Orleans under fire
The 1918 German submarine attack off the coast of Cape Cod marks the sole attack on U.S. soil during WWI
On a sultry summer’s day in 1918, beachgoers in Orleans packed picnics, rolled up beach blankets and prepared for another fine day by the ocean. In addition to the usual comments about weather, water and local gossip, onlookers were stunned to see a sleek, dark gray U-boat emerge from the briny deep just three miles offshore—one onlooker described the over 200-foot-long submarine as a “big tin whale.” Beachcombers dropped their scallop shells and beach stones, as a thunderous roar echoed off the hazy sky. It was July 21, 1918, and the German submarine U-156 had just opened fire on Cape Cod.
Three years earlier, all of a largely isolationist America had been shocked to learn of the sinking of the Lusitania by a U-boat—killing 126 Americans and galvanizing popular opinion regarding German barbarism and lawlessness. Indeed, President Wilson had used Unrestricted Submarine Warfare as his primary reason to lead the United States into war in 1917. Still, few Americans, let alone Cape Codders, thought the Great War would visit their shores.
In mid-June of 1918, Kapitanleutnant Richard Feldt began his longest and most daring patrol as commander of U-156. His instructions were simple: Once reaching the North American coast, mine and patrol U.S. and Canadian shipping lanes and sink as many ships as possible. The Allies were sending supplies to England and France, but the British blockade prevented any relief for Germany—merchant shipping represented the hunger felt by the German people. U-156 had dropped mines in Long Island Sound, which may have contributed to the sinking of the USS San Diego that struck a mine and sunk in 28 minutes. She then made her way northward in search of merchant shipping.
Harvard grad Eric Lingard was stationed at the newly completed Chatham Naval Air Station overlooking Pleasant Bay, with Captain Phillip Eaton as Commanding Officer—Eaton had been Executive Officer of the Montauk Naval Air Station on Long Island before being transferred to CNAS. The primary objective of the Air Station was to protect shipping lanes, with two planes flying from dawn to dusk.
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