“On July 30th, 1916 the largest explosion in New York City history happened. It was not 9/11. That was the deadliest, but the largest was at Black Tom Island. During the Great War the heart of German sabotage in America was in New York City,” author Michael McMaster recently told his audience at Otterbein Portage valley in Pemberville.
“Why have I never heard about this before,” asked an audience member.
“This is not in the history books,” McMaster replied. But, it is in his book Henry County, in the Great War: German-Americans, Patriots, and Loyalty (1914-118).
Michael McMaster, author of Henry County, in the Great War: German
Americans, Patriots, and Loyalty (1914-1918), tells tales from his book
of German spying, sabotage and terrorism on American soil at Otter-
bein Portage Valley in Pemberville. (Press photo by Stephanie Szozda)
“Black Tom Island in New York Harbor was the largest sea port sending ammunition and goods to England and France. German saboteurs road in on boats and walked the railway causeway to the island and after midnight on July 30th, 1916 they set small fires on the island. At 2:08 in the morning, the first and largest explosion look place and it was an equivalent to a 5 or 5.5 on the Richter Scale. The Brooklyn Bridge swayed and windows all across Manhattan and New Jersey were blown out for 25 miles. They heard the explosion in the state of Maryland and Philadelphia,” McMaster explains.
The explosion did an estimated $20 million in damage which is approximately equivalent to $427 million today. The Statue of Liberty had shrapnel blown through it.
This was the largest terrorist explosion in America. Approximately seven people died.
“The Germans were trying to blow up ammunition and not kill people because if they killed a lot of Americans, America would clamor to go to war with Germany.”
“Other things the Germans did that’s in my book were put time bombs in ships, had a doctor in America making Anthrax to kill horses, had false passports to get Germans back to Germany to fight the war. There was a long, long list of things Germans were doing while America was neutral,” explains McMaster.
“Woodrow Wilson knew about all the sabotage but suppressed it because he was running for office in 1916 and his motto was that he kept you out of war…When American entered the war it suddenly became ok to suspect Germans and German-Americans and he released all this information on the public all at once.”
McMaster’s book goes on to explain the consequences of this information on the public, especially locally. For example, “every time a wheat field caught on fire, the newspaper would blame the Germans but in actuality there were no known acts of German sabotage here.”
“The book that I wrote deals with Henry County but it also encompasses things that happened all across Northwest Ohio in Wood County, Fulton County and Defiance County.”
America entered WWI in the spring of 1917 and in March, 1918, an organization was started called the League of American Patriots of Henry County. In the newspaper they warned that Pro-Germanism in Henry County will be crushed and disloyalty will not be tolerated. He said that 19 patriotic citizens formed this group and by the end of the spring they boasted having 4,000 members. A go-get-em committee under the League of Patriots was formed so if there were any pro-Germans they would go get them and bring them back to Napoleon and give them loyalty trials. “It just so happened that most, if not all, the people that were ‘disloyal’ were Democrats running for office,” McMaster explains. He describes not only the discrimination that took place during this time period but the clever moves politicians made to play this distrust and unrest to their advantage.
In the end, some of the League’s own members turned against them. For instance P.C. Prentiss states, “It has long been apparent to me, as it has to many other sensible men with whom I have conferred, that you [Wilson] and Mr. Ritter (league president), who have been the whole show of the Napoleon branch of this society, are trying to play politics with the League, using patriotism as a cloak to accomplish political purposes, and a sorry mess you have made of it.”
“Politics today is very tame,” McMaster says.
McMaster’s book started out as a Masters thesis at Bowling Green State University. After he wrote the thesis he says, “it just kind of sat on the shelf but then so many people were asking about it that I decided to sit down and I added a quit bit more to it and I self-published it.”
McMaster says he will, “give talks to anyone who will listen from church groups, woman’s and men’s organizations, senior organizations, schools, or anyone or group whom is interested in WWI or German-Americans.”
You can contact him at the Wood County Historical Society at 419-352-0967 and for $20.00 you may also pick up a copy of his book which he brings to each presentation and also sells at the Wood County Historical Society, 13660 County Home Road, Bowling Green, Ohio.