The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice

The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice

by Chad Millman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316734967
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 07/12/2006
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 876,374
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Chad Millman is the Editorial Director of ESPN Domestic Digital. He is the author of The Odds and coauthor of The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, Iceman, Invincible, and Pickup Artists. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons.

Read an Excerpt

The Detonators

The Secret Plot to Destroy American and an Epic Hunt for Justice
By Chad Millman


Copyright © 2006 Chad Millman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73496-9

Chapter One

Heinrich Albert was forty years old, carried a briefcase, and worked in an office high above Broadway in one of downtown Manhattan's brand-new skyscrapers. From his window he could see West Street, crowded with merchants leading horse-drawn carts of fruit, dockworkers pulling on pieces of bread while on their way to the piers, and policemen walking their beats. He watched as cargo ships hauling grain and coal were emptied onto the covered piers stretching out into New York Harbor- ninety-nine of them on the west side of Manhattan, ranging from six hundred to one thousand feet long. Originally built to accommodate ocean liners such as the Lusitania and the Olympic, the piers were too important to use just for luxury travelers. By 1914, more material moved in and out of New York Harbor than anywhere else in the world. The mayor at the time, John Mitchel, worried aloud about the economic consequences worldwide if someone demolished his harbor, and not a soul considered his fears without justification.

The scene was always so hurried, so full of purpose, so earnest. So typically American, Albert thought. How he hated the view.

Past the piers, the Statue of Liberty glistened in thelate- afternoon sun. Every day, immigrants from Europe, refugees from the war, arrived at nearby Ellis Island. Albert himself was a stranger here, having moved to New York shortly after the conflict in Europe had begun in August 1914. He had come alone, leaving his wife, Ida, and their three young children in Germany.

On a clear day, if he squinted, Albert could see beyond the Statue of Liberty to Black Tom Island, a mile-long spit jutting into the harbor from Jersey City, New Jersey. Black Tom was laid with dozens of intricately woven rails and long piers extending like spokes from one side of the thin finger of land. From sunrise to sunset, workers unloaded trains that brought dangerous cargo from all over the country, transferring the goods to the ships waiting in the piers. The largest munitions depot in the country, Black Tom was the last stop for American-made shells, dynamite, and bullets before they were sent to the front. The British and French were buying them by the ton, as fast as the American companies could make them, and then using them to beat back the Germans in the countryside of France and off the coasts of Europe.

Albert watched the business of Black Tom with dismay. He was not alone. President Woodrow Wilson had declared the United States neutral when war broke out in 1914, and the harbors in port cities up and down the East Coast were veritable parking lots filled with German merchant ships, battleships, and U-boats, all of them interned for the duration of the war. Wilson's neutrality policy not only meant that he would not take sides or commit his military. It also meant that he would not allow any ships docked in the United States at the outbreak of World War I to join the fight. As a result, along the Hudson River there were nearly eighty German vessels interned, tied together in groups by thick ropes and watched at all times by patrolling U.S. Navy ships. With the British navy controlling the seas, wayward German vessels looking for safe haven often docked in the United States when their supplies ran low. They, too, were interned and forbidden to leave. Eventually, the harbor became so crowded with cargo ships, luxury liners, and idle warships that the German boats were towed across the water to New Jersey. By the fall of 1914, it was common for German naval officers and merchant marines setting sail from Germany to shout, "I'm going to heaven, hell, or Hoboken."

As busy as the harbor was during working hours, it was mostly desolate at night. The piers, hoisted twenty feet above the water, had small rowboats tethered to their wooden pinnings so workers had access to the lower reaches of the ships. After sunset, given the dense cover of the piers' roofs, it was common for crooks to borrow those rowboats and be quietly ferried from one unmanned ship to the next.

Directly in front of the piers, running parallel to the river, was West Street. So hurried in the light of day, it lay still after dark, littered with grain and loose pieces of coal that had fallen from carts; water pooled in the crevices between the cobblestones. There were no lights along the docks, and the only sounds came from small waves on the Hudson River slapping against the hulls of ships. In the night shadows, resentful, interned German seamen-loud, bored, and frustrated-stumbled along West Street, tripping on the uneven lane, drawing rebukes from the cops walking the beat. The Germans spent their days maintaining their ships, scraping down the sides, and watching big steamers leave wispy trails as they chugged away from Black Tom, headed for the war. They spent their nights wandering and drinking. They weren't prisoners, but they weren't free. No matter where they went, they were viewed with suspicion-although all who found themselves dockside at midnight were to be doubted. "In districts where you find few people, you will rarely find lights, and where there are no lights you may well expect crime," opined Thomas Tunney, then the head of the New York Police Department's bomb squad. "On the waterfront, for every thoroughfare which can pass as a street there are a dozen or two alleys, footpaths, shadowy recesses and blind holes ... and, as Shakespeare said, there are land rats and there are water rats."

The British blockade not only neutered the German navy, but it also made it nearly impossible for the Central powers-Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire-to import food and material. From 1914 through 1916, American exports to Britain and France combined rose from $750 million per year to $2.5 billion. Meanwhile, exports to Germany shrank from $345 million to just $2 million a year.

Albert, sent to America as Germany's commercial attache, needed to find ways to change that. The U.S. government may have been neutral, but American companies were open for business. Nothing, he knew, was as seductive to an American as money.

On the surface, Albert was an unlikely seducer. He wore stiff collared white shirts and black pin-striped suits. He parted his light brown hair closer to the side, forgoing the greased, split down-the-middle style so many of his countrymen preferred. Exceedingly polite and unnecessarily formal, he hid his contempt for America underneath his businessman's uniform. The only visible evidence of his undying commitment to the kaiser was the shallow red battle scars on both cheeks, saber cuts earned as an infantryman in the German army. They looked chronically inflamed against his fair skin and soft blue eyes.

German-American banks had granted Albert millions in loans, motivated as much by events abroad as by Albert's personal appeal. The country was bitterly divided over the war, with most Americans believing that Germany was responsible for starting it. But pockets of the nation were sympathetic, and during the first days and weeks of the war, German-Americans around the country demonstrated in support of their native land. Wealthy second-generation German-Americans wrote Albert checks. In Chicago, a parade of reservists carried the German colors. Inspirational speeches meant to spur volunteers to the front were given at every rally. German fight songs were sung, and telegrams were sent to Kaiser Wilhelm praising his decision to fight. German reservists from every state, as well as from South and Central America, came to New York, lined up outside the German Embassy, and demanded to be shipped to the front.

Most Americans saw these acts of German patriotism as uncharacteristic and even unsettling. Nativism was rampant in the United States, as millions of European immigrants were increasingly blamed for poverty, disease, and crime. Fears that new world values would erode beneath the increasing waves of old-world cultures prompted "Americanization" programs in public schools. Classes that taught immigrant children about the importance of punctuality, hard work, and the superiority of the "American way" became required parts of the curriculum.

Germans, however, remained largely untouched by prejudice in the years leading up to the war. Among the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam, they came to the United States by the millions during the mid-1800s. The Irish (who immigrated in equal numbers during the same time) left a homeland that could not feed, house, or employ them. They arrived poor and, in New York, largely took jobs as unskilled laborers, often working on the docks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of middle-class, liberal minded Germans left their country in 1848, following a failed revolution to create a unified, democratic German government. Millions more fled over the next three decades as several religious groups-Quakers, Lutherans, and Jews among them-were persecuted. In New York, they settled along the East River on the city's Lower East Side, a part of town that quickly became known as Kleindeutschland. By 1900, Germans accounted for the largest immigrant group in the city. They hadn't come empty-handed, and they used their capital to open small businesses as cabinetmakers, tailors, bakers, cigarmakers, and brewers. They also became leaders in creating trade unions. Ten years later, with growing German populations in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, first- and second-generation settlers accounted for 10 percent of the entire U.S. population.

As eastern European Jews and Italians became the dominant immigrant groups, settling in Lower East Side tenements, Germans left Kleindeutschland for more well-to-do parts of Manhattan. A new subway built in 1904 encouraged development uptown. German immigrants bought homes in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side and, crossing the Hudson, in the suburbs of New Jersey. While they were proud of their heritage, keeping italive through hundreds of German social clubs, beer halls, and German-language newspapers, they wanted to be citizens of the United States first. No immigrant group seemed to assimilate as quickly or as easily. Seven out of ten Germans became naturalized citizens, proudly referring to themselves as German-Americans. One study done during the early 1900s and published in the American Journal of Sociology asked sociologists, journalists, psychologists, and social workers to rate ethnic groups based on various personal traits. Germans ranked first, ahead of Americans, in self-control, moral integrity, and perseverance. The image most Americans held of Germans reflected what they thought of themselves: they were hardworking and aspired to be upwardly mobile.

All that would change in the summer of 1914. As the war raged overseas, the United States was forced to examine how it wanted to interact with the world. For the first time, it was a country strong enough, economically and politically, to shape events in Europe by choice. And while Americans may have been separated from battle by an ocean, it was impossible for them not to feel the war's tension. Often their new neighbors from Italy, Russia, England, and Germany had family living along the front lines. These newcomers were vocal about their reactions to the war and their allegiance to the countries they had left behind. This behavior raised questions of divided loyalties among other Americans. The rampant nativism was ratcheted up, as were fears and prejudices toward immigrants. This was especially true regarding German-Americans. The goodwill heaped on them by their adopted countrymen disappeared in a flash of gunpowder as soon as the kaiser's army crossed the Belgian border, signaling the start of World War I. In several books that were rushed into print that summer, the kaiser was depicted as intelligent, imaginative, cruel, and bent on world domination. A typical political cartoon in an American magazine depicted a German soldier marching through Belgium with women and babies hanging from his bayonet. Many in the United States believed that the kaiser's plan included mobilizing millions of German-Americans-beginning with those who were begging the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., Johann von Bernstorff, to draft them into the war.

As much as he may have wanted to, von Bernstorff couldn't harness the energy of his countrymen. Getting them to the front lines in Europe was impossible. In the unlikely event that the ships hauling them across the Atlantic passed the U.S. Navy on patrol, they'd be sunk by the British once out in the open sea. But providing Germany with manpower wasn't really von Bernstorff's concern. His mission was to keep the United States out of the war.

Von Bernstorff had been raised for this job. The son of the former German ambassador to England, he had spent the first decade of his life in England. He spoke English without a German accent and had married an American. When he was named ambassador to the United States in 1908, one German paper declared that with von Bernstorff in place, a German-American partnership on balance with the British-French-Russian alliance was possible. As he said, his "main instructions from the emperor and the chancellor were to inform the American public about the peaceful and friendly intentions of German foreign policy."

With his piercing blue eyes and handlebar mustache, the ambassador quickly became a popular guest at dinner parties in Washington and New York. He summered in New England and was so skilled at befriending influential Americans that he was awarded honorary degrees from ten different universities, including Columbia, Brown, the University of Chicago, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Once the war broke out, he needed every bit of that charm. The ambassador's budget had always included several thousand dollars that went toward paying reporters for writing positively about German policies, but with battles raging overseas, he increased his propaganda efforts. When the German-American newspaper Staats-Zeitung nearly went bankrupt, von Bernstorff persuaded the German Foreign Office to invest $200,000 to keep it afloat. He then paid $625,000 for an interest in the New York Evening Mail. He knew that the daily dispatches from the front were the only ways Americans learned about what was happening in Europe. Those stories, and the debates in local pubs, on elevated trains, and around dinner tables, shaped American opinions about the war-and Germany's role in causing it. The more it appeared that Germany was fighting for a righteous cause, the more support von Bernstorff would get, and maybe-just maybe-the United States would change its mind about who was in the right.

It was Albert's job to make von Bernstorff's ideas happen. Early in 1915, he raised millions from American investors by selling short-term German notes. One bank showed that he made deposits of nearly $13 million between September 1914 and November 1915; another recorded $11 million between 1915 and 1917. His success did nothing to change his opinion of America. Actually, it did quite the opposite. "I find myself like a healthy man who sees a great strong lout suffering from shriveling of the brain," he wrote to his wife. "Germany ought to treat the United States like a great big child."

One. Two. Three. When Martha Held went looking for a house to rent, she wanted an address that would be easy for her countrymen to remember: 123 West 15th Street was perfect, a three-story brownstone fronted by a stoop in the middle of a treelined block on the west side of Manhattan. At street level, underneath the stoop, was a door that led to a basement big enough for a wine cellar, a full-service kitchen, and a bathroom. A large dining room, with a formal dining table, and a parlor were located on the first floor. Bars covered the windows in the front of the house, and the shades were almost always drawn.

Held claimed to be a German baroness by marriage, although no one ever saw her with a husband. Before moving to the United States from Germany in 1912, she had been an opera star, and she decorated the house with pictures of herself dressed in elaborate costumes from her days on the stage. Held was middle-aged when World War I began, but she still carried herself like a diva. Buxom and handsome, her dark blue eyes and glossy black hair were usually set off by sparkling earrings. She wore heavy, Victorian-style dresses that covered her greatly expanding girth, and she belted out arias late into the night.

During the summer, when windows stayed open and neighbors gathered on their stoops to escape the heat, they gossiped about what was going on inside Held's house. Her singing carried down the block, rising above the din that lingered in the air whenever her door opened and closed. The neighbors noticed that beautiful women would arrive early in the evening and then disappear through the door leading into Held's basement. Hours later, men speaking German, often dressed in German military uniforms, would follow. Interned German merchant marines were regulars at Held's house, as were the kaiser's diplomats.


Excerpted from The Detonators by Chad Millman Copyright © 2006 by Chad Millman. Excerpted by permission.
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Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Meticulously researched story about the July 30, 1916 firebombing of the Black Tom Island munitions depot on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor. This long forgotten instance of a major terrorist act on American Soil is a tale that needs to be remembered, but unfortunately, Millman does not do it justice here. The 1st part of the book is a grabber, but part II gets bogged down in the legal details of the saga and throws the book off track. Millman is a former magazine writer, and a current senior editor, and it shows as he fires all of the facts at us in rapid-fire manner, but doesn't add any of the analysis or emotion that great history needs. The book is too clinical and dry, as well as feeling rushed, and that violates the cardinal rule of writing about history. The author needs to put the reader right into the middle of the story, and make him or her feel like they experienced it themselves. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in while I was reading this account, and at times the book dragged. Millman admits he was writing about topics that were new to him, and it shows as perhaps a more accomplished historical writer would have brought this story to life in a better way. I admire Millman's research, passion, and the way he identifies the tale's importance to post 9/11 America, but it is lacking in the telling. It would make a great movie if told in the right way, but 'The Detonators' is not a great book of history to recommend. As someone who was really looking forward to reading this book, that is a huge disappointment for me to say.