Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1917

German sub sinks U.S. passenger ship California

Just three days after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s speech of February 3, 1917—in which he broke diplomatic relations with Germany and warned that war would follow if American interests at sea were again assaulted—a German submarine torpedoes and sinks the Anchor Line passenger steamer California off the Irish coast.

The SSCalifornia departed New York on January 29 bound for Glasgow, Scotland, with 205 passengers and crewmembers on board. Eight days later, some 38 miles off the coast of Fastnet Island, Ireland, the ship’s captain, John Henderson, spotted a submarine off his ship’s port side at a little after 9 a.m. and ordered the gunner at the stern of the ship to fire in defense if necessary. Moments later and without warning, the submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship. One of the torpedoes missed, but the second torpedo exploded into the port side of the steamer, killing five people instantly. The explosion of the torpedo was so violent and devastating that the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer sank just nine minutes after the attack. Despite desperate S.O.S. calls sent by the crew to ensure the arrival of rescue ships, 38 people drowned after the initial explosion, for a total of 43 dead.

This type of blatant German defiance of Wilson’s warning about the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare, combined with the subsequent discovery and release of the Zimmermann telegram—an overture made by Germany’s foreign minister to the Mexican government involving a possible Mexican-German alliance in the event of a war between Germany and the U.S.—drove Wilson and the United States to take the final steps towards war. On April 2, Wilson went before Congress to deliver his war message; the formal declaration of U.S. entrance into the First World War came four days later.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Freed U.S. slaves depart on journey to Africa

The first organized immigration of freed slaves to Africa from the United States departs New York harbor on a journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. The immigration was largely the work of the American Colonization Society, a U.S. organization founded in 1816 by ...read more

Elizabeth becomes queen

On this day in 1952, after a long illness, King George VI of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dies in his sleep at the royal estate at Sandringham. Princess Elizabeth, the oldest of the king’s two daughters and next in line to succeed him, was in Kenya at the time of her ...read more

Mussolini fires his son-in-law

Wary of his growing antiwar attitude, Benito Mussolini removes Count Galeazzo Ciano, his son-in-law, as head of Italy’s foreign ministry and takes over the duty himself. Ciano had been loyal to the fascist cause since its inception, having taking part in the march on Rome in ...read more

Johnson meets with South Vietnamese Premier

Accompanied by his leading political and military advisers, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with South Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Cao Ky in Honolulu. The talks concluded with issuance of a joint declaration in which the United States promised to help South Vietnam “prevent ...read more

ICCS take up positions

Supervisors from the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), delegated to oversee the cease-fire, start to take up their positions. The cease-fire had gone into effect as a provision of the Paris Peace Accords. The ICCS included representatives from Canada, ...read more

Tennis great Arthur Ashe dies of AIDS

On February 6, 1993, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the only African-American man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens, dies of complications from AIDS, at age 49 in New York City. Ashe’s body later laid in state at the governor’s mansion in Richmond, Virginia, where ...read more

Ronald Reagan born

As the 40th president of the United States, the former movie star was called the “Great Communicator” for his ability to get through to ordinary Americans and give them hope and optimism for their own future and that of their country. Despite his lifelong opposition to “big” ...read more

Infamous school teacher goes back to prison

A judge reinstates the suspended sentence of school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and sends her back to prison for seven years after she is caught violating a no-contact order with her former student Vili Fualaau, when she is found in a vehicle with the boy. Letourneau first met ...read more

The “Reagan Doctrine” is announced

In his State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan defines some of the key concepts of his foreign policy, establishing what comes to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine.” The doctrine served as the foundation for the Reagan administration’s support of “freedom fighters” ...read more

John Pegram killed

On this day in 1865, Confederate General John Pegram, age 33,is killed at the Battle of Dabney’s Mill (also called Hatcher’s Run), Virginia. Pegram graduated from West Point in 1854, and served in various posts in the West before resigning his commission at the start of the Civil ...read more

Franco-American alliances signed

During the American War for Independence, representatives from the United States and France sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance in Paris. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce recognized the United States as an independent nation and encouraged trade ...read more