a forgotten dark chapter in American history during WWI when German spies and saboteurs ran rampant through the U.S. blowing up factories and poisoning cattle with anthrax while no one stopped them, largely because our incredibly na├»ve President Wilson refused to believe that Germans would be doing such things.
NPR has an interview with Mr. Millman here.

Just a reminder that, although technology changes and so does the identity of the enemy, there is little new under the sun.

Images from here.

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