On August 4th 1914, fifty-four German merchant ships and passenger liners interned themselves in U.S. harbors to escape marauding British warships. Among the liners was the queen of transatlantic travel, the SS Vaterland. Albert Ballin, founder, chairman and CEO of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Paketdienst Gesellschaft had personally overseen her construction. She not only represented the might of German engineering and ship construction, she was the largest ocean liner in the world, larger than the Lusitania, Mauretania, and Titanic. The Vaterland not only eclipsed the British liners in terms of size and power, but also in terms of design and luxury. While larger and wider, she approximately matched Lusitania and Mauretania’s speed.
The German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff commented after traveling on the mighty ship in 1914, “Germans who live at home can hardly imagine with what love and what pride we foreign ambassadors and exiled Germans regarded the German shipping-lines.” To Count Bernstorff and many others, the Vaterland was an ambassador in itself. After the war she would sail again, however under a different name and a different flag.
In the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newport News, where the German merchant ships and ocean liners crowded the piers, thousands of German naval reservists stood ready to serve the Fatherland. The German sailors became a deadly resource for German Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed. Boy-Ed started clandestine operations immediately at the outbreak of the war. His first task was to supply Germany’s remaining naval assets in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with coal, food, and supplies. Boy-Ed also selected groups of agents for the German naval intelligence in the U.S. from the crews of the moored German ships. Within days of German ships interning themselves in U.S. harbors on August 4th 1914, critical funding came to Boy-Ed from the German Admiralty through German businesses with offices in the U.S. such as the Bayer Chemical Company and Wessels, Kuhlenkampf, and Co.
Bayer, a chemical company not only known for the development of Aspirin but also with a veritable world monopoly on dye stuffs, had large currency reserves in the United States. When the war began, the chemical concern transferred these funds to the German embassy. The German government reimbursed the company in Germany, thereby successfully masking the money trail. The coordinator for requisitioning, organizing, and distributing these funds was a relatively nondescript administrator in the German Reichsmarineamt (Department of the Navy), Department B.I.2., Lieutenant Commander Franz Rintelen. Rintelen would become the most daring of the German sabotage agents in the United States in 1915. On August 5th 1914, the Bayer Chemical Company transferred $300,000 to Boy-Ed’s accounts via the Warburg Bank. American citizens viewed the European war with curiosity, some even with dread. Few realized the fact that within days of the beginning of hostilities in Europe, the Unites States had become a battlefield in this war.