WWI Centennial: Archduke Ferdinand Is Murdered in Sarajevo

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened.

June 28, 1914: Murder in Sarajevo

There were seven of them—six Bosnian Serbs and one Bosnian Muslim—blending in with the crowds along Appel Quay, the promenade tracing the sluggish River Miljacka through downtown Sarajevo. Some were armed with pistols, some with grenades, each hoping to strike a blow against Austrian tyranny on the sunny morning of Sunday, June 28, 1914.

The first four—Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Nedjelko Čabrinović, Vaso Čubrilović, and Cvjetko Popović—lined both sides of Appel Quay in front of the Sarajevo police station. Another conspirator, Gavrilo Princip, stood at the intersection with Franz Josef Street, where the latter turned to cross the River Miljacka over the Latin Bridge. Beyond the intersection the ringleader, Danilo Ilić, was pacing back and forth along the Quay, overseeing the operation. Finally, the seventh plotter, Trifun Grabež, was posted near the intersection with the Kaiser Bridge, in the “last chance” position.

Their target, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, had come to Bosnia to observe the empire’s annual military maneuvers, and only agreed to visit the provincial capital at the insistence of the Austrian governor, Oskar Potiorek. Actually, this wasn’t his first visit: Several days before, on Thursday, June 25, the Archduke and his beloved wife, Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, left their hotel in the nearby spa town of Ilidža to pay a surprise visit to the Sarajevo bazaar, where they did some shopping amid enthusiastic crowds. Then, on Friday and Saturday, while the Archduke was off observing the army maneuvers, Sophie returned on her own to visit various churches, mosques, and charitable institutions, again meeting with a warm welcome; on Saturday evening she gushed, “Everywhere we have gone here we have been greeted with so much friendliness,” even from Bosnian Serbs.

But today was the official event, the day for pomp and circumstance (and, coincidentally, the Archduke and Sophie’s wedding anniversary). Accordingly, the itinerary was planned more or less down to the minute: After attending a private mass in Ilidža, the Archduke and his wife arrived at the Sarajevo train station at 9:40am, then paid a visit to the local army barracks, where he reviewed the troops. By 10am they were on their way again, heading east on Appel Quay to City Hall to meet the local dignitaries.

Serbianna / Wikimedia Commons

They rode with Governor Potiorek in the back of a brand new Gräf & Stift “Double Phaeton” open-topped touring car owned by Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, who was serving as the Archduke’s bodyguard and sat in front with the driver, Leopold Lojka. Theirs was third in a motorcade of seven vehicles—the first carrying Sarajevo’s chief of special security and three policemen, the second the mayor and chief of police, and the rest various members of the Archduke’s entourage, as well as provincial officials and prominent local businessmen.

The motorcade proceeded at a leisurely pace so the crowds could see the Archduke, who was nervous about assassins but also felt compelled to appear casual and unconcerned. There were no troops lining the streets—Potoriek insisted, implausibly, that the populace was happy under his benevolent administration—and in fact most of the spectators seemed enthusiastic, shouting cheers of “Zivio!” (“long may he live!”) as the Archduke’s car passed. But the Archduke’s intuition was better than the governor’s.

The first conspirator, Mehmedbašić, lost his nerve—but the second, Čabrinović, was more determined: Around 10:15am, he threw a small bomb at the Archduke’s car. The device bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, injuring two military adjutants, Count Erich von Merizzi and Count Alexander Boos-Waldeck. Čabrinović immediately took a cyanide pill and threw himself in the Miljacka, but the poison didn’t work, leaving him at the mercy of enraged onlookers, who fished him out of the shallow river and administered a severe beating before the police took him into custody.

Now the Archduke’s motorcade sped away to City Hall, too fast for any of the other would-be assassins to make an attempt; assuming that Čabrinović would crack under interrogation, their next priority was to avoid being rounded up—all except Princip who, coolheaded as always, meandered across the street to stand in front of Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen at the corner of Appel Way and Franz Josef Street, along the planned return route for the Archduke’s motorcade. (The story that Princip went to Schiller’s to order a sandwich is probably a myth.)

Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the motorcade proceeded to City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand couldn’t conceal his anger. When the mayor (who’d been riding in a lead car and was still unaware of the bomb attempt) tried to begin his official greeting, the Archduke interrupted, “Lord Mayor, what is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and someone throws a bomb at me. This is outrageous!” However, Sophie whispered something in her husband’s ear and he regained his composure, bidding the mayor to finish his speech and then giving his own prepared speech in return. Next came the presentation of local worthies including Muslim, Christian, and Jewish community leaders, followed by an official reception, where Franz Ferdinand tried to make light of the assassination attempt, joking, “Today we shall get a few more little bullets.” By 10:45am, the meet-and-greet was over and they were on their way again.

Wikimedia Commons

At this point, the itinerary called for the Archduke to attend another reception at a local museum, but instead he gallantly insisted on visiting the hospital to see the military adjutants, Merizzi and Boos-Waldeck, who were being treated for injuries sustained in the bomb attempt. The original plan had the motorcade turning right on Franz Josef Street, the shortest route to both the hospital and museum, but the Archduke’s security team, fearing more assassins might be lying in wait along this route, decided to change things up and take the long way round, back down Appel Quay. They also switched the order of the cars, with the mayor and chief of police in the lead car and the Archduke, Sophie, and Governor Potiorek in the second. Count von Harrach insisted on riding on the left running board to shield the Archduke from the south (river) side of the Quay, where the last attack had originated.  

Unfortunately, the driver of the lead car either wasn’t informed of the change in plans or simply forgot, and mistakenly turned right on Franz Josef Street, as called for in the original itinerary. Lojka, apparently confused, also began turning but Potiorek told him to stop, then called out to the lead car to turn around so they could resume their journey along the correct route. As the driver of the lead car began to maneuver about in the narrow street, Princip, still standing in front of Schiller’s delicatessen, was astonished to see his target sitting in the back of the second car, just five paces away. Without hesitation he stepped forward and fired two shots, hitting the Archduke in the neck and Sophie in the lower abdomen. Chaos ensued as a crowd of bystanders attacked Princip and wrestled him to the ground, while Lojka backed up to get away from the melee. Harrach, who was still clinging to the other side of the car, later recounted:

As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, “For God's sake! What has happened to you?” At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees. I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for the children!” At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, “It is nothing!” His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, “It’s nothing!” Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor's residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.

In the days to come, all the conspirators except Mehmedbašić were apprehended, and anti-Serb riots broke out in Bosnia, as Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims took the opportunity to loot their neighbors’ homes and businesses. Further afield European public opinion was sympathetic to the Archduke and Austria-Hungary: Then, as now, terrorist attacks or “outrages” were viewed as barbaric and counterproductive, and newspapers like Britain’s Daily Mirror stirred readers’ emotions by dwelling on the Archduke’s “pathetic last words to his wife” and the “poignant fate” of their three orphaned children following the “ghastly tragedy.” Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was hosting the British fleet’s visit to Kiel, blanched on hearing the news: He considered the Archduke and Sophie personal friends.

Wikimedia Commons / Chronicaling America 

But ironically, the first response in Vienna was a secret (or not so secret) feeling of relief. While no one was happy that Franz Ferdinand was dead, exactly, the court had long been perturbed by his plans to reform Austria-Hungary by either adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs or—even more radically—transforming it into a federal state. Both options would have met with bitter opposition in the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, where the Magyar aristocrats would see their influence diminished, and this looming conflict threatened to tear the fragile empire apart. Thus, the elderly Emperor Franz Josef displayed a strange combination of horror and resignation when he was informed of his headstrong nephew’s demise:

On hearing the news… the Emperor collapsed into the armchair at his desk as if struck by a thunderbolt. He remained motionless for a long time. At the end he rose, paced the room a prey to the most violent agitation, his eyes rolling with terror. “Horrible!... Horrible!...” was the only word which escaped his lips. At last he seemed to have somewhat recovered his self control, for he exclaimed suddenly as if speaking to himself: “The Almighty is not mocked!... A Higher Power has restored that order which I, unfortunately, was not able to maintain.”

In the same vein, the Imperial ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, confided to the former German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow that the assassination was “a dispensation of Providence,” as the Archduke’s ascent to the throne “might have given rise to serious conflict, perhaps even civil war…”  

In keeping with this attitude, and the court’s contempt for the Archduke’s morganatic wife, the funeral arrangements were very modest: There were few signs of public mourning as the couple’s remains arrived back in Vienna on July 2, and practically no one attended the ceremonial lying-in-state in the Hofburg palace or the funeral at the Archduke’s rural retreat at Artstetten on July 3. In the crowning act of petty cruelty, Lord Chamberlain Prince Alfred of Montenuovo even forbade the Archduke’s three orphaned children (now stripped of all privileges, as the offspring of a morganatic union) from saying goodbye to their dead parents.

Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

But this didn’t mean his death couldn’t serve some purpose. After years of Serbian defiance, the assassination provided a perfect opportunity to settle accounts with the Slavic kingdom by force, as the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, had so frequently advocated. This wasn’t just about avenging a single crime: The time had come to reverse the tide of Slavic nationalism, which posed an existential threat to the multiethnic empire. In short, war was the only option, even at risk of a wider conflict with Serbia’s great Slavic patron, Russia. In a meeting with his staff on June 29, 1914, Conrad outlined the case he would shortly present to Emperor Franz Josef, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold, and Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza:

Austria-Hungary cannot let the challenge pass with cool equanimity nor, after the blow on the one cheek, offer the other in Christian meekness, neither is it a case for a chivalrous encounter with “poor little” Serbia, as she likes to call herself, nor for atonement for murder – what is now at issue is the strictly practical importance of the prestige of a Great Power… The Sarajevo outrage has toppled over the house of cards built up with diplomatic documents… the Monarchy has been seized by the throat and forced to choose between letting itself be strangled and making a last effort to defend itself against attack.

Two people were dead; millions more would soon follow.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: July 4 in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 312th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 4, 1918: CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE DAY IN FRANCE

In July 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, there were just 20,000 American soldiers in France—a rounding error compared to the French Army and British Expeditionary Force, with around 2 million men each. One year later, however, the picture had changed dramatically: By the end of July 1918 there were 1.2 million American soldiers in France, a figure that would rise to over 2 million by the war’s end in November 1918.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans billeted in French villages near the front, undergoing crash training in the French countryside, operating a vast logistics network connecting French ports of disembarkation to the “forward zone,” or relaxing on leave in big cities and scores of provincial towns, in many places France seemed completely transformed, to the degree that more than one observer remarked that by the end of the war Paris had become “an American city.”

U.S. supply routes in France, World War I
Erik Sass

While this was obviously an exaggeration, the influx of Americans was yet another culture shock for ordinary people in France, especially in rural areas unused to seeing visitors of any stripe—even from other parts of France—before the war. Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, wrote home on July 9, 1918, describing the sudden change in the small French village where he was stationed:

“For the last three days we’ve been surrounded by American soldiers (our blue streets changed in a short summer night to khaki color); they are simply all over the place—sitting against the houses, sleeping under the hedges, walking up and down and across the roads. When the café opens they rush in and get “lit up” and dance and sing and make improper proposals to the “doll” who brings them their sarsaparilla … They make a noise they call French.”

U.S. forces in Europe, World War I
Erik Sass

On July 4, 1918—just a few days after America’s victorious fighting debut at Belleau Wood had helped turned the tide of the fourth German offensive of that year—French soldiers and civilians across the entire country celebrated America’s Independence Day in almost hysterical fashion, apparently spontaneously but with plenty of encouragement from the national, provincial, and local governments. The U.S. flag was ubiquitous, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American author living in France:

“Everywhere, even in the quiet and deserted streets of the other quarters, were the American flags. There was no shop too small to show one. Bonnes on the way to market had the Stars and Stripes on their market baskets. Every taxi cab was decorated with the flag … It floated on the tram-cars and the omnibuses, it hung out of almost every window, and at the entrance of the big apartment houses … Crippled soldiers distributed tiny flags on all the streets.”

Paris was the epicenter of this countrywide fete, probably one of the few instances in history when one country celebrated another country’s national day with as much enthusiasm, or even more, as the natives. The celebrations in the French capital focused on a parade by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers who had just forced the Germans from Belleau Wood near the Marne, as part of the successful Allied defense against the third and fourth German offensives in May and June, and received a deafening reception from a crowd of several hundred thousand Parisians (top, the Marines on parade). Elizabeth Ashe, a chief nurse with the Red Cross, participated in the July 4 parade and described the event:

“The 4th celebration in Paris made that day a never-to-be-forgotten one for those who were privileged to take part in the ceremonies. For a week before we watched with the deepest interest the preparations which were made all over the city, in fact all over France. The Stars and Stripes decorated every building … Our flag was placed in the center, flanked on each side by French flags … Our splendid Marines got the ovation they deserved.”

Ashe and her subordinates joined the parade:

“To our delight the nurses were asked by the French government to march in the parade. It was the first time women have ever marched in a parade in Paris … I carried the flag, it was the proudest moment of my life, in fact don’t think I ever had that proud feeling before. But when we fell in line behind the Marines, our band playing Dixie and I held that banner on high the cheers of the crowd, “Vive l’Amerique,” I really felt that I had reached the supreme moment of my life … every now and then someone would dart from the crowd, saying: ‘I want to touch that flag.’”

However, as in the case of other combatant nations, it would be inaccurate to attribute undiluted patriotism and martial spirit to Americans involved in the war. Many American soldiers and civilian volunteers headed for the war zone nervously anticipated how their own personalities might change once they came face to face with the brutal reality of warfare. Others rejected the war outright on religious or moral grounds. “This whole business, far from being one of my choice, [is] by no means in accord with my bringing up or education,” wrote Donald E. Carey, an American soldier at Camp Custer on July 2, 1918. Another American soldier, Emmet Britton, a first lieutenant, worried that hatred would scar him psychologically:

“Right now I bear no personal hate toward the Hun but more of the feeling that I have had when sitting on a court-martial. The Hun has done wrong, therefore he must be punished. But no bitterness is in my soul and if I can fully do my duty without it entering into my heart I pray to God that I may do so. For bitterness is too liable to warp one’s outlook on life so that none of the beautiful things may be enjoyed.”

At the same time, Americans already serving in France found themselves undergoing their own personal transformations, as they remembered the reasons they initially enlisted and compared these with their subsequent experiences and outlook once in France. In a letter home on May 30, 1918, Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, noted that he had gained a firmer grasp on the reasons for U.S. participation in the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson had explained:

“Would I be content to see the war end in a German victory tomorrow? It would mean the end of all this misery and suffering, an end of sleepless nights, an end of crawling slowly thru pitch blackness alone and badly frightened, an end of being 3000 miles from home and in a strange land. But we have been long enough in France to have caught the Frenchman’s infectious love of his country and his hatred for the Boches and I decided then that if only France could be saved, if only the Germans’ wrongs could be avenged, I would gladly endure the discomfort, fears, and hardships of war for five more years. When we enlisted it was from no love of France and not from any poignant hatred of the Germans. It was a duty, a duty to be accepted gladly because thru its performance we should see new sights and experience thrills and strange sensations. Tonight all this is changed; the cause of France has become our own real cause and her hatred has become our own real hatred. We are no longer supernumeraries in a show; we are part of the cast itself.”

These feelings of affection for France were hardly universal, however, as Americans expressed a range of feelings about the host country they were now fighting to defend. Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering in YMCA canteens, described American attitudes (strongly colored by primitive conditions in rural France, as well as inclement French winter weather) in January 1918:

“Altogether we are inclined to take very pessimistic view at present of our surroundings. ‘This land is a thousand years behind the times,’ is the reiterated comment, and who can blame them, having seen nothing of France but these tiny primitive mud-and-muck villages? ‘It ain’t worth fightin’ for. Why if I owned this country I’d give it to the Germans and apologize to ‘em.’”

On the other hand, many Americans enjoyed new-found affinities with other Allies, particularly English-speaking soldiers from the British dominions Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the latter two designated ANZAC troops). According to observers from both hemispheres, Americans seemed to get along especially well with Australians. Kenneth Gow, an American officer, wrote home:

“I like the Britishers, particularly the Australians. The officers are all gentlemen. The Englishman has a reserve very hard to break through, but once it is down he is very much a human being … The Australians seem to be the particular cronies of all the American troops. They are more like ourselves than any of the other allies.”

In the same vein, Caspar Burton, an American officer, wrote home in September 1918, “The Americans and the Australians, I venture to remark, hit off better than any two forces in this whole war.”

Conversely, sectional tensions between soldiers from different parts of the United States persisted once in Europe, pitting northerners against southerners but also easterners against westerners. Emmet Britton, from California with the 363rd Regiment, wrote home disdainfully of being forced to bunk with signals officers from the East Coast on July 28, 1918:

“After five minutes I told them all to go to h—l and walked out hearing one of them say, ‘he must be one of those rough persons from that Western camp.” I turned around and told him he was ‘— right.’ Since then three other doughboys have joined me in misery and we are down in one corner, and the rest of the barracks have declared an armistice, but will have nothing to do with us—which just suits as, as they are all from the eastern states and don’t talk our talk.”

Overall, many diaries and letters home written by American soldiers and civilians, while acknowledging the horrors of war, express positive feelings about the conflict and their own roles in it, probably reflecting the fact that their participation was recent enough to retain the sense of novelty and adventure which had long ago worn off for European troops. Bowerman wrote on June 28, 1918:

“Say what you will, and admitting that war is a terrible thing, it still has its compensations for those who live. What has the war done for me? This—I have traveled in a ‘far country’; I have partially learned another language; I have met all manners and breeds of men and have learned true human values … I am living in a time when history is being made and am doing my infinitesimal ‘bit’ to help make it.”

Similarly, Mildred Aldrich, the American author retired in France who had endured four years of war (albeit as a civilian), expressed a common sentiment that the war, for all its misery, had led to a heightened appreciation of existence among those who managed to survive. “It is a great disaster. Of course it is,” she wrote. “But we are all terribly alive.”

PERILOUS CROSSINGS

As more and more Americans arrived in France, with monthly embarkations at U.S. ports peaking in July 1918 at 308,350, millions of young American men (and tens of thousands of young women volunteering as nurses, drivers, telephone operators, or canteen workers) had their first experience of what was, in prewar years, a literal rite of passage: the ocean journey to Europe. Now, though, there was nothing glamorous about it, as the specter of German U-boat warfare stalked the Atlantic.

Shipping net losses, World War I
Erik Sass

True, the Allies were making significant progress in the battle against the undersea scourge. A wide range of measures had helped turn the tide against German U-boats, including the implementation of the convoy system, with groups of troop and cargo transports heavily guarded by Allied warships and airships, which employed evasive tactics such as sudden, unpredictable shifts in direction. Other methods included increased patrols, submarine nets, and minefields to make key chokepoints impassable to subs, most notably in the Dover Strait at the eastern end of the English Channel; new technology like hydrophones and depth charges; and more controversial, unproven measures like “dazzle” camouflage, intended to confuse enemy U-boat commanders observing surface ships through periscopes (below, the U.S. transport Leviathan).

U.S.S. Leviathan in dazzle camouflage, WWI
Naval History and Heritage Command, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanks to this piecemeal strategy (below, an Allied convoy) and massive industrial mobilization, by the second quarter of 1918, greatly expanded American and British shipbuilding outweighed the total tonnage lost to U-boats, and the margin soared in the second half of the year. On July 4 alone, American shipyards launched an incredible 500,000 tons of new shipping (although much of this was a propaganda exercise organized with help from the U.S. Committee of Public Information, with prior launchings delayed and a large number of renovated ships included to reach the impressive total).

Convoy approaching Brest, WWI
Robert W. Neeser, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, Allied shipping was still under serious threat. Available British merchant tonnage was almost 5 million tons below its pre-war figure, while the French merchant fleet was down by a million tons and Italy’s merchant fleet, a key component in the Mediterranean shipping network, had lost a third of its total.

U.S. merchant marines in Europe, WWI
Erik Sass

These losses were somewhat offset by the confiscation of Central Powers vessels, the questionably legal requisitioning of neutral shipping from countries like the Netherlands; and America’s sprawling shipbuilding program. But the fact remained that the world’s total stock of available shipping was about 5 million tons lower in 1918 than 1915, a 10 percent decline—enough to massively impair the global logistics system in wartime, as many ships were forced to return from the warzone “in ballast,” contributing to overall inefficiency.

World merchant marine tonnage, WWI

At the same time, the Germans remained committed to an aggressive U-boat strategy to the end, in hopes of disrupting the transportation of American troops to the battlefields of France as well as deepening material privation among soldiers and civilians alike in Britain and France. As noted, the direst phase for the Allies had now passed, but U-boat production rose steadily into the last months of the war, reflecting Germany’s undiminished industrial might, meaning that the German U-boat fleet was at its largest in the final months of the war, with 177 in service in September 1918 compared to 166 a year before.

WWI submarine production
Erik Sass

Thus, the Atlantic crossing, usually a romantic experience or tedious necessity before the war, was nerve-wracking and perilous to the very end of the war (below, German submarine U-38, commanded by Wilhelm Canaris, later head of German military intelligence in the Second World War). By 1918 passenger ships had fallen under the same military discipline as troop transports, beginning with strict secrecy surrounding boarding and time of departure, to frustrate enemy spies believed to be reporting sailings to Berlin or directly to the U-boats via wireless—but they didn’t always enjoy the protection of the convoy system. William Edgar, an American trade journalist visiting Britain, remembered boarding ship in an unnamed American port in summer 1918:

“A hot night at an Atlantic port, with a violent thunderstorm preceding it, which failed to cool the air … It is no longer easy to embark on an Atlantic liner; all sorts of formalities must be complied with before one gains access to the ship. The place of embarkation is very quiet, and no friends are permitted to come down to say good-bye; they are not even told the ship’s name. Once aboard, it is impossible to return ashore … No one knows just when it will sail; there is an air of secrecy and mystery over the whole proceeding.”

German U-boat U38, World War I
Oberleutnant zur See Hans Wendlandt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Edgar then reported the ambient anxiety aboard ship as it raced at top speed, unaccompanied, across the Atlantic:

“By night the suspense becomes more acute, for the preoccupation of daily pursuits is absent. All are ordered below early, and the long evenings begin. The ports are painted black inside and out, and are closed when sunset comes; not a ray of light is permitted to escape from the ship to mark her course for the watchful and dreaded enemy. Below, in the brightness of one’s cabin, it is very still and silent; the muffled throb of the engines if felt and dimly heard … The ship is a hunted fugitive on the face of the waters, ever pursued from beneath.”

Most passengers necessarily adopted a somewhat fatalistic attitude and found that there were still things to enjoy in the ocean voyage, including the beauty of nature. Heber Blankenhorn, an American intelligence officer, described crossing the Atlantic in July 1918:

“I have seen stars overhead as I slept on deck and enjoyed magnificent sunrises. A deal of routine eats up our time, and brainless matters like sleep, meals, [and] drills consume the days. The ship at night rides like a great ghost, without a ray of light; stairs and companions are blind dark, with here and there an eerie purplish bulb to mark corners, but giving no light.”

U.S.S. President Lincoln, WWI
U.S. Naval Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The feelings of anxiety were certainly justified. Although the number of ships sunk was dropping, with dozens of U-boats at sea at any one time, a significant proportion of ships were still sent to the bottom, including some protected by convoys. Edouard Isaacs, a U.S. Navy officer captured by the German submarine U-90, recalled the sinking of the U.S.S. President Lincoln (a requisitioned German passenger liner, above) on May 31, 1918:

“We were finishing breakfast. Two bells had just struck. Suddenly the ship was rocked by a double explosion, the second following the first with scarcely a perceptible interval between … As I ran aft another explosion shook the ship. The first two had been forward, but this one was aft directly in my path. The force of the explosion crushed in No. 12 lifeboat and threw it up on deck not 10 feet from where I stood, but only showered me with water … At 10 minutes past nine I received the report that holds No. 5 and No. 6 were flooded and the water approaching No. 1 deck. I reported this over the telephone to the captain, who ordered me to abandon ship. At 9:15 all hands aft were off the ship in lifeboats and on rafts. The main deck was then within a few inches of the sea … In fact some waves were already washing over the deck … At 9:30 we were well clear, and the old ship, turning over gently to starboard, put her nose in the air and went down. As the waters closed over her we rose and gave three cheers for the President Lincoln.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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12 Facts About Born on the Fourth of July
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The effects of the Vietnam War reverberated for years after it ended, both in the lives of the people who'd fought or lost loved ones and in our popular entertainment. One man forever changed by the war was Oliver Stone, the maverick director who served as an Army infantryman from 1967 to 1968 and subsequently made three movies set in 'Nam: Platoon (1986) won him a Best Director Oscar; Heaven & Earth (1993) fizzled with critics and audiences; but in between was Born on the Fourth of July (1989), a star-spangled Tom Cruise vehicle that earned Stone another Oscar and Cruise his first Best Actor nomination. Here are a dozen items of interest about this turning point in both men’s careers.

1. AL PACINO ALMOST PLAYED RON KOVIC.

This was in 1978, when Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic first wrote the screenplay based on Kovic's 1976 book. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) was going to direct it; he dropped out and was replaced by TV director Dan Petrie; and then, less than a week before shooting was set to begin, the German financiers behind the project got cold feet and pulled out. Stone later said that while Pacino would have been great, he had qualms about the then-38-year-old actor being too old for the part. (Tom Cruise was 27 when he played the role.)

2. KOVIC HAS A SILENT CAMEO.

Ron Kovic in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

He can be seen in the parade at the beginning of the film, playing the wheelchair-bound soldier who flinches at the sound of firecrackers. 

3. CHARLIE SHEEN'S FEELINGS WERE HURT.

Charlie Sheen, who had starred in Stone's previous Vietnam blockbuster, Platoon, believed Stone was going to cast him in Born on the Fourth of July, too, and said (in 2011) that Stone had flat-out told him the part was his. When Cruise was cast instead, Sheen heard the news not from Stone but from his own brother, Emilio Estevez. Sheen said he was "hurt ... I wouldn't have cared if Oliver had called me personally, based on what we'd been through." Stone didn't respond to Sheen's claim, but news outlets in 1989 reported that Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage had also been considered for the role. 

4. THEY CONSIDERED ACTUALLY PARALYZING TOM CRUISE.

Stone found a nerve agent that would paralyze Cruise for a few days, and Cruise was open to the idea of using it. But the studio's insurance company—spoil sports—nixed it.  

5. CRUISE PREPARED FOR THE ROLE BY USING A WHEELCHAIR FOR A WHILE.

Wanting to relate to Kovic's experience as much as possible, Cruise got himself a wheelchair and role-played for weeks, even staying "in character" when doing media interviews and going to studio meetings. He also accompanied Kovic on public outings to see how a pair of paraplegics were treated. (They were once asked to leave a store because their wheelchairs were leaving marks on the floor.) 

6. VIETNAM WAS THE PHILIPPINES AND LONG ISLAND WAS DALLAS.

Shooting on location in Vietnam wasn't an option (U.S.-Vietnamese relations were still a bit frosty), so Stone used the Philippines as a stand-in. (That's where the Mexico scenes were shot, too.) As for the scenes set in Ron's Long Island hometown and at the Republican convention in Miami, those were all shot in Dallas—not far from places Stone would soon revisit to make JFK

7. KOVIC WAS SO MOVED BY THE FILM HE GAVE CRUISE HIS BRONZE STAR.

Kovic had been skeptical when Cruise was first cast, but was soon won over by the actor's commitment to the role and his sincerity. When the film was finished, Kovic gave Cruise his Bronze Star as a token of his admiration. 

8. UNIVERSAL PAID $500,000 TO MAKE ONE SCENE BIGGER.

Tom Cruise in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The film ends at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, with Ron about to give a speech. After seeing a rough cut of the movie, Universal ordered that the scene be re-shot with a larger crowd—6000 extras instead of the 600 Stone had used. It cost $500,000, but was accomplished in one day at L.A.'s Forum arena. 

9. STONE LATER APOLOGIZED TO A POLICE DEPARTMENT.

In the film, Ron is shown being beaten up and arrested at an anti-war demonstration in Syracuse, New York. In real life, Kovic had not attended that event, which was peaceful and was not broken up by police (though others were; Stone had consolidated several incidents into one). After complaints from the Syracuse Police Department, Stone reportedly sent a letter of apology in March 1990. 

10. KOVIC'S VISIT TO THE FAMILY OF THE SOLDIER HE KILLED WAS FICTIONAL.

One of the most emotional sequences in the film is when Kovic travels to Georgia to meet the parents and widow of the soldier he accidentally killed in Vietnam. In real life, though Kovic expressed his remorse to the family publicly in his book, he never met them. Apologizing via a memoir isn't very cinematic, though, so Stone and Kovic invented a face-to-face scene. 

11. STONE AND CRUISE WORKED FOR NEXT TO NOTHING.

The director and star were both so enthusiastic about the film that they agreed to keep production costs low by forgoing their usual high salaries (Cruise's especially) in exchange for a percentage of the profits. It paid off. The film cost about $18 million to make and grossed $161 million worldwide. 

12. ITS TELEVISION DEBUT WAS DELAYED BY A REAL WAR.

Tom Cruise and Willem Dafoe in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

As you can imagine, it took a lot of work to make Born on the Fourth of July suitable for broadcast on network television. CBS had a version ready to air in early 1991, barely a year after the film's theatrical debut, but called it off because of the impending Persian Gulf War. It finally aired in January 1992. 

Additional Sources: Oliver Stone's DVD commentary "Cruise at the Crossroads," Rolling Stone 

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