Today is the centennial of U.S. entry into World War I. The war had already been raging for more than two years before Congress declared war on Germany and the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. What is not remembered much is that Governors Island was part of the first military action the U.S. Armed Forces undertook in the war, and it happened 100 years ago today.
On April 2, 1917, readers saw in the morning newspapers that soldiers from the Twenty-Second Infantry Regiment had arrived to be garrisoned on Fort Jay. The one thousand men replaced two hundred Coast Artillerymen. The Twenty-Second had spent six years living in tents in Arizona and Texas and saw action during border skirmishes with Mexican bandits. One reporter said the hardened men were “in perfect condition and the color of leather.” Four days later the regiment got the first orders of the war. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John C.F. Tillson, the men would take part in the first American action in the war from Governors Island.
On April 6, a War Department message reached Tillson and his staff just after Congress declared war on Germany. Under cover of darkness, a raiding party assembled on the Quartermaster Dock to board Coast Guard cutters and Army tugs. They sped to Brooklyn, the Narrows, and across the harbor to Hoboken. The men seized 27 German vessels, including North German Lloyd and Hamburg-American Steamship Line passenger ships.
The soldiers took into custody more than 1,100 officers and crewmen without firing a shot. Working with customs officers, the Army grabbed more than $100 million in ships, including 14 that could be transferred to the U.S. military for troop transports. Ironically, they captured Germany’s best ship, the Vaterland, only a year old. It would be renamed the SS Leviathan and later used as an American troopship. The Army took the captured Germans to Ellis Island, where they were interred.
Today there are more memorials and monuments to World War I on Governors Island than any other park in New York (more than Central Park). The Trust for Governors Island maintains the historic district, where roads such as Kimmell, Hay, Carder, and Comfort are all named for men killed in the war. The National Park Service manages Fort Jay and rangers tell the history of this important military post. The dock to Manhattan is named for Soissons, one of the bloodiest battles soldiers from Fort Jay were engaged in. In 2017, the Governors Island WWI Memorial Project is restoring three of the bronze plaques.
For more Governors Island history stories, pick up World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War (Globe Pequot Press), and The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot Press).