Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bottle Bombs: It's 1916 all over Again

Huffington Post
Chad Millman
Bottle Bombs: It's 1916 all over Again

Should we be more afraid now that terrorists have learned household items make good bombs? Or relieved that the bad guys are so stupid it took them this long to figure that out?

When I was researching my recent book The Detonators , about a 1916 terrorist attack on New York Harbor, I learned that, as far back as 90 years ago, mixing benign chemicals into a combustible bomb was the enemy's weapon of choice.

World War I was two years old at the time. President Wilson had declared that the U.S. was neutral. He also interned all German ships and sailors who were unlucky enough to dock in US ports, claiming that letting them go after re-supplying in the U.S. would be tantamount to America joining the fight. New York Harbor became so crowded with German ships that German sailors leaving for war would shout, "I'm going to heaven, hell or Hoboken."

But American companies were selling their wares to the war's highest bidder, and Wilson did little to stop them. Coal, food and munitions flowed from New York Harbor to the flush British and French armies by the boatload. All the while, German sailors looked on in anger, until their government decided to strike.

Funded by the Kaiser, German sailors turned spies snuck onto the docks in New York and loaded small bombs with rudimentary timing devices onto the supply ships headed for the front. In the middle of the ocean, the ships would catch fire, the supplies and the crews would be lost forever. But the bombs were conspicuous. Soon longshoremen began recognizing them as they loaded the boats, and then threw them overboard. The Germans needed a new plan.

In 1916, a German chemist named Walter Scheele had been living in the U.S. for more than 20 years. He had been an artillery lieutenant in the German army until 1893, when he was assigned to the United States to study chemistry for two years and report new advances to his superiors. Scheele's reports proved so invaluable that he was told to stay in the U.S. and keep studying. For this, he was paid $1,500 a year.

Once the war began, Scheele's knowledge became more valuable, and the German military attaché based in the U.S. gave him $10,000, and simple instructions from the Kaiser: manufacture chemical bombs. Scheele, living in Hoboken, opened an office under the name of New Jersey Agricultural Chemical Company. Inside, in a room filled with test tubes and jars full of chemicals, he put into practice the lessons he had been gathering during the previous two decades.

He created a time-bomb, made from a four-inch long piece of lead pipe, the same length and width as a cigar. He placed an upright, slim copper disc in the middle, dividing the pipe into two equal halves. Scheele then poured sulfuric acid into one end and into the other end chlorate of potash or picric acid or some other flammable chemical. Both ends were then sealed with wax or tin. The sulfuric acid would eat through the copper and, once it mixed with the other chemical, the pipe would burst into flames at both ends. The heat would be sufficient to destroy the pipe itself, and if anything flammable was nearby, an inferno was possible.

The Germans were fearless. And they manufactured these bombs on a ship docked right in New York Harbor, called Frederick the Great. At first, they planted their new weapons on ships and in smaller munitions depots around the country. Then emboldened by early success, they plotted to blow up Black Tom Island, the largest munitions depot in the country, located in New York Harbor.

Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1916, three German spies planted their chemical-filled bombs in boats, railroad cars and buildings filled with shells and dynamite headed to the front. Within moments, white flames were reaching for the sky. Within hours, New York Harbor looked like a European battlefield. The Statue of Liberty was pelted with shrapnel. The roof at Ellis Island caved in. Windows in buildings as high as 42nd street in Manhattan were blown out and all the way to Maryland people felt the ground shake. Police officers responding to the scene were killed by flying bullets and barges in the harbor, as well as the hundreds of immigrants living in them, were incinerated.

No traces of the bombs were ever found. And for 20 years, no one was prosecuted. It seemed, at the time, no one considered an explosive wouldn't look like an explosive.
That's no longer the case.