Black Tom explosion
|Black Tom explosion|
Black Tom pier shortly after the explosion
|Location||Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.|
|Date||July 30, 1916 |
2:08:00 a.m. (EST; GMT−5)
|Sabotage, state-sponsored terrorism|
|Perpetrators||Imperial German agents|
The Black Tom explosion was an act of sabotage by German agents to destroy U.S.-made munitions that were to be supplied to the Allies in World War I. The explosions, which occurred on July 30, 1916, in the New York Harbor, destroyed some $20,000,000 worth of military goods. This incident, which happened prior to U.S. entry into World War I, also famously damaged the Statue of Liberty. It is considered one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions to have ever occurred.
Concerns over suspicions that this was the fault of German spies were initially quelled. The International Secret Service at the time stated that mosquitoes were to blame. According to Ervin J. Smith, the first vice president of the International Secret Service, "The watchmen employed to guard the millions of dollars-worth of war materials were bothered by mosquitos, and built a smudge to drive them away. A spark from this fire ignited some excelsior under a box car loaded with small shells. These exploded and the rest is history." This statement made by Ervin Smith later turned out to be false, and the true motive was quickly revealed.
Black Tom Island
The term "Black Tom" originally referred to an island in New York Harbor next to Liberty Island. The island was artificial, created by land fill around a rock of the same name, which had been a local hazard to navigation. By 1880, an island was transformed into a 25-acre (10 ha) promontory, and a causeway and railroad had been built to connect it with the mainland to use as a shipping depot. Between 1905 and 1916, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned the island and causeway, expanded the island with land fill, and the entire area was annexed by Jersey City. A mile-long pier on the island housed a depot and warehouses for the National Dock and Storage Company. Black Tom Island is known today as Liberty State Park.
Black Tom was a major munitions depot for the Northeastern United States. Until early 1915, U.S. munitions companies could sell to any buyer. After the Blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy, however, only the Allied powers could purchase from them. As a result, Imperial Germany sent secret agents to the United States to obstruct the production and delivery of war munitions that were intended to be used by its enemies.
On the night of the attack, about 2,000,000 pounds (910,000 kg) of small arms and artillery ammunition were stored at the depot in freight cars and on barges, including 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of TNT on Johnson Barge No. 17. All was waiting to be shipped to Russia. Jersey City's Commissioner of Public Safety, Frank Hague, later said he had been told the barge was "tied up at Black Tom to avoid a twenty-five dollar charge."
After midnight on July 30, a series of small fires were discovered on the pier. Some guards fled, fearing an explosion. Others attempted to fight the fires and eventually called the Jersey City Fire Department. At 2:08 am, the first and largest of the explosions took place, the second and smaller explosion occurring around 2:40 am. A notable location for one of the first major explosions was around the Johnson Barge No. 17, which contained 50 tons of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses. The explosion created a detonation wave that traveled at 24,000 feet per second with enough force to lift firefighters out of their boots and into the air. Fragments from the explosion traveled long distances, some lodging in the Statue of Liberty and some in the clock tower of The Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away, stopping the clock at 2:12 am. The explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter scale and was felt as far away as Philadelphia. Windows were broken as far as 25 miles (40 km) away, including thousands in Lower Manhattan. Some window panes in Times Square were shattered. The stained glass windows in St. Patrick's Church were destroyed. The outer wall of Jersey City's City Hall was cracked and the Brooklyn Bridge was shaken. People as far away as Maryland were awakened by what they thought was an earthquake.
Property damage from the attack was estimated at $20,000,000 (equivalent to about $460,000,000 in 2018). On the island, the explosion destroyed more than one hundred railroad cars, thirteen warehouses, and left a 375-foot-by-175-foot crater at the source of the explosion. The damage to the Statue of Liberty was estimated to be $100,000 (equivalent to about $2,300,000 in 2018), and included damage to the skirt and torch.
Immigrants being processed at Ellis Island had to be evacuated to Lower Manhattan. Although one contemporary newspaper report estimated that up to seven people died in the attack, four did definitely die: a Jersey City policeman, a Lehigh Valley Railroad chief of police, a ten-week-old infant, and the barge captain.
The New York Times confirmed the death of five men and detailed their death later that week after the Black Tom explosion. Four of these men were burned to death. These burns were so severe that their legs and their arms were burned off of their bodies; the bodies were indistinguishable from one another. The bodies were consumed by the flames after being suffocated by smoke. Further, the superintendent who was thought to be at Black Tom during the explosion was never found. The article states, "The fifth man, who ran off the island about the time of the explosion and was drowned, is not known."
To understand why the sabotage took place, it is important to understand the mindset of the actors behind the attack. "In August of 1914, most Germans regarded the armed conflict they were entering in spiritual terms. The war was above all an idea, not a conspiracy aimed at German territorial aggrandizement."
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, two watchmen who had lit smudge pots to keep away mosquitoes were questioned by police but the police soon determined that the smudge pots had not caused the fire and that the blast had likely been an accident.
Soon after the explosion, suspicion fell upon Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant. Kristoff would later serve in the United States Army in World War I, but admitted to working for German agents (transporting suitcases) in 1915 and 1916 while the US was still neutral. According to Kristoff, two of the guards at Black Tom were German agents. It is likely[according to whom?] that the bombing involved some of the techniques developed by German agents working for German ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff and German Naval Intelligence officer Franz von Rintelen, using the cigar bombs developed by Dr. Walter Scheele. Captain Franz Von Rintelen used many resources at his disposal, including a large amount of money. Captain Franz von Rintelen used these resources to make generous cash bribes, one of which was notably given to Michael Kristoff in exchange for access to the pier. Suspicion at the time fell solely on German saboteurs such as Kurt Jahnke and his assistant Lothar Witzke, who are still judged as legally responsible. It is also believed that Michael Kristoff was responsible for planting and initiating the incendiary devices that lead to the explosions. Later investigations in the aftermath of the Annie Larsen affair unearthed links between the Ghadar conspiracy and the Black Tom explosion.
Additional investigations by the Directorate of Naval Intelligence also found links to some members of the Irish Clan na Gael group, the Indian Ghadar Party and Communist elements. The Irish socialist James Larkin asserted that he had not participated in active sabotage but had encouraged work slowing and strikes for higher wages and better conditions, in an affidavit to McCloy in 1934.
The United States did not have an established national intelligence service, other than diplomats and few military and naval attaches, making the investigation difficult. Without a formal intelligence service on the national level, the United States only had rudimentary communications security and no federal statute forbidding peacetime espionage or sabotage, making the connections to the saboteurs and accomplices almost impossible to track.
This attack was one of many during the German sabotage campaign against the United States, and it is notable for its contribution to the shift of public opinion against Germany, which eventually resulted in American support to enter World War I.
The Russian government sued the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company operating the Black Tom Terminal on grounds that lax security (there was no entrance gate; the territory was unlit) permitted the loss of their ammunition and argued that due to the failure to deliver them the manufacturer was obliged by the contract to replace them.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad, advised by John J. McCloy, sought damages against Germany under the Treaty of Berlin from the German-American Mixed Claims Commission. The Mixed Claims Commission declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had been responsible and awarded $50 million (the largest claim) in damages which Nazi Germany refused to pay. The issue was finally settled in 1953 on $95 million (interest included) with the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.
The Statue of Liberty's torch has been closed to the public since the explosion due to structural damages. Access was not opened after the 1984–86 restoration which included repairs to the arm and installation of a new gold-plated copper torch.
The Black Tom explosion resulted in the establishment of domestic intelligence agencies for the United States. The then Police Commissioner of New York, Arthur Woods, argued, "The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no adequate national intelligence organization. The several federal bureaus should be welded into one and that one should be eternally and comprehensively vigilant."  The explosion also played a role in how future presidents responded to military conflict. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Black Tom explosion as part of his rationale for the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942.
The incident also influenced public safety legislation. As a result of the sabotage techniques used by Germany, and the United States' declaration of war on Germany, lead to the creation of the Espionage Act passed by congress in late 1917. Landfill projects later made Black Tom Island part of the mainland, and it was incorporated into Liberty State Park. The former Black Tom Island is at the end of Morris Pesin Drive in the southeastern corner of the park, where a plaque marks the spot of the explosion. A circle of U.S. flags complements the plaque, which stands east of the visitors' center.
The inscription on the plaque reads:
Explosion at Liberty!
On July 30, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot exploded rocking New York Harbor and sending residents tumbling from their beds.
The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. On Ellis Island, terrified immigrants were evacuated by ferry to the Battery. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty (the arm of the Statue was closed to visitors after this). Property damage was estimated at $20 million. It is not known how many died.
Why the explosion? Was it an accident or planned? According to historians, the Germans sabotaged the Lehigh Valley munitions depot in order to stop deliveries being made to the British who had blockaded the Germans in Europe.
You are walking on a site which saw one of the worse acts of terrorism in American history.
A stained-glass window at Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic church memorialized the victims of the attack.
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