August 25, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The Oregon Statesman reported the tragic death of an Italian worker, killed by an oncoming train at Perkins Crossing:

Dreaming of Sunny Italy, Joe Jermerosta Is Hurled Into Eternity
Southern Pacific Camp at Perkins Crossing Is Cast Into Gloom by Death of Fellow Countryman On Sunday

(By Ella McMunn)

Quinaby, Aug. 24. – Finishing his work Sunday night at 10 o’clock, Joe Jermerosta, aged 47, the cook for the camp of Italian laborers at Perkins crossing on the Southern Pacific, sat for a moment on the raised grade of the track and dozed fatally, an onrushing southbound train striking him, fairly in the back, killing him instantly. There are thirty-five men in the crew, who have been engaged in raising the track between Salem and Woodburn, and for over a month have had their cars on a siding, midway between Brooks and Chemawa, and no happier bunch of sons ever came over from sunny Italy. At night they sang and played the phonograph and wandered in merry groups about the countryside, but the death of Joe has cast a gloom over the camp that threatens to be permanent.

The intense heat of the day had made the cars insufferably warm, and Joe, who had spent the evening in making the usual preparations for breakfast, had not retired, although the other tired workmen were already asleep. Thinking to rest a moment, and the grade offering a more convenient place to sit, he had not more than lowered his head, dreaming perhaps of the wife and four babies back under the Italian skies who needed him so badly, now that war clouds lowered over them, but who needed also the pay envelope that Joe had sent them regularly for years, the weary brain did not awaken to the vibration of the oncoming passenger train that hurled him from the track.

None of the man’s companions knew what had happened until the crew of the train that had killed him rapped upon their car and announced the fact, when the greatest excitement prevailed. The body was kept at the camp until Monday morning when Coroner Clough came to remove it to his chapel in Salem. The funeral will be Saturday, pending the arrival of Joe’s brother from Washington. All the thirty-five fellow workmen of the deceased will attend. Meanwhile the camp is in deepest mourning. Everything is picked up neat and clean, and the family of kittens playfully scamper up the fence posts, while the pup barks a noisy welcome to visitors, but as for the rest it is all gloom. There is no music, no singing, no happy laughter at the close of the day.

Earlier in the summer Austria had protested against the United States selling munitions to Great Britain arguing that as a neutral the United States should sell arms to no belligerent. Austria deplored “the fact that for a long time a traffic in munitions of war to the greatest extent has been carried on between the United States of America on the one hand and Great Britain and its allies on the other, while Austria-Hungary as well as Germany have been absolutely excluded from the American market.” The Austrian government argued that this was a violation of neutrality, stating that “a neutral government may not permit traffic in contraband of war to be carried on without hindrance when this traffic assumes such a form or such dimensions that the neutrality of the nation becomes involved thereby.”

In August, Secretary of State Robert Lansing replied to the Austrian protest and the Statesman analyzed that response in its lead editorial:


The long, bitter campaign waged in this country to stop the export of arms and ammunition ma now be said to have ended. The propaganda has collapsed suddenly and dramatically.

Its collapse is due to two events which occurred simultaneously. Secretary Lansing’s reply to the Austrian protest, and the newspaper exposure of the secret machinery by which Germany sought to control American opinion and politics.

The note to Austria is the full and final statement of the American position with regard to the munitions traffic. It establishes a policy which it is inconceivable that we should change. It is such a crushing rejoinder to Austria-Hungary that we may expect no further word from that nation. It is sufficient to silence any critic of our national policy who is accessible to reason.

The Austrian protest, in asking us to stop selling arms to the allies, asserts that it is the duty of a neutral to take account of special conditions affecting belligerents, and to equalize those conditions. Such an obligation is unknown in international practice. If it were admitted, “it would impose on every neutral nation a duty to sit in judgment of the progress of the war and restrict its commercial intercourse with a belligerent whose naval successes prevented the neutral from trade with the enemy.” It would mean “the establishment of a system of non-intercourse with the victor,” which, if consistent, would bar all forms of trade. If valid against a belligerent superior on the sea, it should also be valid against a belligerent superior on the land. Manifestly, such a principle would involve neutral nations in perplexity and economic confusion.

Austria and Germany themselves for many years have sold arms and ammunitions “throughout the world and especially to belligerents,” and “never during the period before the present war did either of them suggest of apply the principle” no advocated by Austria-Hungary. During the British Boer war, both sold munitions to Great Britain, which controlled the sea and blockaded South Africa – paralleling our traffic with Great Britain now.

As for the law: The Hague convention of 1907 expressly declared that a neutral is not bound to prohibit the exportation of contraband of war. Whether it shall do so or not is left to its own discretion, not to the judgment of interested belligerents.

Less that one-fifth of recognized authorities advocate changing the law to prohibit such exports. A German authority, Paul Heinecke, covers our own case exactly by the statement: “Such prohibitions may be considered as violations of neutrality, or at least as unfriendly acts, if they are enacted during a war with the purpose of close unexpectedly the sources of supply to a party which heretofore had relied upon them.”

Moreover, to put an embargo on munitions now, explains Secretary Lansing, would establish a dangerous precedent. We must defend the principle that a belligerent may buy arms anywhere, because it is our only hope of safety incase we are attacked. It is the only hope of any nation not well prepared, against the aggressions of military nations. To abolish this right would compel every nation to have ready always a great store of arms and ammunition. It would foster universal militarism, thwarting the hope of peace.

We are justified, then, by law, by common practice, by German and Austria precedent, by consideration of our own safety and by the highest morality.

This cold logic is admirably supported by the publication of German secret service letters through the enterprise of the New York World. Those documents have shown that even the sentiment in America favoring an arms embargo has been, for the most part, created artificially by a great underground propaganda directed from Berlin and supported by German money.

The agents of Germany have sought to control American news services, mislead American newspapers and corrupt public opinion. They have fathered national bodies operating in the name of a false neutrality. They have sought to work havoc in our industries by stirring up strikes. They have played on the south, encouraging southern leaders of opinion to demand a munitions embargo in retaliation for the cotton embargo. They have meddled with our domestic politics, have worked to bend congress and the president to their will, and have planned to array Americans of German blood against our other citizens in a new party to use as a weapon against England.

All these facts are now common property. The false logic of the demand for an embargo is so clearly revealed that there should be little heard about the matter henceforth from either foreign or domestic sources.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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