WW1 Bombings of the US Mainland: Who Caused the Black Tom Explosion?

WW1 Bombings of the US Mainland: Who Caused the Black Tom Explosion?

World War 1

The most damaging attacks on the U.S. mainland by a foreign power (not counting the War of 1812 and the American Revolution) were actually carried out during World War I by a German sabotage ring.

On 30 July 1916, the major munitions storage depot and loading facility at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, New Jersey, exploded with a massive blast felt for a hundred miles, blowing out most of the windows in lower Manhattan, damaging the Statue of Liberty (the stair to the torch has been closed ever since), killing at least four people, and injuring hundreds as 2,000,000 pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition and 100,000 pounds of TNT detonated, all destined for Russia. 

At that time, the United States was officially neutral, but U.S. businesses were happily selling arms and ammunition to anyone who would buy them, although the British Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany meant that in reality almost all the U.S.-manufactured arms and ammunition were going to the Allies. The German government repeatedly objected to this one-way trade, to no avail.

The initial investigation pinned the blame for the Black Tom Blast on a Slovak immigrant (who later served in the U.S. Army after the U.S. entered the war), who had delivered a suitcase that triggered the blast.
Bain News Service,, publisher. Pier, Jersey City after munitions explosion [between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920] 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. Notes: Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards. Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). Repository: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print General information about the Bain Collection is available at hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.ggbain Higher resolution image is available (Persistent URL): hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.22664

However, he was mostly an unwitting agent of a German sabotage ring. 

Subsequent investigation by the Office Naval Intelligence (which had counter-espionage as a primary mission at the time) revealed one of the most incredibly complex spy and sabotage rings in history.

The details go beyond the scope of this paper, but are worthy of a Le Carré novel, and included Germans, Communists, Mexicans, the Irish anti-British Clan na Gael group, the Indian anti-British Ghadar Party (mostly Sikhs,) and other gun-running mercenaries, mostly operating out of San Francisco. (The break-up of an arms-smuggling effort by elements of this group resulted in the most sensational and highly publicized trial of the day, sometimes referred to as the “Hindu-German Plot.”)  

A key member of the ring was a German naval officer, Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. At the start of World War I, Witzke was an officer aboard the German light cruiser SMS Dresden, which after running amok for several months in the Pacific, was eventually trapped in some islands off Chile (the British flagrantly violated Chilean neutrality in the process). 

German Light cruiser SMS Dresden passing through the Kiel Canal under the Levensau High Bridge.

The Dresden subsequently scuttled herself and her crew was interned in Chile for the duration of the war.  Witzke, however, escaped from Chile on a merchant ship, which he jumped in San Francisco, where he eventually met up with the master German spy Kurt Jahnke.

Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card] – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Bain Collection – Reproduction number: LC-DIG-ggbain-29245 (digital file from original negative) – Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. Kurt Jahnke

The two were primarily responsible for several espionage and sabotage events, including the Black Tom blast.

Wrecked warehouses and scattered debris after explosion

After the U.S. entered the war, Jahnke relocated to Mexico, but with Witzke conducted another spectacular sabotage attack in the United States, when, on the morning of 9 July 1917, a massive blast rocked the Mare Island Shipyard and numerous barges filled with munitions, killing six, wounding 31, and causing damage across a wide area of northern San Francisco Bay.

Witzke would eventually be caught and imprisoned before being pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge (and sent back to Germany, where he served the Third Reich with as much zeal as Imperial Germany). Jahnke also served Nazi Germany, and he and his wife were both captured and executed by the Soviets in April 1945. 

Lastly, although the munitions that Jahnke and Witzke had blown up at Black Tom had been destined for Czarist Russia (which subsequently sued the U.S. government for lax security that enabled the blast), the Soviets weren’t any more forgiving than the Czar.

View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the explosion: The explosion caused $100,000 worth of damage to the statue, and from then onward the torch has been closed to tourists.

  Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

World War 1

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WW1 Bombings of the US Mainland: Who Caused the Black Tom Explosion?