Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series in commemoration of Transfer Day.
Admiral George Dewey, chairman of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, led the charge for the purchase of the Danish West Indies (DWI) since 1902. In a December 1915 memorandum addressed to Secretary of the Navy Daniels and Secretary of State Lansing, the reasons to purchase the DWI were noted:
Denmark was reluctant to sell because of the financial commitment the Dutch West Indies Co. (DWI Co.) made to the port facilities. But the Danes had a debt of over $2 million U.S. and continuing deficits of $200,000/year. The war had interrupted commerce, ruining the economies of Denmark and the islands; Denmark realized it could no longer afford to support the islands, and decided to sell to the Americans.
Months of negotiations dealing with a sale price of $25 million in U.S. gold coins payable within 90 days of treaty signing, citizenship for DWI residents, free access to the U.S. market for DWI products, and the recognition of the concession contract granted to the DWI Co. A Treaty was signed by Secretary Lansing and Chargé d’Affaires Brun on Aug. 4, 1916. President Woodrow Wilson submitted the Treaty to the U.S. Senate on Aug. 8, which ratified it on Sept. 7.
German ploy to save the HAL
A provision in the U.S./Danish Treaty provided that all private properties — specifically the DWI Co. with all of its concession clauses — were to be respected. This meant that the DWI Co.’s newly improved port facilities could not be leased, purchased or seized by the U.S. Navy to establish a naval base.
But did such provisions extend to Hamburg-American Line port facilities?
Within a month of President Wilson’s signing the Treaty on Feb. 11, 1917, a Bill of Sale for the Hamburg-American Steamship Line (HAL) facilities on St. Thomas was discovered. The sale date was Jan. 22, 1917, but was not recorded until Feb. 3, 1917, after the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Germany.
Germany realized that America was about to declare war and, as the “new owners” of the islands, would seize all German properties as a “war prize.” In the sham deal, the HAL properties on St. Thomas were sold to a Danish lawyer, Jens Peter Jorgensen. Jorgensen, a known German sympathizer, purchased the Line’s St. Thomas assets for $175,000 — about one-tenth of its true worth, proof that the deal was a sham.
As the two countries headed toward war, the U.S. rushed to take possession of the islands. Two months after ratification, the treaty was signed on March 31, 1917, “Transfer Day.” Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo — with of Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Rear-Admiral James H. Oliver, newly appointed governor of the islands present — presented a U. S. Treasury Warrant for $25 million in gold coins (48 tons of gold) to Danish Minister Constantin Brun, sealing the deal.
That same day, Commander Edwin T. Pollock, captain of the USS Hancock, anchored in St. Thomas Harbor, was appointed acting governor for the purposes of Transfer Day.
Upon wire cabled receipt of news that Minister Brun had been paid in full, the Transfer Day Ceremony occurred on the grounds of the Danish barracks, which is now the Legislature building.
A week later on April 6, the U.S. declared war against Germany. Within days, the U.S. government confiscated over $100 million worth of HAL assets throughout the U.S. and all of the HAL properties on St. Thomas. A U.S. Marine battalion under the command of Major Jay M. Salladay was landed on St. Thomas and ordered to secure the harbor from a German naval attack.
By August 1917, the marines completed the construction of two batteries of four five-inch naval guns — one to defend the entrance to the West Gregerie Channel and a second to defend the entrances of the East Gregerie Channel and the St. Thomas Harbor.
The batteries were never fired in anger nor was St. Thomas ever threatened with attack, thanks to the warnings of the German threat given by Admiral Dewey. His strategic thinking, initiatives and efforts successfully kept the German Navy and its U-boats out of St. Thomas and the Caribbean for the duration of World War I. A U.S. naval base was put on the confiscated grounds of HAL on Hassel Island.
Aside from coastal defense duties, The U.S Marines on St. Thomas also arrested Julius Jochmensin, the HAL managing director since 1908. A search of his offices and private residence discovered he had ties to the German Navy and government. He was suspected of being a German agent and spy, but that’s another story.
— Vincent Palancia is a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust and chairman of the Hassel Island Task Force.