The German HAPAG steamer Ypiranga left Havana on the morning of April 21st 1914 and was approaching the Mexican coastline for a routine stop at Veracruz, the largest port in Mexico, three hundred miles to the south of Tampico. Tensions between the United States and Mexico were high. On April 9th 1914, Mexican authorities briefly detained nine sailors of the USS Dolphin. Although the Mexican commander immediately released the sailors, the U.S. government, anxious to support the Constitutionalists ousting President Huerta, demanded a formal apology or else. When the Ypiranga approached Veracruz on the morning of April 21st, virtually the entire U.S. Atlantic fleet had been summoned to the Mexican coastline. Congress had authorized the use of force the day before. Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, and Secretary of State Bryan roused the President in the West Wing at 2:00 a.m. that fateful day. The American consul at Veracruz, William W. Canada, had transmitted a telegram to Secretary Bryan, informing him that the German ship carried arms and ammunition for Huerta.
The American President ordered the occupation of the customs house of Veracruz that morning to prevent the landing of the munitions. An order to that effect went to Admiral Fletcher:
"Early on April 21, 1914, General [Joaquin] Mass [sic], the Mexican military commandant, was notified that US forces intended to take charge of the Custom House and was urged to ‘offer no resistance but to withdraw in order to avoid loss of life and property of the people of Vera Cruz [sic].’ He, for the most part complied, but the commander of the Naval Academy and unorganized pockets of individuals offered resistance. Ships of the Atlantic Fleet started bombardment of Veracruz. By 11:30 AM the first detail of 787 soldiers, of whom 502 were marines, landed and seized the custom[s] house, and an urban battle ensued in which many civilians are said to have taken part. The defense of the city also included the release of prisoners held at the feared San Juan de Ulua prison. In the meantime, the building of the Naval Academy was being bombarded by the USS Prairie. American troops occupied most of the town by that evening. The USS San Francisco and USS Chester continued the bombardment of the Naval Academy building until the following day.”
Nineteen American soldiers died and seventy-two were injured. The Mexican forces lost slightly less than two hundred, most of them cadets of the naval academy. The civilian population, who had resisted in concert with the federal defenders, continued to snipe at U.S. patrols, which forced Admiral Fletcher to impose martial law on the city. Brigadier General Frederick Funston arrived within a week and organized the long-term occupation of the Mexican city.
If the reason for the bombardment and occupation of Veracruz had been to prevent the landing of the Ypiranga, the operation was hopelessly bungled. The first mishap was that the Ypiranga was not at the docks when the marines landed. While the cargo remained on the German steamer it could not legally be seized. Once unloaded the arms would have been under the authority of the custom’s house. Seizing the custom’s house then would have brought the arms under the control of the Americans. The ownership question thus would be a dispute between Mexico and the U.S., not Germany and the U.S. The timing of the invasion, namely landing troops before the Ypiranga had discharged her cargo, botched the seizing of the arms. When she finally approached the harbor around 1:00 p.m., without having been notified of the American action, a U.S. navy captain boarded the HAPAG steamer and ordered it to drop anchor and wait. Unaware that it was his ship that apparently caused the landing of marines on Mexican soil, the captain of the Ypiranga, Karl Bonath, cabled to the German naval cruiser SMS Dresden, anchored in Tampico, and requested instructions. Captain Erich Köhler of the Dresden had no idea about the U.S. interest in the Ypiranga freight either. All he knew was that after clearing her freight, the Ypiranga would be assigned to take on German refugees. Minister von Hintze had asked the German naval authorities to provide a ship in case of war so that German citizens could be evacuated from Mexico. Captain Köhler of the Dresden therefore requisitioned the steamer Ypiranga for the German navy.
When, on the 29th of May, the Ypiranga cleared her 1,500 cases of rifles, 15 million cartridges, and various other munitions in Puerto Mexico, one hundred and fifty miles south of Veracruz, emotions ran high. Also discharging cargo in Puerto Mexico were the HAPAG steamers Bavaria with a similar consignment and the Kronprinzessin Cecilie with a smaller shipment of arms and ammunition. William F. Buckley testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1919, that apparently none other than Carl Heynen, the German representative of HAPAG in Mexico and also a German naval intelligence agent, desperately tried to prevent the arms to fall into the hands of President Huerta. “…Carl Heynen …called on the chief of port at Veracruz, Captain [Herman O.] Stickney, an unusually obtuse naval officer, and tried to get him to order him, Heynen, or even ask him, not to permit his boat to land the arms and ammunition in question, as Heynen was anxious for an excuse not to obey Huerta’s orders, but this brilliant commander practically ordered Heynen out of his office.” The New York Times seconded Buckley’s claim, “Capt. C. Bonath of the Ypiranga, however, said: ‘The possibility that our cargo might be landed at Puerto Mexico was not new to the Collector [Captain Stickney]. Before clearance to Puerto Mexico was granted to us, I asked him specifically: ‘What would you do if I were compelled [by Huerta] to land these arms at Puerto Mexico?’ To this he made no reply.’”
Besides accelerating the downfall of Huerta, the European governments including Germany supported the U.S. occupation for another, obvious reason: International banks expected the seized customs revenue to be used for paying Mexican coupons. This the Americans did not do. German banker and big investor in Mexico Baron Bleichröder wrote an infuriated letter to the German Foreign Office on June 19th 1914, alleging that the U.S. was stealing the customs revenue that by law had been pledged to Mexico’s debtors. He was right. German-American relations cooled significantly in the wake of the American intervention. All the discussions in contemporary news coverage and in the subsequent historiography characterized Germany as a supporter of Huerta and the reason for the U.S. intervention in Mexico. In reality, the arms were purchased from French, German, and Belgian manufacturers via suspect channels completely outside of German government control. The U.S. could have stopped the shipments through diplomatic or military means but did not. In reality, the reasoning behind the intervention had nothing to do with the arms shipments. Historians have grappled with the fact of how and why the arms of the Ypiranga, Kronprinzessin Cecille, Dania, and Bavaria ended in Huerta’s hands anyway. Sometimes even a historian has to acknowledge that if something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it might just be a duck! By any objective measure, the U.S.’ capture of the customs house in Veracruz was messy in detail but achieved its ends: The U.S. captured the cash register of Mexico’s government, kept the proceeds, and, in taking it away from Huerta (and the other creditors), the Usurper President was done for.