The SS California, owned by Anchor Line Steamship Company; a Scottish merchant shipping company that was founded in 1855 and dissolved in 1980; departed New York on January 29, 1917, bound for Glasgow, Scotland, with 205 passengers and crewmembers on board. While the trip should have been a pleasant journey, world events would soon happen that would change everything in an instant. On February 3, 1917, United States President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he “broke diplomatic relations with Germany and warned that war would follow if American interests at sea were again assaulted.” Of course, all ship sailing the seas, especially those departing or arriving in the United States, or any that had US passengers were warned about the possibility of a German attack.

February 7, 1917, found the SS California some 38 miles off the coast of Fastnet, Ireland, when the ship’s captain, John Henderson, spotted a submarine off his ship’s port side at a little after 9am. I can only imagine the sinking feeling the captain must have felt at that moment. The Germans were not known for any kind of compassion, and they didn’t particularly care if this was a passenger ship. They figured that the ship might be carrying weapons, and they actually might have been. Captain Henderson ordered the gunner at the stern of the ship to fire in defense, if necessary. Unfortunately, there would not be time to do so, because moments later and without warning, the submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship. The first torpedo missed, but the second torpedo exploded into the port side of the steamer, killing five people instantly. The explosion of that torpedo was so violent and devastating that it caused the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer to sink just nine minutes later. The crew quickly sent desperate S.O.S. calls, but the best they could hope for was a hasty arrival of rescue ships. Time was simply not on their side, as 38 people drowned after the initial explosion, and with the initial 5 who died when the torpedo impacted the ship, a total of 43 died. It was an act of war by the Germans.

The Germans were known for this type of blatant attack, in complete defiance of Wilson’s warnings. It’s almost as if they were simply crazed with hatred. Because of Wilson’s warnings about the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare and the subsequent discovery and release of the Zimmermann telegram, the Germans reached out to the foreign minister to the Mexican government involving a possible Mexican-German alliance in the event of a war between Germany and the United States. That caused Wilson and the United States to take the final steps towards war. On April 2, 1917, Wilson delivered his war message before Congress. It was this action that brought about the United States’ entrance into the First World War, which came about just four days later.

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