By Cowan Brew

In the summer of 1916, America was an island of peace in an ocean of war. The guns of August 1914 had been blazing away in Europe for nearly two years now, primed by a booming American munitions industry that found itself growing rich on the long-distance suffering of others. In the blood-soaked trenches of the Western Front, men blew each other up by the tens of thousands with bombs made in large part from materials supplied by American factories, shipped overseas from American ports. By far the most important of these ports was New York City, whose famous harbor, presided over by the Statue of Liberty, was ringed with warehouses, railroad terminals, docks and piers. Of the estimated $3 billion worth of war materiels bought annually by the allied nations of England, France, and Russia, the lion’s share passed through the port of New York. 

Imperial Germany, whose own ports were sealed shut by the mighty British Navy, could do little to officially stem the tide. Diplomatic protests by German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff fell on deaf ears. President Woodrow Wilson, himself a committed Anglophile, responded blithely that America was a neutral country, free to sell her goods to anyone. The Germans could spend their money as well as the Allies, if they chose—of course, how they would get their goods safely across an Atlantic Ocean ruled by battleships sporting the Union Jack was entirely their problem.

A $150 Million War Chest

The Germans responded to Wilson’s rebuff with typical Teutonic industry. While Von Bernstorff continued his public protests, behind the scenes his consular staff set into motion a series of events that would culminate one late-July night in 1916 in the most spectacular act of domestic sabotage ever seen on American soil. Armed with a whopping $150 million war chest, Von Bernstorff’s staff spent freely, if ineffectively, to promote pro-German sentiment inside the United States. With 4 million native-born German-Americans, and another 2.5 million German immigrants living within her borders, Kaiser Wilhelm’s government might well have counted on a massive fifth column of Imperial supporters. American patriotism however, had been sown deep into the hearts of her Germanic citizens, cemented by the fires of civil war, when German-dominated St. Louis singlehandedly kept Missouri out of the Confederacy and thousands of German-speaking immigrants swelled Union Army rosters across the North. Whatever their personal feelings about the war in Europe, German-Americans as a group were scrupulously neutral, if only to avoid the appearance of pro-German leanings.

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

Shut off from support by their ancestral relatives, the staff at the German consulate in Washington resolved to take matters into their own hands. In February 1915, the German General Staff gave its U-boats free rein to sink any vessels, even those flying neutral colors, that violated its self-declared zone of exclusion around Great Britain. The announcement was made in public, and the German government actually took steps of printing warnings in major American newspapers, cautioning anyone against taking such ships. Less publicly, the General Staff also ordered its military attache in Washington, Captain Franz von Papen, to commence sabotage operations against “every kind of factory for supplying munitions of war.” Von Papen had little experience in clandestine operations, but he was soon joined by another German captain, Franz von Rintelen, who was well-schooled in such work. Von Rintelen arrived in America carrying a Swiss passport and immediately set up business in New York City. He quickly proved more energetic and imaginative than Von Papen, spending his time monitoring Allied shipping and enlisting sailors from some of the 80-odd German ships currently stranded in New York harbor to help him snoop around the docks. At the same time, Von Rintelen set up a bomb-making factory inside one of the ship’s workshops and persuaded a German-born chemist in nearby New Jersey to make pencil-shaped firebombs. Anti-British Irish dockworkers assisted the Germans by planting the firebombs on Allied ships, and a rash of mysterious fires at sea soon afflicted ships carrying American munitions abroad. It was later estimated that Von Rintelen’s “pencil bombs” had caused $10 million worth of damages to 36 ships at sea.

The Sinking of the Lusitania Makes Matters Worse

Von Rintelen’s efforts were seriously curtailed following the sinking of the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915. The sinking of an apparent non-combatant ship (although recent research has suggested that Lusitania was carrying a secret stash of explosives in her hold) inflamed public opinion in the United States, 128 of whose citizens had gone down with the ship. With no national intelligence service yet in existence, President Wilson detailed the Secret Service to begin watching German diplomats. Somehow, Von Rintelen escaped their notice, but commercial attache Herman Albert did not. In July 1915, Secret Service agents managed to filch Albert’s briefcase on a crowded New York elevated train. Inside were detailed plans for future sabotage projects, including the placing of more firebombs on Allied ships and the wrecking of the Welland Canal near Niagara Falls. Albert, Von Papen, and several of their colleagues at the German consulate were immediately deported. Von Bernstorff, with diplomatic immunity, was untouchable; but Von Rintelen was taken off a Dutch steamer by British seamen while fleeing to Berlin. The saboteur leader attempted to brazen his way out of captivity by showing his spurious Swiss passport, but soon admitted that he was, in reality, a German officer.

Stopping the “Dark Invader” Too Late

Unfortunately, Von Rintelen’s arrest would come too late to prevent his masterstroke from reaching fruition. “The Dark Invader,” as he melodramatically styled himself, had already taken a walk along the New Jersey waterfront one afternoon and noticed the intense activity taking place at a mile-long pier jutting out from Jersey City into the Hudson River, just opposite the Statue of Liberty. The pier was called Black Tom Pier after the small speck of land on which it was built, Black Tom Island (named after a dark-skinned fisherman who was once its only inhabitant). The original island had long since disappeared, filled in by a teeming mass of warehouses and railroad tracks marking the terminal of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company. The LVRC shared space with the National Dock and Storage Company, a major player in the collection and transfer of gunpowder, TNT and artillery shells bound for Europe. “What an ideal pier to destroy,” Von Rietelen remembered thinking at the time. This article is from Military Heritage Magazine