Peter Duffy | An excerpt adapted from The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism | PublicAffairs | March 2019 | 20 minutes (5,458 words)
Hear it, boys, hear it? Hell, listen to me! Coast to coast! HELLO AMERICA!
—Clifford Odets, Waiting For Lefty
Seven million New Yorkers, few of them in possession of the luxury item known as an electric fan, woke up to the best news in three weeks on Friday, July 26, 1935. During the overnight hours, the humidity plunged by 33 points. By sunrise, the temperate air from Canada had completed its work. The heat wave was over.
“Humidity Goes Into Tailspin,” the New York Post exulted. “Rain Ushers in Cool Spell,” declared the Brooklyn Eagle.
The New York Times and Herald Tribune didn’t make much of a fuss that morning over Varian Fry’s revelations about his conversation with Ernst Hanfstaengl. “Reich Divided on Way to Treat Jews, Says Fry,” was the cautious headline on page eleven of the Tribune. One faction of the Nazi Party, the paper went on in summary of Hanfstaengl’s comments to Fry, “were the radicals, who wanted to settle the matter by blood.” The other, “the self-styled moderate group,” wanted to “segregate the Jews and settle the question by legal methods.” The Times ran its version on page eight and devoted most of the article to Fry’s retelling of the Berlin Riots. “There were literally hundreds of policemen standing around but I did not see them do anything but protect certain cafés which I was told were owned by Nazis,” Fry was quoted as saying. The paper saved its preview of the Holocaust for the ninth of eleven paragraphs. The nation’s newspaper of record didn’t see the value in highlighting the disclosure that “the radical section” of Hitler’s regime “desired to solve the Jewish question with bloodshed.”
Reached for comment in Berlin, Hanfstaengl called Fry’s account “fictions and lies from start to finish.”
The morning papers carried the news that Jewish athletes would not be represented on Germany’s Olympic team. Nazi officials claimed that Jews were eliminated from competition because they lacked the requisite ability to compete with “Aryans.” The announcement led to immediate calls for the United States to boycott the Summer Games scheduled for Berlin in 1936. Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, found merit in the Nazi argument about Jewish inferiority. “The fact that no Jews have been named so far to compete for Germany doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been discriminated against.” Brundage said he saw “no racial or religious reasons” why the US team shouldn’t attend the Berlin Olympics. Organized amateur sport “cannot, with good grace or propriety, interfere with the internal political, religious, or racial affairs of any country or group.”
In Washington, DC, on the same morning, a delegation that included representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the B’nai B’rith, and the Jewish Labor Committee was granted a meeting with Undersecretary of State William Phillips. (Secretary of State Cordell Hull was on vacation.) The group handed Phillips a letter protesting the Nazi “reign of terror,” which targeted Jews with particular severity but was “beginning to affect the lives of numberless Catholics and Protestants and liberals of every description.” The administration was urged to “take all steps consistent with international practice to inform the German government of the outraged sentiments of the American people.” Phillips was cordial but promised nothing.
At noon in New York, the thermometer registered a glorious 76 degrees.
The Communist Party leadership had decided that the privilege of hauling down the swastika would fall to the oldest and most accomplished of the dozen or so mariners who were to board the Bremen. Edward Drolette (pronounced Dro-LETT) was thirty-six years old. The son of an English father and an Irish mother, he had risen from a Dickensian childhood in Manhattan without resorting to crime. At age sixteen, he began working in the engine rooms of oceangoing vessels. “I have been to sea since 1915,” he later said, continuing, “I traveled in a fire room with a banjo, a shovel, stoking six-day fires.” In November 1917, he enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force and went to France to fight in the World War. After his discharge in 1919, Drolette labored to become the youngest chief engineer licensed in the US merchant marine. By the summer of 1935, he was an outspoken and eloquent labor activist praised in the pages of the Daily Worker for his “long and splendid record of working class activity.”
But Eddie Drolette, for all his dedication to the cause, was utterly unsuited for participation in a covert conspiracy. For the truth was, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Drolette had been “talking to everybody” about the Bremen plan “for several days,” according to Maggie Weaver, who called him “Mr. Talk Too Much.”
It was hardly a surprise that word reached the New York Police Department (NYPD) about a Communist plot, purportedly led by Drolette, to cause some kind of disruption aboard the Bremen during the sailing party.
We didn’t come here to murder people. We just come here to get a flag.
By 3:30 p.m. on the appointed day, two detectives from the Red Squad began conducting a surveillance of Mr. Talk Too Much, who seemed to be chatting with everyone hanging around the lower blocks of South Street, the district on the East River waterfront filled with thousands of unemployed marine workers.
Harold F. Moore was a kind of supercop, a shoot-’em-up specialist most famous for ambushing a gangster named Edward “Fats” McCarthy at a hideout outside Albany in 1932. Moore had been wounded sixteen times in three separate incidents over the previous decade. “I’ve been pretty lucky,” he once quipped to reporters. He seemed to go to work each day in hopes of discharging the revolver strapped under his jacket. Matthew Solomon was a pioneering Jewish member of the force. He, too, was a “hero cop.” One night in 1926, he left a benefit dinner for the Shomrim Society, the fraternal association of Jewish officers, and chased down a cocaine-addled stickup artist, suffering a gunshot wound to the chest in the process of detaining the frenzied suspect. Solomon was a model for his people now placed in the morally vexed position of safeguarding the prerogatives of Adolf Hitler.
Moore and Solomon parked themselves in the office of a trucking company near the corner of Broad and Front Streets, located on a shabby block not far from two mammoth men’s shelters, the Seaman’s Church Institute at Twenty-Five South Street and the Municipal Lodging House at the foot of Whitehall Street. The plainclothesmen watched as Drolette entered 111 Broad Street, which included a radical bookstore in its basement level. For an hour and a half, they waited for him to emerge. The clatter of the elevated train over Front Street provided an intermittent soundtrack.
At four p.m. in Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt was asked during a press conference to “outline” how he would keep the United States out of foreign entanglements.
“I could do it in an hour and a half,” he responded. “It is a very big subject. Of course, there are two main, salient facts: The first is the Good Neighbor policy to keep us friendly with nations, and the other is every effort, through diplomatic agencies, to keep us from getting involved in specific cases that do not concern us. I do not think I can go any further than those two general statements.”
He was asked about Ethiopia, which was bracing for an invasion from Fascist Italy. “Do you consider Ethiopia a specific case that does not concern us?”
“I should say yes,” the president responded.
At 5:30 p.m., Drolette, who was five foot seven with a slight build, emerged from 111 Broad Street. The cops recorded that he was wearing a brown coat, brown trousers, white shirt, and no hat. Over the next three hours, as late afternoon transformed into early evening, the detectives watched Drolette’s blithe wanderings around the immediate vicinity, making careful note of his every movement.
In the meantime, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s Red Squad rushed up to Pier 86 for a conference with Hapag-Lloyd officials. Lieutenant James A. Pyke urged the German shipping line to take precautionary measures to keep “unauthorized persons” from coming on board to commit “the contemplated disturbance.” But the Germans were hesitant to adopt any suggestion that would make it burdensome for visitors to flock to the festival of conviviality that was featured in all the advertisements. The passenger list included well more than a thousand names, which, coupled with the perfect weather conditions, meant that a few thousand walk-ons would get a promotional glimpse of the comforts on offer. Each was a potential contributor to a German economy that was struggling for self-sufficiency in the face of what Nazi invective described as a “Jewish international campaign of hatred.”
The marine superintendent of the German shipping line, William Drechsel, asked the NYPD to maintain security in and around the pier. The crew “would be sufficient and thoroughly able” to protect the territory of the Bremen from a handful of bumbling deadbeats, he said.
The sun set at 8:19 p.m.
At about 8:30 p.m., Drolette and an unknown man walked to the South Ferry subway station, pushed through the turnstiles, and walked up to the platform for the Ninth Avenue elevated line.
Detectives Moore and Solomon followed close behind.
Drolette and his companion allowed a few trains to pass through the station before boarding. Moore and Solomon hopped in a few cars back.
The train rumbled along the elevated tracks past the Battery and north through Greenwich Village and Chelsea. At the Fiftieth Street stop, in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, the suspects disembarked. Moore and Solomon trailed behind as the two walked up to a union headquarters on Eighth Avenue between Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth Streets.
Drolette and the unknown man entered the building at about 9:15 p.m.
The detectives staked out across the street.
The fifty individuals chosen to occupy the liner—the dozen or so seamen assigned to the flag extraction and the two dozen or so who would provide support—had been directed to attend a staging meeting for final preparations.
“We dressed in our best clothes, as per instructions,” wrote Bill Bailey. “I looked good in my new suit and Panama hat which I had purchased two weeks earlier.”
Once the plotters were inside the building, an official from party headquarters went over the ill-considered scheme to remove the flag, which depended for its success on the blinkered belief that the Bremen sailors would experience an epiphany, decide the time was right to rise against Hitler, and join the offensive against the swastika.
The intended occupiers of the ship were instructed to act cautiously and pretend to be seeing off friends or relatives bound for Europe. Before a skeptical question could be asked, a comrade with a bag of coins was circulating and handing out the ten-cent admission fee.
On the way to the pier, merchant seamen Bill Bailey, Mac Blair, and Paddy Gavin dumped out most of the contents of a half pint of whiskey and swayed through the streets like happy drunks on the prowl for a nightcap. “We never touched a drop,” insisted Bailey. Their pockets had been cleared of incriminating identification and filled with crucifixes, prayer beads, and holy cards. “They bought red roses to put into the lapels of their suits,” recalled Maggie Weaver. On the chance that he got close to the swastika, Bailey carried an uncovered Gem razorblade, which, unknown to him, was already cutting a hole in the lining of his pants. Mindful of the vast superiority of the opposing forces, the seamen took care to equip themselves with makeshift weapons for self-preservation. Gavin found an old spike. Blair procured a fountain pen.
Without the knowledge of the others, Eddie “Mr. Talk Too Much” Drolette carried a pair of metal knuckles, which were illegal to possess in New York State.
“Had we known that, we would’ve said, ‘Hey, dump them sonofabitches,’” said Bailey. “It’s as bad as carrying a gun or a big long shiv. We didn’t come here to murder people. We just come here to get a flag.”
Drolette left the building at 10:15 p.m. He was alone.
The detectives followed as Drolette walked south on Eighth Avenue and turned west on West Forty-Sixth Street. He traveled for three long blocks until reaching Eleventh Avenue, where the NYPD had established one of a handful of checkpoints. Automobile and pedestrian traffic was increasing. The theaters in Times Square were beginning to let out. At the Belasco Theatre on Forty-Fourth Street and Broadway, the curtain was coming down on a double-bill of Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets’s pair of agitprop masterpieces. “Hear it, boys, hear it?” a character cries during the stirring final scene of Lefty. “Hell, listen to me! Coast to coast! hello america! hello. we’re stormbirds of the working class, workers of the world . . . our bones and blood! And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We’ll die for what is right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are!”
The flagship of Nazi Germany’s merchant marine … was entrusted with the safe passage of a little prince of the American republic.
Told by the patrolmen to approach from another direction, Drolette continued south on Eleventh Avenue, turned right on West Forty-Fifth Street, and reached the police checkpoint at Twelfth Avenue (also known as West Street), which ran parallel to the Hudson River underneath the West Side Elevated Highway. He was now a block south of the ship.
New York’s Finest had been instructed to “not interfere with the persons coming onto the pier” or to disrupt “the regular routine business of the line.” Like everyone else on this night, Drolette was waved through.
Moore and Solomon were right behind him.
They came upon a wondrous spectacle. The Bremen was surrounded by a circus of humanity worthy of a neorealist film. Souvenir peddlers sold postcards, buttons, and other knickknacks on German themes. Florists did a brisk business in orchid corsages, a required accessory of midnight sailings. Newsboys hawked the late city editions: “Reich Jews ‘Eliminated’ from Olympics!” Taxis, limos, and private cars dropped off bejeweled women in glittering gowns accompanied by tuxedoed men in opera hats and white gloves. Neighborhood strollers gazed up at the tiers of shipboard lights and listened to the muffled sounds of the on-deck bands. Stevedores loaded freight on swinging hampers. Porters manhandled baggage carts. Pickpockets trolled for victims.
“We went down to see the Bremen off the other evening and you might have thought you were caught up in a sort of formally dressed commuters’ rush,” wrote high-society columnist Lucius Beebe of a recent midnight sailing. “There were mobs of people, avalanches of baggage whirling up out of the glare of the arc lamps, whole tide-rips of orchid corsages flowing, paradoxically, up the gangways, a hundred shrieking stevedore’s whistles and a general air of hysterical and frenzied leave-taking reminiscent of the boom years. Wine corks popped, stewards maneuvered like steamers breasting rapids, the cargo hoists clattered and snarled and two or three bands played cheerful Teutonic music, sawing and tooting and whanging for all they were worth.”
Elissa Landi, one of the stars of MGM’s recent hit The Count of Monte Cristo, arrived with her mother, Countess Caroline Zanardi Landi, who claimed, dubiously, to be the illegitimate daughter of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Henry S. Morgan, the son of J. P. Morgan, was traveling with his wife, three of his children, and a Russian governess. He was about to co-found a business called Morgan Stanley. Arthur Robinson had just been defeated for reelection as US senator from Indiana. A number of Disciples of Christ clergymen were sailing to the denomination’s international convention in Leicester, England. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge was the youngest daughter of William Rockefeller Jr., who had founded the Standard Oil Company with his brother John D. Rockefeller. James Forrestal was recorded on the manifest as a banker but he would eventually become FDR’s secretary of the navy. There was a London hairdresser; a handful of Japanese diplomats; Frederic and Elnora Boda, a Christian missionary couple bound for East Africa; a journalist or two; numerous business executives; Humberto Fombona-Blanco, a Honduran nobleman; and Charles H. Swift, a Chicago food-processing magnate, who the poet Ezra Pound once described as the “porkpacker.” Perhaps the most precious cargo aboard was William Donner Roosevelt, the two-year-old grandson of the president of the United States, whose mother was taking him on an extended vacation abroad so he wouldn’t be kidnapped like the Lindbergh baby. The flagship of Nazi Germany’s merchant marine, then, was entrusted with the safe passage of a little prince of the American republic.
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The photographer on assignment for the Associated Press aimed his Speed Graphic at tuxedo-clad Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, the new US ambassador to Norway, who was shaking hands with a grinning well-wisher, Governor George H. Earle III of Pennsylvania. The two men, Philadelphia socialites who had contributed handsomely to FDR’s election campaign, had arrived at the ship after attending a farewell dinner at the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria.
Drolette passed in front of the Bremen and slipped into the two-story terminal along its north (port) side. He took the stairs or elevator to the second level and followed the German/English signs to the gangplank reserved for nonpassengers, thus avoiding the scrum of activity around passport control. Paying his dime to the Seaman’s Fund, Drolette joined the stream crossing over to a spot on the B (bow) deck about 150 feet from the flag. With the shore-facing section of the B deck closed off to guests, the crowd was directed up a narrow staircase to an open portion of the A deck just below the bridge, joining an elbow-to-elbow bacchanal under the starry sky of a cool, clear Manhattan night.
Upon entering the terminal, Detectives Moore and Solomon met the Red Squad’s commanding officer, Lieutenant James Pyke, who, in an indication of the seriousness of the situation, was now coordinating the response with two deputy chief inspectors. With no apparent hesitation, Lieutenant Pyke allowed the detectives to continue tracking Edward Drolette onto Nazi government property, which revealed that the NYPD was willing to go beyond the German shipping line’s own wishes in defending Hitler’s territory.
Pyke assigned an additional detective, Edward F. Murphy, to accompany Moore and Solomon onto the vessel.
Shipping line employees, then, were unaware that reinforcements had arrived in the form of three clandestine agents wearing civilian attire and concealing firearms. Nor did they have any idea that one of the allies, Detective Matthew Solomon, was a member of a race that Nazi propaganda identified by physical description as the enemy of German interests.
The time was now about 10:30 p.m.
Following their own route to the pier, Bill Bailey, Mac Blair, and Paddy Gavin had no trouble advancing through police lines and coming within sight of the liner.
“The Bremen stood motionless alongside the pier,” Bailey later wrote. “Her bow jutted up, looming over the street. Large, powerful floodlights in various parts of the ship directed their beams to one spot: the jackstaff which held the Nazi swastika. It fluttered brazenly in the summer breeze. It seemed as if all New York could look out their windows and see this flag lit up like a house on fire.”
Paddy Gavin, whose Irish accent was as thick as the fog over the Cliffs of Moher, purchased a swastika badge from a vendor. He was instructed to keep his mouth shut. Bailey and Blair each bought a pennant emblazoned with a Rhine castle and the word Vaterland. After a “fast lookin’ over” from the harried monitors at the gangplank, the three proceeded to the B deck and then up the stairs to the A deck, occasionally barking out a spirited “Sieg Heil” for appearance’s sake. They were surrounded by so many champagne guzzlers, tray-balancing stewards, curiosity seekers, Western Union messenger boys, and forlorn lovers that it was difficult to move.
It seemed as if all New York could look out their windows and see this flag lit up like a house on fire.
“This is the first time we’ve been aboard the ship,” Bailey told an interviewer. “Man, we had to survey everything. I mean, you know, your life depended on it.”
Bailey looked back toward the front of the ship.
“The bow and the swastika seemed miles away.”
By 10:45, the protesters could be heard parading up from downtown, carrying banners, shouting slogans, and singing the nineteenth-century socialist anthem, “The Internationale”:
Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
Arise, you wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, you slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.
Onward marched an assortment of left-wingers from lightest pink to deepest red. The largest sign read “free thälmann!” referring to the leader of Germany’s Communist Party who would never make it out of Buchenwald. “nazism breeds war,” proclaimed another. The men could be seen in dark slacks and button-down shirts, some in suit jackets and/or ties, many donning fedoras or straw boaters. The women, who were said to represent the majority, were in summer dresses or skirts with a midcalf hemline. A few wore a close-fitting beret or cloche hat. The chairwoman of the demonstration was a Russian-born feminist named June Croll, who was married to the African-American author and journalist Eugene Gordon.
Julius Rosenberg was there, the seventeen-year-old militant with the Young Communist League at City College who would be executed eighteen years later along with his wife, Ethel, convicted at the height of the McCarthy era of stealing atomic secrets for the Soviet Union. He would boast to his brother-in-law that it was he, Julius, who led the raid on the Bremen. Also present was Dorothy Day, the thirty-seven-year-old former socialist and cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, which promoted Christ-centered pacifism through its newspaper, houses of hospitality for the poor, and farming communes. An ardent supporter of the boycott of German goods and services, Day was skeptical of the Kremlin’s sincerity in calling for popular or united fronts of “fellow travelers” to come together against the threat from Nazism, a policy shift just now in the midst of formal promulgation during the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow.
“It was eleven at night when we started out, going up to the Bremen demonstration, called by the Communists, but at which we had decided to distribute literature and leaflets,” she wrote. “Songs succeeded speeches, there was a succession of chants—red front . . . red front . . . red front. It is not a United Front, as they admit always when demonstrations get underway, but a Red Front.”
“Catholics and Jews! Protest the religious persecution in Germany!” read the circular she distributed with the other Catholic Workers. “The Friends of Catholic Germany is an organization formed to protest against the brutal technique of Germany’s one-man government and to combat fascism in the United States. . . . We invite all lovers of freedom to join with us in boycotting German products so long as the German Government persists in this disgraceful and un-Christian practice.”
A few thousand liberals and radicals assembled directly opposite the ship, swarming across Twelfth Avenue and into the side streets. They jostled to get a good look at the figures leading the exhortations from atop a large piece of squared timber in the shadow of the hull. All attention was directed toward the flag that glowed from a perch about 50 feet above the makeshift platform.
According to the newspapers, the police “sensed trouble.” Backups were requested, which pushed the size of the contingent to about 350 officers, including a hundred undercover detectives and a few dozen mounted units. A private security firm hired by the German shipping line deployed fifty uniformed and five plainclothesmen. The demonstrators were opposed by a group of pro-Nazi German-Americans, members of the Friends of the New Germany, who were handing out flyers denouncing Mayor LaGuardia’s attempt to protest Nazi excesses by denying a masseur license to a German national named Paul Kress. The Friends may have found a receptive audience among the patriotic Volk from immigrant enclaves who were known to come out to Bremen sailings to experience a little taste of home.
Several hundred unaffiliated bystanders, at the very least, were assembled along the waterfront to catch a glimpse of the pageantry, a cheap diversion at a moment in the Great Depression when about one fifth of the city’s population was on some form of public assistance.
“Many have made the ocean voyage, more hope to, all long to do so,” a writer noted of the spectators who came out to see a previous visit of the Bremen. “Home ties and duties, adverse economic circumstances, one thing or another compels them to remain ashore but . . . down they go to watch the great floating palace begin or end its journey, conjuring up thoughts of distant places, reminiscences of past voyages or anticipation of travel joys still to be realized.”
At 11:15 p.m., the NYPD informed the German shipping line that the security of the liner had been breached. The message was that “some of the Communists” were slipping aboard “accompanied by well dressed women.” After receiving the news up on the bridge, Commodore Leopold Ziegenbein, the mustachioed eminence who had helmed the vessel since its inauguration in 1929, issued an order seeking the removal of all visitors, which was easier said than done. Police estimated that 4,800 people had joined a shipboard celebration that was notorious for lasting until the last stragglers were dragged out of the swimming pool on the G deck. The manifest listed 1,260 passengers and 943 crew members, which put the number of people on the ship at roughly 7,000.
Amid the crush of merrymakers on the A deck, Bailey knew that the well-laid plan of his party leaders was destined to fail. The women assigned to shackle themselves to the mast approached and admitted they were having trouble with the handcuffs. “We got our own problems,” he told them. The route to the flag was impeded by mooring winches, anchor chains, cargo hatches, sea breakers, a 6-foot-high gunwale, and a large number of well-fed crew members, who had come up to the forward deck to get a look at the noisy demonstration on the pier. “Jesus Christ, it seemed like a lost cause,” he remembered. “Here we have a chance to really do something and it’s all screwed up because of this dumb, idiotic planning.”
“Well, we’ve got to do something,” said Mac Blair.
The seamen conferred among themselves and came up with an alternative plan. It was decided that a group led by Eddie Drolette would rush to the starboard side, which would draw the attention of the sailors who were congregated on the forward deck to get a better view of the rally. A group led by Bailey would then make a dash for the flag from the port side.
A roar went up. ‘A roar of triumph,’ wrote Dorothy Day.
In his nervousness, Bailey kept reaching in his pocket to check on the razorblade, opening up little cuts in his fingers.
The Red Squad detectives (Moore, Solomon, and Murphy) watched as Edward Drolette moved through the A deck and conversed with his fellow conspirators, which permitted the policemen to make a visual identification of each participant. They were able to lean in close enough to catch snippets of the conversations.
At 11:45 p.m., the signal went off.
The Bremen’s whistle released the eardrum-shattering blast that was understood by all as the fifteen-minute warning, the bittersweet herald of midnight that had the power to unsettle emotions. The sound hung in the air for several long seconds, calling a brief halt to the evening’s frenzy like a summons from another dimension. Before the echo bounced back from the Jersey side, stewards were clearing their throat and delivering the iconic cry that spelled the end of the high-toned socializing.
“The demonstration was going on and then we heard ‘all ashore that’s goin’ ashore,’” remembered Maggie Weaver, “and we thought, ‘Well, the flag wasn’t going to come down.’”
The twelve seamen squeezed into the mob moving toward the stairs that led from the A deck to the B deck.
Detective Solomon was closest to Drolette. Lagging behind were Detectives Moore and Murphy.
At the foot of the fifteen- or twenty-step descent, Bremen crew members were directing everyone onto the gangplank that led back to the terminal.
The first to refuse was Vincent “Low Life” McCormack, a diminutive scrapper who, like the rest, was a former member of the Marine Workers Industrial Union who had joined the Communist Party. (“A wonderful guy,” said Bailey.) McCormack walked toward the restricted portion of the B deck, which earned him a rebuke from a Bremen officer. With barely a hesitation, McCormack lobbed a haymaker that knocked the man flat on his back.
Passengers shrieked. Orders were shouted in German from the Bridge.
The three detectives were shoved away from the action.
At the bottom of the stairs, Drolette led his small unit up toward the starboard side.
Bailey, Blair, and Gavin followed the agreed-upon course up the port side, slipping past the (unfair) fight developing around “Low Life” McCormack.
Pat Gavin was next to play blocking back.
He intercepted an angry band of antagonists with a flurry of lefts and rights.
Bailey and Blair couldn’t afford to look back.
They rushed toward the bow, maneuvering over and around the on-deck obstacles.
Then, Blair had his turn.
He jabbed the fountain pen into the face of a sailor who caught him by the neck.
Bailey hesitated, eager to help out the stalwart buddy who would become a lifelong friend.
“Keep going! Keep going!” Blair shouted. “Get up there! Get up there!”
With a boost of adrenaline that came to him “just unconsciously,” Bailey leaped onto the elevated gunwale that ringed the lip of the bow. He grabbed the “very cringy little ladder” attached to the bowsprit and ascended to the top, a five- or six-rung climb.
Backlit by the klieg light from the bridge, Bailey’s large frame was now in silhouetted view of the spectators on the shore.
A roar went up. “A roar of triumph,” wrote Dorothy Day.
The police troops surrounding the assemblage reached for their nightsticks.
“Watch that flag!” someone shouted.
Feeling “almost stage fright,” Bailey took a moment to glance down. Without a rail to brace himself, he understood that the slightest misstep would put him in the drink.
He tugged at the swastika, which ripped along the top seam.
He pulled again and again. And a few more times. But the bottom half would not give.
“I was in an open area, almost like a stage,” Bailey said. “Everybody on the dock is now watching. All eyes are focused on the bow. I’m standing up there like an idiot, pulling.”
He reached into his pocket. Instead of a razorblade, he found a hole.
Panic was setting in.
“So I turned around. It’s like knowing there’s something in back of you, looking. And I thought . . . and I had that feeling that something was going on next to me, within inches of me, and sure enough, when I turned around, right on the deck, practically at my heels, was a hand going up. And I thought, ‘Oh, God! Another inch and he’s got me and he’s going to yank me off, and I’ll never get this rotten dirty flag off the ship.’ So sure enough, I gave another look, and it was a guy named Duffy, a seaman. And he had worked his way up the ladder, too. Now he didn’t even have to go up to the top where I was. He just said, ‘Pull the flag still! Pull it still! Give me the rope! Hold it still!’ And he took out a switchblade knife, and I heard ‘click, click’ and he let it go, on that part of the halyard, and the flag is now home free.”
Bill Bailey hurled Hitler’s treasure into the Hudson River.
The swastika “came sliding down, disappeared a moment, ballooned up and went skimming through the air dropping neatly into the water below,” according to one account.
“What a beautiful sight that was, to see the flag in the spotlight go down in the river,” remembered Maggie Weaver.
Adrian Duffy, short and wiry with “a sort of slightly crooked eye,” vanished as quickly as he appeared.
“And it was . . . believe me, it was a moment worth everything that happened afterwards just to see that sonofabitch in the water,” said Bailey, “and the Germans going stark mad! Absolutely stark mad! And the crowd on the dock stark mad with delight.”
* * *
Peter Duffy is an author and journalist based in New York City. He has written three books of historical non-fiction: The Bielski Brothers (HarperCollins, 2003); The Killing of Major Denis Mahon (HarperCollins, 2007); and Double Agent (Scribner, 2014). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, the New Republic, and many other publications.
From the book THE AGITATOR by Peter Duffy. Copyright © 2019 by Peter Duffy. Reprinted
by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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