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.
The southbound shipping lanes passing Cape Cod were busy as usual, with the 120-foot steel tug Perth Amboy and its barges—the Lansford, and barges 703, 740 and 766, which carried a cargo of granite (the others were empty)—making their way through. There were 32 people aboard the tug and barges, including four women and five children—captains often sailed with their families. Captain James Tapley had been notified twice of reports of periscopes off the seaward side of the vessel, but these were dismissed, as U-boats usually stayed well out to sea. The tug and her charges stuck to the outer shore of the Cape to avoid the fee of using the canal.
Feldt saw the Perth Amboy and her charges lazily chugging along parallel to the coast of Orleans. He gave the order to open fire—one round hitting Nauset Beach and sending sand shooting skyward. It was the first enemy naval gunfire to hit the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812. As if on cue, a local church bell began ringing out its ominous cadence—it was 10:30 a.m.
Next, shell from U-156’s deck gun hit the tug’s pilothouse, sending flame and debris flying, and also knocking the helmsman John Bogovich unconscious. The round also wrecked the Captain’s quarters, awakening Tapley as other rounds exploded in the sea around him—huge geysers of water soaring skyward. In all about 20 shots were fired at the tug. Tapley gave the order to abandon ship.
Seeing that the Perth Amboy was disabled, Feldt moved on to sink the Lansford, causing Captain Charles Ainsleigh and his family to also abandon ship. The U-156 next fired upon the Seiner Rose two miles away, but she escaped toward shore.
Surfman William Moore was on watch in the tower of USCG Station 40/USLSS Station 12 in Orleans, about 4.5 miles from the Perth Amboy. Moore dashed downstairs and informed Station Keeper Robert Pierce of what was happening. The surfboat was made ready—this was unlike anything Pierce had trained for. Before shoving off, he called the Chatham Naval Air Station and told them what was happening.
When the call came that morning from Station 40, Captain Eaton was cruising a few thousand feet searching for a lost dirigible. Back at the air station, flying boat 1693 was made ready for launch after initial delay in finding the crew—it was a Sunday morning. The plane had spark plug troubles and couldn’t take off. The next flying boat was readied, which too had mechanical troubles, but Eric Lingard and his crew fixed them, and at 10:54 a.m. they took off. They carried one bomb. At about this time, the surfboat had reached the Perth Amboy’s lifeboat and surfmen were administering first aid. They heard the droning of an engine to the south—it was a flying boat from Chatham Naval Air Station.
Lingard piloted his Curtiss HS-1L northward—by his side Ensign Ed Shields, and in front at the bombardiers seat Chief Ed Howard. Charged with dropping the plane’s one Mark IV bomb (120 pounds of TNT—within 100 feet could sink a sub), they had one shot to end the chaos off the Cape’s shores. It was 10:58 a.m., just a half hour after the sub appeared.
Howard gazed below at what unfolded before him: A small lifeboat had just come ashore (Ainsleigh and his family), smoke filled the air from burning vessels, and about 30 men were running around on the deck of U-156—they had spotted the flying boat. The flying boat began a shallow dive. Lingard leveled her off at 800 feet and Howard pulled the trigger; nothing happened. Circling and dropping to 400 feet, again the bomb failed to release. Howard unbuckled his seat belt and climbed out on the wing—one hand on a strut, the other holding the bomb—and dropped it. The bomb hit the water just a few feet from the sub, but it was a dud. Had it exploded, it would have surely destroyed U-156.
Meanwhile, U-156 had fired upon barge 766 and 703, destroying both of them, but not before the crews escaped in their lifeboats. This is the definition of cruiser warfare rules: that subs can’t sink vessels until the crews have escaped. Also by this time, the crew of the Perth Amboy had reached the beach, and safety.
Captain Eaton had returned from his wild goose chase after the dirigible, and upon hearing the news of the failed bombing decided to have a shot at sinking the sub in an R-9 seaplane at 11:15 a.m. This Curtiss aircraft was specifically designed to combat subs. Eaton flew straight for the sub coming in at 500 feet and dropped his bomb—it too splashed close to the sub but was also a dud.
Lingard had been circling during Eaton’s attack and at this time headed for home to alert other vessels about the U-boat. Steaming southeast and out to sea, zig-zagging, U-156 disappeared from sight. It reappeared five minutes later, took one last potshot at Station 40, and then disappeared for good. The attack lasted an hour and a half, and the U-boat had fired 150 rounds at vessels and the shore.
A century later, the historic day is being remembered in Orleans. Several commemorative events are scheduled to take place in July, including a symposium on the attack at Snow Library on July 12 and a centennial ceremony on Nauset Beach July 21. To learn more, visit historicorleans.org.
Mark Wilkins is a Centerville-based historian, writer and lecturer who specializes in maritime and aviation history. In addition to being a contributor to Cape Cod LIFE, he is working on two books on WWI history.