Wednesday, April 29, 2015

German Spies in Cedarhurst; U-Boats off Long Island

     The sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915 and the loss of 1,198 lives (among them 128 Americans) was instrumental in the United States declaring war on Germany, but the process was very gradual.   President Woodrow Wilson had, since the outbreak of hostilities in Europe during the summer of 1914, tried to maintain the United States' neutrality.  Although American banks provided financial assistance to its European allies, overt military intervention was not popular.   During the years before the U.S. entered the war in 1917, there was a German consulate in New York, an embassy in Washington, D.C.  and the summer embassy in Newport, R.I. --  long the playground of Vanderbilts and Astors.  Newport was also the home of the U.S. Naval War College (est. 1884) and a major U.S. Navy installation since the 1790s.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1915
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1915
   In 1912 the German communications giant Telefunken funded the construction of a wireless station in Sayville, on Long Island's South Shore (about 50 miles from New York City).  Situated on 100 acres adjoining the Long Island Railroad.  Its two towers, 393 and 100 feet high, were powerful enough to send messages 3,200 miles to the German wireless station at Nauen, near Berlin. 1.  In his article "When Wireless Was Young,"  Wilson L. Glover remembered:
"the overwhelming whine-and-drone [of the Telefunken tower] quite often utterly precluded decent reception of more distant stations.  Anyway, its messages were always in code and so unintelligible that they proved deadly dull reading.  The big German station was a clearing house for a vast network of spies then operating in the United States." 2
     From the start, the station was observed by the Navy Department and the Department of Commerce and Labor.  But the technology was so new that laws had not yet been written to regulate its use. 3Civilian "Ham" radio enthusiasts were asked by the government to  monitor and record the transmissions, which were then decoded by Secret Service agents.  The obituary for Charles Apgar, one of those radio operators 4  recounted how the Secret Service broke the German code and discovered that they were directing the activites of submarines. along the Atlantic coast. Although unsubstantiated, there was a rumor that Apgar's recordings provided the message "Get Lucy," which resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania.
Buffalo Evening News, June 14, 1915, p. 6.
     In the summer of 1915, the German Embassy quietly rented an "unpretentious house on the north side of Central Avenue, two blocks from the railroad station" in Cedarhurst, as its summer residence.  It was described in the Daily Star,  as "a weather-beaten, two story gable-roofed structure, with a large corner lot and a hedge running around the front and western side."  5 About 100 feet from the Embassy was a booth which was continuously manned by Embassy personnel for the transmission and reception of wireless messages to and from the Sayville tower, and ultimately, Berlin.  The ambassador, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, was rarely at the summer embassy and preferred to return to New York City at the end of the day if he came to Cedarhurst.   As relations with Germany declined, members of the Cedarhurst Country Club rescinded their offer of membership to the embassy staff,  preferring to offer them the services of the club as guests rather than members.  Prince Hartfeld von Trachenberg relaxed by playing croquet on the lawn lawn of the Embassy. 6

 Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  April 24, 1915, p. 1

By 1916, the increasing u-boat activity in the North Atlantic shipping lanes in defiance of international law increased anti-German sentiment in the U.S.  In October of 1916, the submarine U-53 threatened and attacked British and neutral merchant ships off the Nantucket Lightship, within 100 miles of Newport, R.I.  

   During the years preceding the Great War, approximately 100,000 German reservists resided in North and South America.  Although there were plenty of active duty enlisted men in Germany, there was a shortage of officers, and a plan was developed to send as many reserve officers as possible home to Germany.  As early as 1914, agents of the German Embassy bought passports from longshoremen and sailors -- Swedes, Norwegians, Swiss and eventually, even Americans were willing to sell their passports for $25 to $100.  It was easy to substitute a photograph and stamp for the originals and soon a brisk business was underway.  The leader of this network was found to be Franz von Papen, a military attaché with the Embassy in Washington, D.C., but Ambassador von Bernstorff certainly had knowledge of the scheme.  Von Bernstorff, preferring to be involved in the Washington and New York social scenes, was definitely involved in a the appropriation of funds collected  for humanitarian purposes by German-Americans and using the money for pro-German propaganda.
     When it was made public that Germany had invited Mexico to enter the war as Germany's ally against the U.S. 7 and offered  German assistance in  recovering Mexico's former holdings in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, even Wilson re-evaluated his position and severed relations with Germany in February 1917.  On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War.

 In addition to the passport plot, the possible targeting of the Lusitania, the misappropriation of the relief funds, the damage done by the German spy network included the destruction of the Vanceboro (Maine) bridge (1915) which linked the U.S. and Canada, the Black Tom ammunition depot in New York Harbor (1916), and plots to bomb Ontario's Welland Canal and to attach "rudder bombs" to the propellers of ships leaving U.S. Pacific ports. Authorities foiled plots in Seattle, San Francisco and Hoboken.  On July 19, 1918, Coast Guard patrols at Fire Island sighted a submarine off  Bay Shore.  Shortly after that, the U.S. cruiser San Diego, was sunk 10 miles off Fire Island.  It was never officially determined whether the cruiser was sunk by a torpedo or by land mines laid by the submarine.  The ship sank in fifteen minutes, resulting in the loss of three lives, although almost all of the crew escaped in lifeboats. Within a month ( August 13) the Norwegian freighter Sommerstad was also sunk of Fire Island, the victim of a German torpedo.

Throughout 1917 and 1918, German agents and propagandists were apprehended throughout the New York area, sent to detention camps on Ellis Island and then to prison.8  The diplomats had either already left or were forced out.  Von Bernstorff returned to Germany with his American wife. 
"Bernstorff served in the Reichstag from 1921 to 1928. A fervent supporter of international cooperation, he was the cofounder and president of the German Association for the League of Nations, president of the World Federation of Associations of the League of Nations, and a member of the German delegation to the League of Nations.  Bernstorff co-chaired the German Pro-Palestinian Committee that supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and during 1926-1931, he chaired the German delegation to the Preparatory World Disarmament Conference.  Explicitly mentioned by Adolf Hitler as one of those men bearing "guilt and responsibility for the collapse of Germany, Bernstorff fled Germany in 1933 after the Nazis came to power.  He died in exile in Geneva, Switzerland on October 6, 1939."9

Franz von Papen was expelled from the U.S. in 1916 and, after serving in the army and entering German politics, he became its Chancellor in 1932 and Vice-Chancellor under Adolf Hitler in 1933-34. The Nazis soon marginalized the more moderate von Papen and his allies.  He left the government after the Night of the Long Knives.  Von Papen died in West Germany in 1969 at the age of 89.

Links (*access may require HWPL library card)

1 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1912, p. 1.   

2 Long Island Forum , vol. 20 (1957), p. 2+.
3 The New York Tribune, August 10, 1912, p. 3. 4 The New York Times, August 19, 1950, p. 12. 
5 "German Embassy moves to L.I," Daily Star, June 10, 1915, p. 2.

6 "Prince enjoys "Jitney Golf," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 26, 1915, p. 1.
7 The "Zimmerman Telegram" was intercepted by British intelligence in 1917.  
8 "36 German agents off to Oglethorpe," The New York Times, January 20, 1918, p. 4.

9 Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.) Count von Bernstorff in World War I: the Definitive Encyclopedia and Document collection. ABC-CLIO, 2014, p. 248.

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