Sharks Give Way to Germans
During the summer of 1916, as the Jersey Shore and the nation were preoccupied with shark attacks, there was a far more dangerous threat growing in their midst. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed U.S. neutrality, saying, “The effect of the war upon the United States will depend on what American citizens say or do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned.”
The reality was far different as the war in Europe grew and became worldwide. U.S. factory orders skyrocketed, and soon everything from poison gas to arms and munitions was being manufactured in New Jersey and sent to the battlefields of Europe. The problem was the British starvation blockade of Germany meant only items earmarked for the Allies reached their destination, and when money needed to purchase the supplies ran out, U.S. bankers made loans to the Allies in order to continue the flow of arms.
U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan protested, saying, “Loans by American bankers to any foreign nation which is at war is inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality. … Money is the worst of contrabands – it commands all other things.”
In the eyes of the Germans, who were engaged in a life and death struggle, America was just as much a part of the Allied war effort as any nation aligned against it. Most Americans became aware of German activities inside the United States on Aug. 15, 1915, when The New York World ran, “The World today begins the publication of a series of articles raising for the first time the curtain that has hitherto concealed the activities and purposes of the official German propaganda in the United States.
“The facts set forth are based upon correspondence exchanged by representatives of the German Government, its agents, and sympathetic allies in this country which has come into possession of the World.”
What the World didn’t know was it had uncovered only the tip of the iceberg; Germany was prepared to strike directly at the production of munitions inside the United States. A German agent described an experiment done in a Hoboken apartment of a delayed bomb fuse.
“We stood nearby: If the detonator worked, I could put my scheme into operation. I knew what use could be made of this ‘diabolical’ invention; and all that was necessary was that it should function. Heaven knows it did. The steam of flame which suddenly shot out of the confounded ‘cigar’ nearly blinded me. It was so strong and the lead melted into an almost invisible fragment.”
Soon these “cigars” were starting mysterious fires in factories and on board arms shipments headed for the Allies. Located in Jersey City in what is today Liberty State Park was a loading facility known as Black Tom Island. Here munitions from East Coast factories would be transferred from railcars and put on board ships bound for Europe. German agents operating along the East Coast had set up a safe house in New York City where Mena Edwards, a part-time model, was a hostess.
She later testified, “I naturally did not appear too interested in the papers which they were handling, but I am sure from the conversations which I overhead that these had to do with places that they were planning to blow up in different parts of the country”.
And when the subject of Black Tom came up, she recalled they had “inside men … actually planted in the employ of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company or at least who had easy access to the premises, because they would frequently discuss the reports that they had from these men about the layout of the property and the movement of munitions. In the immediate few weeks before the explosion I overheard conversations which told me exactly what night it was proposed to blow up the Black Tom terminal. They had selected Saturday night and early Sunday morning because they thought there would be fewer people around at that time.
“There were to be three explosions planned in different places, one on the cars, and the others in sheds, or barges or enclosures. I remember something being said about boats being loaded to go to some place. …
“This man ‘Mox’ whom I have mentioned before who was a printer in the daytime was selected as one of the men to carry over the explosives to Jersey.”
Uneasy about what was to happen, Edwards decided to leave the city and visit a friend on the Jersey Shore, at Atlantic Highlands.
“I remember particularly how nervous I was that night because I could not tell Mrs. McDermott what I knew was probably going to happen. Our bedroom was on the first floor and you could step right out on the veranda. We had been in bathing that afternoon and had left our bathing suits on the line to dry. Mrs. McDermott was asleep.”
One of the German agents, Lothar Witzke, later bragged to an undercover U.S. agent, “I also did work in New Jersey … when the munitions barges were blown up and the piers wrecked. We were out in a small boat and the waves nearly swamped us and we came near drowning. The hardships of the work were many but it was all for the fatherland. The German ambassador and Yenky think very highly of my work and I am proud to have done it. I am a man they know they can depend upon.”
A little after midnight on July 30, 1916, Barton Scott, a private guard at the Black Tom facility, was on duty.
“I was a short distance from the land end of the dock … when I first caught a glimpse of a blaze. … The fire started in the center of a string of cars on shore near the land end of the pier. The flames had gotten too good a start for us to do anything. I ran to a telephone and called for the yard engines to come and pull the other cars away, and within a few minutes after the discovery of the fire, shrapnel shells of the smaller calibers began to explode.
“These shells kept up the rattle continuously and the fire spread rapidly to other cars containing small explosives. I knew that a car in the center of the string was loaded with black powder and that once she was touched off the whole place was doomed. … Work of pulling the cars out began at once, but the fire was getting hot and the explosives were going off with increasing violence.”
At that moment Edwards’ fears were realized.
“The vibration of the house was terrible. Mrs. McDermott awakened with a great start and we both ran out in the yard. She thought at first it was a terrible thunderstorm and said, ‘Let’s get our bathing suits. They will get wet.’ We ran out on the lawn in our kimonos. I remember that it was a clear night and we saw the light, and later watched the fire as it developed at Black Tom.”
Today we would call the attack on Black Tom an act of terrorism or war. For those in 1916, it was a night of terror.
Next Week: What was that?