circa 1929: A German liner, the “Bremen’. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
In the early 1930s, the Bremen linked regularly on the Hudson River on West 46th Street — and it was a miracle.
The length of three football fields, the ship was built for luxury. Equipped to 2200 passengers and 950 crew, with everything from Turkish baths to a library filled with the world’s best literature, it was the ideal vacation-ready ocean liner.
The only downside was the swastika flag be flying on board of the bow.
As the Bremen routinely sail between Germany and New York, ferrying dignitaries and other wealthy party-goers, the horrors of the Nazi regime were leaking out to the world. But to many — including President Franklin Roosevelt chose to ignore or deny the atrocities in that time.
Even merchant marine Bill Bailey knew the truth, and his protest against the Bremen would make him the first American to make a public stand against the Nazi aggression, writes Peter Duffy in the new book, “The Rebel” (PublicAffairs), out now.
Bailey was born in 1915 in Jersey City. It lives in great poverty with his mother and five brothers and sisters, his drunken lout of a father who walk out, he felt soon that the sea would be his escape.
When he was 14, he visited every pier on the Hudson River to the captain of an old freighter agreed to take him on.
“I was there to lie like hell,” Bailey said later. “Told him I was an experienced sailor, have been on all seven seas, including the Dead Sea. I could do nothing on a ship, blah, blah, and I’m 21 years old … And the man said, ‘Yes, OK.’ And then, I had a job as a ordinary seaman.”
Working on various ships through the years, Bailey saw the world for real. In 1932, he arrived in Germany, where he is a rare close-up, for an American, to the encroachment of Nazi horror.
“Bailey was inspired by the fighting spirit of the Communist longshoremen … and deeply shocked by the cruelty of the Nazi storm troopers, which were already active in Germany, punching people, kicking windows in the attacks of the Jews,” Duffy writes.
Flagship ceremony at Bremen in the port of New York. After the Reichsflaggengesetz adopted by the Reichstag, the German merchant flag was replaced by the Nazi flag. Photo by ullsteinbild via Getty Images)
Those experiences abroad colored Bailey ‘ s politics. In 1933, he was 18 and in between jobs in New York, when he joined the Marine Workers Industrial Union. He began to speak in public, the recruitment of trade union members among the dock workers. He was also a member of the Communist y.
In 1935, the Bremen, is a popular attraction in the city. When docked to discharge the passengers from Germany and take on new ones for the return trip, a few thousand New Yorkers were allowed on board for a fee to the party for one night. In the night at the end of a horn would blow, to the visitors from the ship.
Many New Yorkers were aware of the German atrocities, and the Bremen was becoming more and more a meeting with thousands of protesters who thought that Hitler was his beloved ship should not be welcomed to our shores, much less be used for dining and dancing. As authorities continued to the dock, Bailey and his co-members of the party decided to do something to “wake this evening United States,” Bailey wrote later.
With the Bremen in New York on July 26, 1935, the leaders of Bailey’s Communist y branch came up with a plan. As protests were already expected on the street, a few dozen members of the party — a man and a woman would dress in their finest evening wear and board the ship as the revelers. When the horn blasted, the tell of non-passengers leave the boat, some of the women would handcuff themselves to the ship, the mast and the making of a distraction. Then, the men would grab the swastika flag and march it out of the boat to the party president, he would fire in the street.
First, the role of the conquering of the flag fell on one of the party’s longest-serving members, 36 year old Merchant marine Edward Drolette.
But Drolette “could not leave his mouth,” and the plan was leaked to the NYPD. When Drolette on board of the Bremen sometime after 10:30 pm, police were on his tail. By that point, the ship was full-on party mode, with passengers, including Henry S. Morgan, grandson of J. P. Morgan and the future founder of Morgan Stanley and William Donner Roosevelt, “the 2-year-old grandson of the president of the United States.”
Meanwhile, Bailey and two colleagues-Communists, Mac Blair and Paddy Gavin, ran the deck in the direction of the flag, “and, occasionally barking out a ‘Sieg Heil’ appearance ‘ s sake.”
11:15 a.m., the NYPD notified of Bremen owners that infiltrators had broken, their safety, and the ship of the commander “for an order seeking the removal of all the visitors.” But the 4,800 people on board is that is not possible, while also blocking Drolette the starboard path to the flag.
So the infiltrators changed their plan, and agreed that Bailey, Blair and Gavin would catch the flag of the port side of the place.
At 11:45 pm, the ship’s horn blew, encourage the visitors to leave. In the melee, the ground plan was abandoned, but a lone Communist protestor marched to a limited part of the deck.
When one of Bremen member of the crew barked a reprimand, the rebel of liquidation of his fist, and “lobbed a haymaker that knocked the man flat on his back.”
The Chaos took hold, and Blair and Bailey seized their moment.
Bailey slipped past the authorities, but Blair felt a hand on his neck. Seeing it belonged to a Nazi-a member of the crew, he turned around and stabbed him in the face with a fountain pen. Bailey interrupted to help, but Blair urged him on.
“Let’s go!” he shouted. “There!”
Jump on board of the ship planking with police nightsticks swinging around him, Bailey began to climb a thin ladder.
With a roar of triumph” rising around him, of the thousands of protesters on the street, Bailey reached his goal.
“Feeling” almost stage fright, Bailey took a moment to glance down,” Duffy writes. “Without a rail to brace themselves, he understood, that the slightest slip would have him in the drink. He pulled the swastika, which tore along the top seam.” But he could not get the bottom half of the flag to move.
As he struggled, one of his comrades pulled out a switchblade and cut the rope holding the flag. Suddenly the swastika fell loose and was now fully in Bailey’s hands.
It was now or never.
“Bill Bailey hurled Hitler’s treasure in the Hudson River,” Duffy writes. “The swastika came sliding down, disappeared for a moment, ballooned up and went skimming through the air to drop into the water.”
Said Bailey of his victory: “It was a moment worth everything … just to see that sonofab***h in the water and the Germans go stark crazy! And the crowd on the quay, stark mad with joy.”
Afterwards, a State Department spokesman issued an apology to Germany for one was even asked, saying: “It is a pity that two or three people have to mistreat the flag of any country to which the United States is at peace.”
Bailey, Blair, Drolette, and three of their co-conspirators were arrested and dubbed the “Bremen Six” in the press, at that time firmly on the side of the Nazis. They were charged with felonious killing of a police officer and intent to the breach of the peace, but after a long, high-profile trials, all six were acquitted.
The Bremen, meanwhile, kept her from New York to Germany route, with a new swastika flag high until September 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, and returned home for good. The ship was destroyed in an attack by the British Royal Air Force and sold the scrap metal.
In the post-war years, Bailey was destroyed, getting caught in the Red Scare of the time, the black list and kicked out of the Marine Workers union as a Communist in 1950. Six years later, Bailey shut down the Communist y itself, because he realized that Stalin was a “paranoid, sick SOB.”
He spent the next decades as a longshoreman and activist in San Francisco, where he gave radical tours through the city and it’s reemerged as a father figure for other liberal organizers. Robert De Niro even used it on Bailey’s experience on the black list for the 1991 film “Guilty by Suspicion,” in which the old sailor had a walk-on role as a security guard.
Bailey had been suffering from a lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos from his work on the high seas. But even that is not dim his passion until his death in 1995, aged 79.
“To witness an injustice and do nothing,” he once said. “That is the greatest crime.”
This story was previously published in the New York Post.