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Black Tom Explosion

Black Tom Explosion

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Published by: The Seeker Of All on Aug 08, 2009
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Black Tom Explosion
The Black Tom explosion was the peak act of German sabotage on American soil duringthe First World War. On July 29, 1916, German agents set fire to a complex of warehouses and ships in the New York harbor that held munitions, fuel, and explosives bound to aid the Allies inSmoke billowing from the Black Tom explosion, a German sabotage operation onAmerican soil in 1916. ©BETTMANN/CORBIS.their fight. Though America was technically a neutral nation at the time of the attack,general policies greatly favored the Allies. The attack persuaded many that the UnitedStates should join the Allies and intervene in the war in Europe.
German intelligence and sabotage operations.
As soon as war broke out in Europe, theUnited States began manufacturing munitions and sharing the weapons with alliedBritish, French, and Russian forces in Europe. German agents in the United Statesreported the stockpiling and shipping of weapons, and the German government took action. Because they could only openly attack United States property in limited wayssuch as the sinking of merchant ships carrying contraband munitions without provokingAmerica to wage war, the German government sent undercover agents to sabotagemunitions operations. Numerous fires were set at military supply manufacturing sites.Shipping lines and railroads were also sometimes targets. Over 50 acts of sabotage were
carried out on American targets from 1914 to 1918. Of those 50, nearly 30 occurred in the New York area alone. Not only did several factories and warehouses operate in the NewYork area, but ports in and around New York were the major staging point for shippingsupplies to the western front in Europe.Black Tom pier was located across the harbor from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.The pier partially rested on Black Tom Island, from which it derived its name. Theadjacent shore was crowded with warehouses, loading docks, and train tracks. Whileshipping had always flowed steadily from Black Tom, German agents noted an increaseof activity from the site after the outbreak of war. Further investigations revealed thatBlack Tom was indeed connected to the war effort, and was the major shipping point for most of the fuel reserves bound for Europe. A munitions factory in Manhattan alsoshipped the detonator fuses it manufactured from Black Tom. A Pennsylvania companyused the pier to load dynamite and other explosives onto transports. The combination of materials made Black Tom not only a dangerous place, but also a prime target for sabotage. Destruction of Black Tom would not only stall the shipment of supplies toEurope, but the volatile cargo would ignite and likely cause considerable propertydamage to the surrounding area.
Planning the attack at Black Tom.
In 1914, shortly after the start of war in Europe, theGerman government sent a new ambassador to Washington. Count Johann Von Bernstorff  brought with him a consular staff not of diplomats, but of trained German intelligenceoperatives. The staff also had an unusually high budget of 150 million dollars. The staff  performed regular consular duties, but also led a network of other agents in the UnitesStates. They designated targets for sabotage, and used their money to buy resources and bribe officials. Soon after the German delegation arrived, the first sabotage fires werereported. In addition to monetary damage, the fires scarred the pre-1920s American psyche. A certain hysteria began regarding the presence of spies and saboteurs onAmerican soil. Rumors of German agents spreading germs, planting bombs, andkidnapping people were plentiful in the public imagination. Even though the threat posed by saboteurs on the public was propagandized to the extreme, the actions of saboteurswere limited in scope until 1916.German agents, including master spy Franz von Rintelen, worked to increase the damageinflicted by their attacks. Von Rintelen devised an explosive charge called a pencil bombthat was designed to detonate when a ship was already out to sea. German intelligencealerted the German navy of the position and names of ships that were carrying weaponsand supplies. Some of these merchant vessels were sunk without warning. After just afew short months, von Rintelen and his operatives caused nearly 100 million dollarsworth of damage. British intelligence and police then devised a plan to lure von Rintelen back to Germany via Britain. British intelligence sent the agent a telegram with fakeorders from German command to attack a target off the British coastline. Von Rintelentook the bait, was promptly arrested before arriving in Britain, and was extradited back tothe United States to stand trial. Sabotage attacks continued to occur. Von Rintelen's mostambitious plan for destruction was carried out in his absence.
The Black Tom explosion.
Months before his capture, von Rintelen established a teamof agents that would be responsible for the destruction of Black Tom Pier. He hiredseveral agents to perform various tasks from smuggling the charges onto ships to bribing pier workers. It remains unknown who actually lit the first explosive fuse to cause theexplosion at Black Tom. Police investigations pointed to a man named Michael Kristoff who was living at a boarding house in Bayonne, New Jersey, and was reported by hisland lady to keep odd hours and often return home smelling of fuel or having small sootstains on his hands or clothing. Kristoff, when later questioned by authorities mentionedseveral other accomplices, but did not specifically mention their various roles in thesabotage.The exact events of the night of the Black tom explosion largely remain a mystery.Several night watchmen guarded the area around the pier, but two were later discoveredto have accepted bribes from German agents to loosen their guard. The cargo itself waslargely unprotected, and sat loaded on moored barges and hips in the harbor. Anammunition storage facility and several fuel tanks were located on the adjacent shore.The first fire and explosion most likely began in this area. Guards fled the scene, wary of the materials they knew were in the vicinity. At 2:08 a.m., a thunderous explosion shook the New Jersey harbor, shattered windows, and threw people from their beds across the bay in Manhattan. That explosion began aboard the
 Johnson 17 
, a ship carryingexplosives and fuel that was docked near the pier. Several other explosions were heardshortly after, and continued until dawn. Shrapnel rained down on New York City and the New Jersey harbor area. Immigrants awaiting entry processing on Ellis Island wereevacuated from their barracks, and the Statue of Liberty sustained damage from flyingdebris. When all of the fuel and explosives were spent, the smoke cleared to reveal aswath of devastation several city blocks wide. Black Tom pier and most of its island weregone.
Investigation following the war.
Following the war, a special commission convened toassess damages from various incidences of terrorism in the United States. The MixedClaims Commission consisted of a German, an American, and a neutral representative.The commission reviewed the claims of industries, companies, and governments that lost property to the work of saboteurs during the war. The Black Tom explosion was thelargest of such claims. After reviewing evidence supplied by police and intelligenceinvestigations, the panel decided that the explosion was the result of foul play on the partof German terrorists. The commission awarded a settlement amount of 50 million dollars,the largest damage claim awarded for a single incident during the war. The money was to be paid from German reparations payments proscribed in the Treaty of Versailles. Thedamage award to the plaintiffs, however, was not finally made until 1939.
Volkman, Ernest.
 Espionage: The Greatest Spy Operations of the Twentieth Century.
NewYork: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

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