Most Americans know nothing about the time Nazi submarines stalked the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. But if you’re ever on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and see anyone old enough to remember the year 1942, strike up a conversation. Chances are, they remember an eerie glow on the sea at night, seen from childhood bedrooms or the beach. Torpedoed by Hitler’s U-boats a few leagues offshore, cargo ships and burning oil tankers cast these fires. Burned bodies of sailors often washed ashore. In 2008, I interviewed romance novelist Dixie Burrus Browning, whose father Dick Burrus once played for the Indianapolis Indians. Dixie, who was twelve years old in 1942, remembered not only the dim, red radiance over Hatteras Island’s marshes, but ship debris, a lifeboat that had been strafed by a German machine-gun, and public auctions of wreckage. Her mother made a quilt out of a Texaco flag salvaged from a stricken tanker that went down off Diamond Shoals in March 1942, en route from Texas to Connecticut.
Meanwhile, out West, poet Robinson Jeffers was writing beautiful poetry about enforced blackouts on California’s coast, a measure designed to hinder a Japanese repetition of the London Blitz. Japanese fire balloons, in fact, landed all over the Western United States and killed a woman in southern Oregon. Yet for Jeffers the poet, the war, which he bitterly opposed, had an unexpected benefit — blackouts brought back “the prehuman dignity of night… Darkness and silence, the two eyes that see God.”
One reason why you’ve probably never heard about Axis attacks on the U.S. during World War II is that the coastal blackouts mandated by the Federal government were met by a similar media blackout. The intention behind this was less to keep the news away from Americans than to deny Germany and Japan any knowledge of the psychological impact the war was having here. But it’s also partly explained by the mass hysteria and downright bad journalism that cropped up during America’s previous war with Germany, back in 1917-18.
During the only winter of America’s involvement in the First World War, a string of suspicious fires broke out all over the U.S. If you were following Indianapolis newspapers in early 1918, you would have run across the words “incendiary” or “fire-bug” more often than usual. Though crazed arsonists were nothing new — see the gory news clips from Michael Lesy’s surreal Wisconsin Death Trip — anti-German sentiment fed dark rumors that “Hun” saboteurs, pro-German sympathizers, and spies both foreign and domestic were lurking in the shadows.
In the first two months of 1918 alone, major fires consumed a U.S. Army warehouse in Washington, D.C.; another one in Newark, New Jersey; an airplane propeller plant in Baltimore; and the entire business district of Norfolk, Virginia, situated next to a large naval base. At a time when Americans were suffering wartime food and fuel shortages, and when Prohibition was being forced through as a way to conserve grain, unexplained fires at grain elevators were causing anxiety. A fire in a coal mine north of Terre Haute was blamed on “Huns.” A “gang of ship fire spies” posing as cigar salesmen were rumored to be placing incendiary bombs on cruise liners sailing out of New York harbor.
The National Board of Fire Underwriters, an insurance organization, reminded Americans in March 1918 that winter-time fires were always common and that “the number of incendiary fires throughout the country due to the activities of pro-German agents has been greatly exaggerated… In nearly 95 percent of the fires cited there is no proof of an incendiary origin, and in nearly 90 percent there is no reason even for suspicion.”
Yet this didn’t stop the public and press from playing loose with the facts. Papers and eyewitnesses were eager to report any hint of “mysterious agents” spotted running away from equally mysterious fires.
On January 13, 1918 — the same night as a major fire in Washington, D.C. — one of the most spectacular blazes in the history of Indianapolis consumed a huge complex called the Industrial Building. This four-story structure had previously housed the Laycock Manufacturing Company, makers of beds, cots, cribs, etc., before it was turned over to other firms, some of which produced war materiel. Said to be the largest factory in Indiana, the complex was located on the west side of the Central Canal at 10th Street. Today home to posh condos and medical facilities, this area used to be a heavily industrial, largely African American part of town. Other structures nearby included Dean Brother’s Steam Pump Works, Citizens Gas, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, Simpson AME Church, Foster’s Lumber Yard, a ginger ale factory, and a pickle cannery.
The blaze that broke out on a cold, snowy Sunday night was estimated at the time to be the most costly in Indianapolis history. Twenty-five different manufacturing concerns housed in the former Laycock bed factory were all reduced to cinders. Among these firms were several automobile producers; the Diamond Chain Company, makers of chains for bicycles; and various manufacturers of machinery, tools, overalls, tents, and grinders. Diamond Chain had been planning to move its machinery into its new building on Kentucky Avenue, former site of Indianapolis’ downtown city cemetery, within weeks of the fire.
As insurance maps show, the Industrial Building was well-equipped with automatic sprinklers, yet the pipes had been drained the previous day to prevent them from freezing and bursting, as Indianapolis succumbed to the grip of a “near blizzard” that night. Outside temperatures were hovering around zero.
America’s late entry into the war in April 1917 had brought military contracts to Indianapolis. At the Industrial Building, the Grapho-Metal Packing Company was cranking out a special metallic packing to be used in the construction of submarines and torpedo-boat destroyers. The company had just received “a big war order from one of the allied governments and had planned to start work on it at once.”
As if those preparations for combat weren’t enough, a deputation of Serbian war officials was visiting the Statehouse.
Watchman Cornelius Hetherton first spotted the fire, which started in a basement elevator shaft. As the flames got out of control, the massive conflagration proved to be a spectacular nocturnal sight. Crowds of pedestrians and motorists sped toward the inferno. “Snow swirled in the wake of automobiles, who apparently believed that the speed laws had been suspended for the occasion.” Bundled from head to foot and wading through snow drifts, men, women and children formed a throng “for a radius of probably three or four miles.” Many ventured out onto the frozen Central Canal, which “provided excellent sightseeing room.”
Firemen’s lives were endangered by the threat of collapsing brick walls, which soon caved in. A strong southeast wind provided the “perfect storm” for a hellish immolation. Sparks fanned out into neighboring industrial and residential zones. “When it became apparent that the entire neighborhood might be fire-swept, the crowd to the east of the building forgot the fire for a time” and helped residents on nearby Missouri Street — a portion of which was later renamed Lafayette Street — move furniture from their homes.
The sight must have been almost as impressive as the sinking of the Titanic. A fireman told a reporter that after his fire company was compelled to move back because of heat, they heard several explosions inside, then the lights went out, then flames blew out the windows. Fire crews knew the effort was futile early on, but they had cut holes in the ice covering the canal and continued to pump water onto the blaze through the next afternoon.
Now a smoldering heap, the Industrial Building was a total loss. The financial damage was estimated at about $1,500,000 — equivalent to almost $25,000,000 in today’s money. Fourteen homes (all owned by African Americans), the Simpson AME Church, five-hundred automobiles, a grocery store and a saloon also went up in smoke. Fortunately, nobody died.
Federal agents joined the investigation after Indianapolis Fire Chief John C. Loucks confidently announced that pro-German arsonists were likely to blame. The agents looked into an unproven claim that “a discharged German had threatened to destroy the place.” Loucks and others based their incendiary theory on evidence that was skimpy at best. Their main arguments were that due to a fuel shortage, all normal heating or industrial fires in the building had been extinguished by 4:00 on Saturday afternoon as workers went home, and that the blaze broke out while night watchmen were coming onto their shifts — giving a potential “bug” the chance to do quick work.
Whatever the truth is, fire investigators never uncovered a saboteur. Yet another kind of fire, equally hard to control, had already started to spread over the U.S. The winds of anti-German propaganda stoked up mistrust and outright hatred to higher and higher proportions. At a time when wartime hysteria led the German language to be banned in some states, Indianapolis followed suit. German classes at Shortridge High School — one of the best in the nation — were dropped and replaced with a class on military history. An Indianapolis sign-painter who objected to having to paint Gothic lettering for German-American businesses wrote an editorial in the News where he mentioned that Americans were burning German textbooks.
In February 1919, three months after World War I ended, these other flames were still burning. That month, the Indiana General Assembly followed in the steps of public opinion and made it a criminal offense to teach German to elementary-school children, a crime punishable by up to six months in jail. Indiana’s anti-German law wasn’t repealed until 1923.
Just ten days after the Industrial Building fire, city police placed a double force of night guards in the Wholesale District downtown. Rumors about “Hun” operatives were still thick in the air. “Three men,” it was said, “bearing inflammable material, attempted to break down the doors” of a food warehouse in Indy.
Most of these scares were probably imaginary. Yet by the summer of 1918, President Wilson’s espionage act was put into full force. Indiana’s great labor leader, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, had vociferously opposed American entry into the war, arguing that it played into the hands of bankers and capitalists. On June 30, 1918, Debs was arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against the military draft. Wilson accused him of treason. No one — not even nationally-known figures like Debs, a major presidential candidate — was safe.
The 1918 fire’s source will always be a mystery. Arson remains one cause among many. Yet there’s the tantalizing possibility that, rather than a “Hun” who worked for the Kaiser, a disgruntled American worker started the blaze. The following year, 1919, turned out to be one of the most turbulent in the history of American labor, as anarchists, Communists and union activists engaged in strikes and battles with local police and Federal agents.
Two days before Debs was arrested, Frank Krose, a 35-year-old African American railway worker at Indiana Harbor on Lake Michigan, was jailed by marshals in Hammond under charges of aiding German spies. Krose, who was sent to the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis, claimed to have been affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World. (The radical “Wobblies” published a 1932 songbook called “Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.”) The Lake County Times called Krose “one of the worst offenders among the alleged pro-Germans in the state.”
Frank Krose was probably a conspiracy theorist himself — and a fan of tall tales. He was almost certainly fibbing when he said that he had crossed the Atlantic on German U-boats several times during the war. But as a black man on the eve of the Ku Klux Klan’s heyday, Krose was certainly entitled to wonder why the U.S. was going to war against Germany “to make the world safe for Democracy” when millions of women and blacks were still disenfranchised at home.
Under the headline “This Nig Needs a Necktie,” the Hammond newspaper suggested lynching him.