Terrorism On US Soil—In 1916
You may think that the first instance of terrorism that transpired on US soil occurred with the 9/11/01 attacks, but according to the book It Happened In New Jersey, that’s not the case.
On the New Jersey side of new York Harbor, opposite the Statue of Liberty, there was once an island called Black Tom. The Central Railroad of New Jersey bought the site as a storage area and enlarged it by filling in a strip of land from the mainland to the island so their railroad cars could get across. The island served as a depot for tons of munitions and explosive powders destined for America’s allies in the Great War.
Even though eighty armed German ships were settled in the neutral waters of the Hudson for the duration of the war, Americans felt certain that the Atlantic Ocean would keep the war far away from them..
On July 29, 1916, after working their usual six-day workweek, workers on the island went home, leaving nearly a hundred freight cars waiting to be unloaded. The cars contained between two and four million pounds of explosives. In addition, there was also a barge, the Johnson, moored against one of the piers in direct violation of New Jersey safety laws. This ship contained 100,000 pounds of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses.
The island was poorly guarded; there were no gates or guardhouses. Security regulations were routinely ignored. On the island that night was the usual skeleton crew of six railroad detectives and two additional detectives hired from a private agency to watch that enormous stockpile of explosives.
At twelve minutes past midnight one of the detectives noticed a fire on the Johnson. Within minutes, shrapnel shells of the lesser calibers began to explode. The fire got worse and the explosives went off with increasing ferocity. At 2:08AM, a huge explosion lit up the night sky, sending shock waves that were felt as far as 100 miles away, from New York to Maryland. In Manhattan, windows shattered, subway cars shook, skyscrapers rattled, and people, even those miles away, were thrown from their beds. Blasts came every twenty minutes or so. Shrapnel tore through the Statue of Liberty, although her torch remained lit. Two barges filled with ammunition were blown from their docks and were floating down the Hudson, seemingly firing at will.
When the explosions finally ended, the devastation was huge. Hundreds of people near the site were seriously injured and hundreds more were hurt by the shock waves and fallout. Black Tom island itself was a burnt-out hollow.
Investigations pointed to the Germans, with the German ambassador to the U.S., Count Johann Von Bernstorff as the ringleader working from his Washington, D.C. office. His mission was to keep the U.S. from entering the war so we wouldn’t fight against the Germans while, at the same time, administering Germany’s terrorist plots against America on her own soil.
The Germans managed to pull off 200 acts of terrorism on the U.S. Among those acts were the bombing of the Senate Chamber of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., blowing up the Kingsland ammunition plant in New Jersey, and the sinking of the Lusitania. Also found were manuals detailing how the terrorists should act to blend in with Americans.
The actions of the Germans were revealed in a letter the British decoded called the Zimmerman letter. It gave names and addresses of contacts the Germans used to carry out sabotage in America and Canada.
After years of pursuing a case against Germany, the United States was awarded $50 million in restitution for acts of war. Today, Liberty State Park stands on the rebuilt remains of Black Tom Island. And from that very site, people can look back at Manhattan and remember a mass grave caused by yet another terrorist attack on U.S. soil...where the massive Twin Towers once stood.
Note: It Happened In New Jersey was written by Fran Capo and is published by The Globe Pequot Press.