A Forgotten Attack on America

This past Shabbos was the 100th anniversary on the secular calendar of the most destructive act of sabotage against America before the attacks of 2001. With the passage of a century, few Americans even know about the July 30, 1916, explosions on Black Tom Island. But the attack was a monumental event, and its results touch on issues like immigration, border security and fear vs. freedom that roil the national agenda today. It lives on, too, in small ways, like in the fact that visitors to the Statue of Liberty can climb stairs to the lady’s crown but her torch, once accessible by ladder but having sustained damage, remains off limits a full century later.

Black Tom Island, which received its name from an early African American resident, lay in New York Harbor, off the coast of New Jersey, near Liberty Island. It served as a major munitions depot for the northeastern United States. Ammunition intended for sale to other countries was stored there. After 1915, even before the United States entered World War I, it sold war materiel only to the Allied powers. As a result, Imperial Germany sent secret agents to the United States to obstruct the production and delivery of war munitions intended for use by its enemies.

On the night of the attack, about two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition were stored at the depot in freight cars and on barges, including 100,000 pounds of TNT on a barge docked near the island.

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.

But at 2:08 a.m., the first and largest of the explosions took place. Debris 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 a.m. The explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter scale and was reportedly felt hundreds of miles away. Thousands of windows in lower Manhattan were shattered, and the Brooklyn Bridge was shaken. People thought there had been an earthquake. At least five people were killed, including a 10-week-old baby thrown from his crib in Jersey City. Hundreds of immigrants were evacuated from Ellis Island.Many years passed before the cause of the explosion could be confirmed. Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant who later served in the U.S. Army after the American entry into the war, admitted to having worked for German agents at the time of the attack, and revealed that two of the guards at Black Tom had been German agents. The plot had been organized from a rowhouse in Manhattan owned by a German-American opera singer.

Ironically, the blast occurred the day before Charles Evans Hughes, a former New York governor, was to formally accept the Republican presidential nomination at Carnegie Hall and confront Woodrow Wilson, whose re-election campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” would be abrogated the following April.

The explosion’s effects also reverberated through World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps after Pearl Harbor because, he was quoted as saying, “We don’t want any more Black Toms.”

In 1939, the owners of the Black Tom property and their insurance companies were awarded $21 million in damages and $29 million in interest, the largest settlement by an international tribunal.

Hitler repudiated the settlement. It was renegotiated in 1952 with the Federal Republic of Germany. The first payment, $3 million, was received in 1953 and the last in 1979.

Landfill projects later connected Black Tom Island to the New Jersey mainland, and today it is part of Liberty State Park. A plaque, at the end of Morris Pesin Drive in the southeastern corner of the park, marks the spot of the explosion. A circle of American flags complements the plaque, which stands east of the visitors’ center and describes the attack.

It is a popular summer picnic spot, with families taking advantage of the close-up views of the Statue of Liberty. In the corner of the picnic area is a simple plaque, often passed by, which reads, “You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.”

To sensitive ears, the Black Tom Island attack echoes today. The idea of terrorists living among us is not some dark fantasy but all too real, as we have seen repeatedly of late. Reasonable measures to detect plots before they reach fruition, chalilah, are entirely called for.

In the end, though, we and our tefillos play the crucial role. Because it is only with Hashem’s help that the plans of reshaim are undermined.