We’ve shared a few World War I stories on these pages as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the conflict. This month, we look at the first time a foreign power fired on American territory since the Siege of Fort Texas in 1846. Such action would not be repeated until the terrorist attacks of September 11.
It was 10:30 on a quiet and warm Sunday morning, July 21, 1918 when residents of the Cape Cod town of Orleans suddenly found the war on their doorsteps. A German long-range U-boat, the SM U-156, surfaced and attacked the tugboat Perth Amboy and the string of four barges she was towing south along the outer edge of Cape Cod. The tug was headed to the Chesapeake Bay on the ocean route, rather than the recently opened Cape Cod Canal (perhaps to save the cost of transit through the new waterway). The 15-hundred ton, 213-foot long U-156 opened fire with its two 5.9 inch and 3-5 inch deck guns (eventually, the sub’s crew would fire nearly 150 shells against their helpless target). The U-156 had already caused havoc along the Northeast coast, having sunk a Norwegian steamship off Long Island and laid a minefield southeast of Fire Island, New York that likely resulted in the sinking of the Navy cruiser USS San Diego a few days before the Orleans event.
The first shells overshot the tug and barges and slammed onto the shore and marshland at Nauset Beach (more strikes followed during the course of the attack). The sub’s gunners eventually found their mark and a projectile smashed into the wheelhouse of the Perth Amboy, seriously wounding one crewman. A large crowd soon gathered on the shore to watch the spectacle. Three barges were quickly sunk, but the fourth proved more difficult to send to the bottom. One eyewitness said it was like watching an arcade shooting gallery. Although damaged by some twenty shells, the steel-hulled Perth Amboy remained afloat. In fact, she would one day return to haunt the Germans (more about that later in the story).
Sixteen men, twelve women, and four children aboard the tug and barges quickly took to lifeboats and began rowing three miles to shore as the Germans continued to fire. Members of the Orleans-based Coast Guard Station 40 swung into action, launching a surfboat to assist survivors.
Simultaneously, the lifeboat station captain, Robert Pierce, contacted the nearby Chatham Naval Air Station for help. The locals and summer visitors continued to watch the spectacle from the beach or the porches of oceanfront cottages (apparently, no one was particularly worried about being hit by gunfire as the Germans’ aim wasn’t very accurate). One enterprising resident, a local doctor, even called the Boston Globe and provided a blow-by-blow account to the city desk.
As the lifeboat station crew reached the tug’s captain, James Tapley, who had flown a white flag from the tugboat in hopes of stopping the attack, called on them that all were safely off the tug and barges. Coastguardsman William Moore climbed into a survivors’ lifeboat to administer first aid to helmsman John Bogovich who had suffered a major wound to his arm and shoulder (a Boston doctor later noted that Moore’s efforts had saved the man’s arm). Several other survivors had also received minor injuries. All the survivors reached shore safely, either at Orleans or Nauset Beach just to the north.
Aircraft from the naval air station had been aloft that morning, searching for a Navy dirigible that had been reported missing (it later turned up safely). Located about seven miles from Orleans, the base, in operation for only a few months, was charged with patrolling the area for German submarines. Chatham NAS executive officer, Lt.(jg) Elijah Williams could hear gunfire. It was confirmed moments later when the alert arrived from Orleans.
Williams ordered Ensign Eric Lingard and two crewmen into a Curtis HS-1L seaplane. They arrived over the scene in just a few minutes. Over the noise of the plane’s engine, Lingard called to bombardier Chief Special Mechanic Edward Howard to drop a 100-pound bomb on the submarine. The bomb refused to release from its wing rack. So intent was the sub’s crew on their attack, they didn’t notice the plane until it was almost on them. They scrambled to clear the deck as the Curtis came around for another try. A second attempt to release the bomb failed. At that, bombardier Howard managed to climb out of his position in the plane’s nose, grab onto a strut of the bottom wing and wrench the bomb loose. Down it fell, and hit the sub without a sound. It was a dud. Several of the sub’s crewmen remained on deck to take a few shots at the Navy plane.
It was now a few minutes after 11:00am. A second aircraft, an R-9 seaplane piloted by Chatham base commander Captain Philip Eaton, arrived on the scene. He zeroed in on the U-156, and dropped a bomb, only to see it fail to explode. Another dud! Eaton was so angry he threw a wrench out of the cockpit at the submarine. By now, the Germans had had enough and dove beneath the surface, escaping safety and ending the attack.
The U-156 wasn’t done yet. Capable of a range of as much as 25-thousand miles at minimum speed, the sub headed north to Nova Scotia, where it attacked and sank a number of American fishing boats and a tanker. It also captured a Canadian fishing trawler, manned and armed the vessel and used it to sink seven more fishing boats before finally heading back to Germany. But, it never returned to its base. Its captain, Richard Feldt, five other officers and sixty crewmen were lost around the end of September when the submarine is believed to have struck a mine in the Northern Barrage minefield off Great Britain.
Most of the German long-range submarine activity had been centered off the coast off North Carolina (a favorite hunting ground of U-boats in World War II as well). Three of the six large cruiser/minelayer class boats targeted merchant vessels in the well –traveled sea-lanes. U-151 sank four Allied ships between June 5 and 9, 1918 (the first coastal raid by an enemy warship since the War of 1812). Between August 4 and 6, the U-140 sent four other ships to the bottom including the Diamond Shoals lightship. In a touch of irony, the lightship had originally been stationed off Nantucket and was witness to the 1916 sinking of five enemy merchant ships by the U-53 whose visit to Newport (before America entered the war) we have shared on these pages. U-117 laid a minefield north of Cape Hatteras sinking the British tanker Mirlo. Of course, these few incidents were far out distanced by the havoc wrought along the Atlantic coast by U-boats in World War II.
So, a couple of notes to finish out our tale: Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the attack. All the injured were successfully treated at Boston hospitals. Although the Navy did manage to drive the submarine away, the barges were lost along with their cargo. But, the tugboat survived. The Perth Amboy was repaired and returned to service. She was sold in 1936 to the well known Moran Towing Company in New York where she was renamed the Mary Moran. In 1941, she was transferred to the U.S. Maritime Commission and sent to Europe where she participated in the war effort until she sank in 1945 after colliding with a tanker in the English Channel. In 1920, the Chatham Naval Air Station was closed as part of the post-war military cutbacks. Today, the site is occupied by high-end homes. A small plaque at the end of Strong Island Road commemorates the existence of the station along with some crumbling remains of concrete foundations here and there.
For many years, there has been speculation about why the U-156 was so far north of the favored hunting grounds of the other cruiser/minelayer boats. Planting a minefield off New York was, of course, worthwhile. But was there another part of the mission?
In 1898, the Compagnic Francaise Le Cables Telegraphiques, which had been operating a transatlantic cable since 1879 from Canada to France, placed into service a cable running from Orleans to Brest, France. Messages could be sent directly from the U.S. to France without having to travel via Newfoundland. When America entered the war, a unit of Marines was sent to guard the shorefront cable station. The July 21st incident led many people to speculate that the Germans’ real target was the station and that the tug and its barges just happened to blunder into the attack. Since the U-156 never returned to its base, no one lived to tell the tale or to confirm that there was cable-cutting equipment aboard. However, new historical research now suggests that the cable station was the target all along.
Local organizations are set to observe the centennial in a big way. A new public historic marker commemorating the event has been erected, replacing a wooden marker that stood on private property. The Orleans Historical Society is planning several events in July. Jack Krim, author “Attack on Orleans” and Paul Hodos author of “The Kaiser’s Lost Kreuzer” will present lectures on the attack. Hodos has conducted extensive research that supports the cable station attack theory.
Visit www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org or www.historicorleans.org for lecture details and more information on a planned display about the attack. The Chatham Historical Society and several other organizations are also involved in planning events surrounding the centennial. So, if your plans call for a trip to Cape Cod around the middle of July, you might like to take a trip back in history to learn about those exciting few moments when World War II came quite literally to the shores of America.
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