A symbol of hate over the Hudson River, the swastika flag fluttered from the bowsprit of the German luxury liner S.S. Bremen in the summer of 1935. At the time, the Bremen made regular visits to New York, and many Americans ventured on board to marvel at this floating symbol of the Reich’s technology.
Others, however, looked beyond the gleaming decks and Oompah bands, and focused on what was happening across the Atlantic, as the Nazis assaulted Jews in bloody riots.
On July 26, 1935, a group of Americans took action. Led by 20-year-old merchant seaman William “Bill” Bailey, they snuck into the ship’s going-away gala, determined to remove the Nazi flag waving in public view. Pursued by the crew and New York policemen, Bailey succeeded in sending Hitler’s emblem plummeting into the Hudson.
The incident made worldwide headlines. The United States government repeatedly apologized to the outraged Nazi regime. Bailey and five co-participants, collectively nicknamed the Bremen Six, were put on trial and eventually acquitted by Judge Louis B. Brodsky.
But despite the celebrated nature of the event, Bailey was soon forgotten by history.
His audacious act is revived in a new book, “The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism,” by New York-based author and journalist Peter Duffy. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Duffy called Bailey “so far-seeing, generous, openhearted — a great example of a sympathetic individual who saw what others couldn’t see.”
Born in 1915, Bailey lived to be nearly 80 and struggled for many causes during his colorful life. In addition to his heroism aboard the Bremen, he fought Spanish dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, served his own country at sea in World War II, and continued his activism into the closing decades of the 20th century. When he died at his San Francisco home in 1995, his “lifelong commitment to social and economic justice” was noted in the House of Representatives by congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
“The Agitator” interweaves Bailey’s story with the ever-worsening situation in Hitler’s Germany, and continues a theme of anti-Nazi resistance explored in Duffy’s nonfiction work. His first book, “The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest,” chronicled a heroic fraternal trio and their rescue work in Eastern European ghettos during WWII.
The Bielski Brothers “did impel me to think about compiling who rose up to say something [about the Nazis] way before the troops were landing on D-Day,” Duffy said, “at a time when the US government did everything it could to ignore, apologize for what was going on in Germany.”
Duffy learned about the flag incident through an interview Bailey gave for the documentary “The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War,” about international volunteers who took up arms against Franco. Intrigued, Duffy read the entire interview transcript at the Tamiment Library at New York University.
He discovered that Bailey’s act had been an “international incident, something top levels of our government were very keen to know every little detail about,” he said.
There were State Department files, court proceedings and an extensive New York Police Department report incorporating the actions of policemen aboard the Bremen that night — including Jewish detective Matthew Solomon. Duffy also interviewed Bailey’s son, Michael — whose mother, Bailey’s second wife, Ruth (Kujawsky) Kaye, was the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants to the US. Duffy said the key point in his research was locating the trial transcript in the National Archives.
“To find a transcript of a magistrate court decision and proceedings from 1935 New York was a pretty slim possibility,” Duffy said.
But it was there, all 1,000 or so pages of it, because of the interest around the nation and world, with New York City, New York State and the State Department all getting involved.
At the epicenter stood Bill Bailey, an impoverished Irish-Catholic son of Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, who toiled in the engine rooms of merchant vessels and led efforts for their crews to unionize. (He also joined the Communist Party, although he would sever his ties several decades later.)
Bailey was distressed by racial segregation he witnessed aboard a ship docked in the American South, and by the mistreatment of an Indian stowaway that resulted in suicide. And in 1935, Bailey became increasingly concerned about outrages committed by the Nazi regime.
That year, Hitler’s government arrested a US sailor, Lawrence Simpson, aboard an American ship, imprisoning him in the Fuhlsbuettel concentration camp for planning to disseminate anti-Nazi messages. The Berlin Riots in July resulted in the death of Polish Jew Moritz Kleinfeld, with dozens injured and Jewish property destroyed. Nazi roundups of Catholic clergy were protested by the Vatican, which led Luftwaffe head Hermann Goering to criticize the Catholic Church. All of this caused Bailey to participate in an epic mission of defiance against the vessel whose Nazi flag was at that moment flying over Pier 86 in Manhattan.
Bailey and his fellow conspirators, 50 in all, planned to infiltrate the Bremen on its midnight sail, a type of farewell party held on ships the evening before their departure. An estimated 7,000 people filled the ship that night. Guests included two-year-old William Donner Roosevelt, whose grandfather was president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as members of the Morgan and Rockefeller financial dynasties, Hollywood star Elissa Landi and a Honduran nobleman, Humberto Fombona-Blanco.
As the crew began clearing the decks for departure, Bailey and his mates had to improvise a new plan. While some staged a diversion, Bailey led a group to take down the flag. Risking a tumble into the depths, he climbed a rickety ladder, but could not tear down the emblem completely, having lost his razor blade. Luckily, fellow seaman Adrian Duffy cut the flag loose with a switchblade and Bailey flung it into the Hudson.
The author writes that the flag incident was Bailey’s favorite story, “a parable about the ragged effort in the early days of the Nazi regime to convince the world that Adolf Hitler had to be confronted.” Yet the immediate aftermath looked bleak for the participants. The flag was quickly retrieved and reattached, and the US apologized to an incensed Nazi Germany.
The resulting trial of the Bremen Six was “hugely covered at the time,” Duffy said, resulting in high drama in the court of Judge Brodsky, a Jewish justice whom the author calls a moderate Democrat. To acquit the defendants, Brodsky found a precedent from almost 200 years earlier — the Boston Tea Party of 1773, which helped spark the American Revolution.
Duffy noted that both protests took place on board ships, and both were followed by court proceedings. And, he said, just as the tea that American colonists dumped into Boston Harbor was a symbol of the despised taxes levied by the British, so was the flag that Bailey tossed into New York Harbor a representative of a larger threat — “a symbolic emblem of a hated regime.”
The patriots of the Boston Tea Party were celebrated in life and continue to be venerated in American history. Bailey, by contrast, lost his livelihood as a merchant seaman during the anti-communist Red Scare, and was called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bailey renounced his communism after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Duffy said he identified with the Hungarian protestors, not with the Soviets in the tanks who repressed them.
Bailey did enjoy a late-in-life renaissance. He became a local hero in San Francisco, with Pelosi, among others, donating funds to publish his autobiography. He even appeared in several Hollywood films, including “On the Edge” with Bruce Dern.
“It almost makes sense that at the end of his life, he’s cast in Hollywood films,” Duffy said. “’On the Edge,’ I thought he steals that film. He has not just a bit part, but a key part. It’s an indication of the larger-than-life aspect to him.”