February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

u-864
U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

u-864-location

The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

u-864-wreck

A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

lusitania-sinking

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning
Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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December 14, 1862 An Act of Compassion

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on December 11, 1862, when some 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

rappa5

The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.

The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19 with no sign of pontoons.  When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week.  Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare defenses.

Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle then moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.

On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven-mile curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town.  Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously.  George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived.  By the end of the day, the old farmer’s term “slaughter pen”, had taken on new and heretofore unimaginable horrors.

Kershaw’s Brigade fire down from the stone wall at Marye’s Heights.

In contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5-feet deep, 15-feet wide and filled with 3-feet of freezing water.

Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.  He was right.  For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind that wall.  Fourteen attempts. 

Fredericksburg, Marye’s Heights as it looks, today

As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground below Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.

The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties at Fredericksburg, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall.  Lee’s army, by comparison, suffered around 4,500 losses.  Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee intoned, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

sergeant_richard_kirkland1

Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their own wounded from the plains looking up on Marye’s heights but dared not enter within Confederate range of fire, in front of that wall. 

All through the night of the 13-14th, the pathetic moaning of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.

It’s easy to imagine that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all that carnage, but not all. The groans and the cries of agony, must have been difficult to hear.  There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, he himself could be out there.

For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t enough to sit and listen.  He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”.  Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, to ask permission to help.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.  No one fired. None so much as even moved.  Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.

Angel of Marye's Heights

Kirkland was out there for no less than an hour and a half.  Alone in no man’s land, under the watchful eyes of two hostile armies. He never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate alike, on that part of the battlefield.

General Kershaw later gave this account:  “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”

Richard Kirkland would not survive the war.  He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place the Chickasaw called “house or dwelling place of the king.“ Chickamauga. There is no way to know how many lives were saved by the courage, the kindness and the tender mercy of one man, this day in 1862.

Richard Rowland Kirkland is long gone now but the memory lives on. Of that singular act of courage and compassion, of the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

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December 8, 1941 A Declaration of War

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

1200px-Willy_Stöwer_-_Sinking_of_the_Linda_Blanche_out_of_Liverpool
Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

shq-ship-gun-dropped
“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland.

German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

Lusitania warning
Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was a Hobbesian choice. The first put their own people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”: a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”. Signed, ZIMMERMANN

zimmerman-note

The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

causes-of-ww1

Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4 million rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

Lusitania, ammunition

Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Congresswoman Rankin was elected to a second and non-consecutive term in 1940. Just in time to be the only vote against entering World War 2, in response to President Franklin Delano’s address to a joint session of Congress, December 8, 1941.

Tally sheet for the congressional declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941

December 7, 1941 A Game that Never Was

What started that day as an away game, ended, in World War 2

In the age of COVID-19, we’ve all become accustomed to sudden and unexpected changes of plans. The world of College football is no exception.

Millions of college football fans eagerly await the playoffs, just around the corner. Now it appears, some games may not happen. Wisconsin and Minnesota have played every year, for 113 years. For the first time since 1907, the game’s been canceled. If Ohio State misses one more game, the team won’t be eligible to play in the Championships. The Mountain West and C-USA conferences have seen the most cancellations and/or postponements in all of college football, with three apiece.

It must be particularly frustrating for the San Jose State crowd, locked down after the best start, since 1955.

And yet, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. The San Jose Spartans flew 2,400 miles west to defeat the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, 35-24.

In December 1941, the Spartans were scheduled to play three games in the Aloha state. San Jose and the Willamette Bearcats, of Oregon. They were college kids. On the road to enjoy a few days in paradise and to play the game they all loved. What could be better than that?

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline, along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13. Then the Spartans were to play the Bearcats December 16 before sailing home, on the 19th.

An outing like that was once in a lifetime. Unforgettable. The trip would be that and more, but not for the reason anyone expected.

A great sucker punch came out of the southeast on December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 79 years ago today destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the 2001 Islamist terrorist attack, of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States would address a joint session of Congress the following day requesting a declaration of war, against the Empire of Japan.

Back on the mainland, the families of players stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive and well. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players began working with Federal authorities and the Honolulu police department to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders.

Willamette players were assigned WW1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire, on the beaches. Two days later, the Punahou school was taken over by Army engineers. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

If you think you’ve heard the name Punahou it probably involves the school’s most famous alum, future President Barack Obama.

Shirley McKay Hadley, a Willamette student accompanying her father, then serving as state Senator, joked many years later, “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”

Female members of the entourage, were assigned nursing duties.

Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.

On December 19, players received two-hours notice. It was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge had been commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home complete with Naval escort, to protect against Japanese submarine attack.

Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind. None had been able to speak with their parents, first.

Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys, who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.

The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested.

It looks like one hell of a story.

Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad that day and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 98 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.

December 2, 1943 The Surprising Origins of Chemotherapy

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.


Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden soul-hunting fog produced by the burning of toxic vegetation, used to disperse a peasant revolt in AD178.

“Soul-hunting fog”.

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The French were the first to use poison weapons in the modern era in August 1914, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War.

Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons

of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

WW1 gas attack in Flanders

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised new and fresh hell, unimaginable to the modern reader.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

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None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy. 

General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937: “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

The Geneva Protocols of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

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Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes a garlic odor as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact results in redness and itching at first, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is permanently altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode was shrouded in secrecy and remains to this day, one of the lesser-known chapters of World War 2.

At the time, the nature of the chemical disaster at Bari was uncertain.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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It was Dr. Alexander who figured out the responsible agent was mustard, and where the stuff had come from.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells.

Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells. Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma. 

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this earlier work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society today estimates cancer survivors in the range of 16.9 million.

November 28, 1952 The Great Tootsie Roll Drop

Everything had a code name to throw off Chinese anti-aircraft units. Marines sent out a frantic call for 60-mm mortar ammunition, code named “Tootsie Rolls”. Somebody didn’t read up on his code book. Fighting for their lives in the frozen wastes of Chosin, that’s what they got. Chocolate candy. By the ton.

On June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea (ROK) didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the Republic of Korea Army and its government were retreating south toward their capital of Seoul.

The UN security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula.

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Poorly prepared and under-strength for what they were about to face, units of the 24th Division United States Army were hastily sent from bases in Japan. It was not until August when General Douglas MacArthur’s forces in theater, designated United Nations Command (UNC), was able to slow and finally stop North Korean forces around the vital southern port city of Pusan.

American forces and ROKA defenders were in danger of being hurled into the sea.  Most of the KPA was committed to doing just that, as plans were hastily drawn up for an amphibious landing on Inch’ŏn, the port outlet for the South Korean capital of Seoul.

With a narrow, labyrinthine channel and a tidal variation of nearly 30-feet, Inch’ŏn was a terrible choice for a major amphibious landing, with no more than a six-hour window permitting use of the beaches.

The Inch’ŏn landing was one of the great operations in military history, recapturing the capital and all but destroying North Korean military operations in the South.  Meanwhile, a storm was building north of the border, in the form of a quarter-million front-line Chinese troops, assembling in Manchuria.

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The war seemed all but over in October as UNC forces streamed into the north, the US 8th Army to the west of the impassable Taebaek mountains, the ROK I Corps and US X Corps to the east, reinforced by the US 1st Marine landing at Wonsan.  North and South would be reunited by the end of the year, and everyone would be home by Christmas. 

Except, that’s not how things worked out.

By the end of November, 30,000 UN troops were spread along a 400-mile line near the Chosin Reservoir, all but overrun and fighting for their lives against 150,000 Chinese forces of the “People’s Volunteer Army (PVA).

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Hat Tip, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Korean War Gallery

Weather conditions were savage at the “Frozen Chosin”, a Siberian cold front dropping day-time highs to -5° Fahrenheit, with lows exceeding -25°.  Vehicles and radios failed to start in the cold. Medical supplies froze.  Morphine syrettes had to be thawed in the medic’s mouth, prior to use.  Frozen blood plasma was useless.  Just to cut off clothing to deal with a wound, risked frostbite.  Perhaps worst of all, gun lubricants turned to gel and springs froze.  There must be no more demoralizing sound in combat than the impotent click of a firing pin, too weak to work.

Clifford Meyer remembers: “During November 1950 the First Marine Division with elements of two Regimental combat teams of the U.S. Army, a Detachment of British Commandos and some South Korean Policemen — about 15,000 men — faced the Chinese Communist Army’s ten Divisions totaling 120,000 men. At a mountain reservoir called Chang Jin (we called it “Chosin”) temperatures ranged from minus five degrees below zero in the day to minus twenty-five degrees below zero at night. The ground froze so hard that bulldozers could not dig emplacements for our Artillery. The cold impeded our weapons from firing automatically, slowing down the recoil of our artillery and automatic weapons. The cold numbed our minds, froze our fingers and toes and froze our rations. [We were] seventy-eight miles from the sea, surrounded, supplies cut, facing an enemy whose sole objective was the annihilation of the First Marine Division as a warning to other United Nations troops, and written off as lost by the high command“.

The PVA launched multiple attacks and ambushes over the night of November 27. The “Chosin Few” were all but surrounded by the morning of the twenty-eighth, locked in a fight for their lives.

Over two weeks of bitter combat, fifteen thousand soldiers and Marines fought their way over seventy-eight miles of gravel road, back to the sea. One war correspondent asked 1st Marine General Oliver Prince Smith if they were retreating. “Retreat? Hell”, Smith said, “we are attacking in another direction”.

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Survival depended on air drops from US Navy Task Force 77 running 230 forays per day providing close-air support, food, medicine & combat supplies, and US Air Force Far East Combat Cargo Command in Japan, airdropping 250-tons of supplies.  Every day.

Everything had a code name to throw off Chinese anti-aircraft units. Marines sent out a frantic call for 60-mm mortar ammunition, code named “Tootsie Rolls”. Somebody didn’t read up on his code book. Fighting for their lives in the frozen wastes of Chosin, that’s what they got. Chocolate candy. By the ton.

What at first seemed a screw-up of biblical proportions, soon proved a blessing in disguise.  With no way to build a fire and frozen rations unusable, those Tootsie rolls were all that stood between survival and starvation. 15,000 soldiers and Marines suffered 12,000 casualties before it was over: 3,000 dead, 6,000 wounded and thousands of frostbite cases.

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Untold thousands of Tootsie roll wrappers littered the seventy-eight miles back to the sea.  Most credit their survival to the energy provided by the chocolate candy.  It turns out that frozen tootsie rolls make a swell putty too, useful for patching up fractured hoses and vehicles.

The Korean War Gallery at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico features a lone Marine, 30-mm machine gun at the ready, marching out of the frozen wastes of the Chosin reservoir.  There’s a paper candy wrapper in the snow at his feet.  Though age has diminished their numbers, the “Chosin Few” still get together, for the occasional reunion.  Tootsie Roll Industries has always sent the candy and continues to do so, to this day.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

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Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain. Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime. Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

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With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers. This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

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In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening reached French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon. Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops. By any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

Under orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

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Finally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more. German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet. Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light. Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from her superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp. In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed. 39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks. The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

November 22, 1923 Black Tom

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.


In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, when over a hundred German vessels sought refuge in American harbors.

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The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

To the Central Powers, this trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

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“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal contained over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and a hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Around 2:00 that morning, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some of them tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a massive detonation estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale.  People from Maryland to Connecticut were awakened in what many believed was an earthquake. The walls of Jersey City’s City Hall were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

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Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan.  Damage done to the Statue of Liberty alone was valued at over $2 million in today’s dollars. To this day, the ladder to Liberty’s torch, remains off limits to visitors.

Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, one ten-week-old infant and a barge captain.

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The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports: “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

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Among those responsible for the Black Tom explosion was Naval Lieutenant Lothar Witzke, arrested on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, AZ. Witzke was convicted by court martial and sentenced to death. President Woodrow Wilson later commuted his sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A prison report from Leavenworth shows Witzke heroically risking his own life in prison, entering a boiler room after an explosion and almost surely averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released.  Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.