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U-Boat Takes Americans Captive

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 16, 2018

In May 1918, as American eyes were fixed on sending an Army to France and the Western Front, the German U-boat U-151 was off Cape May bringing the Great War to the East Coast. On the 25th, the U-boat stopped two American ships, and after taking their crews on board, the Germans had placed explosives on them, saving their torpedoes. At this time a third American ship, the schooner Edna, cleared the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Her captain, C.W. Gilmore, recounted, “We heard a gun fired and a little later a shell struck in the water about a half a mile from us. We had heard firing inshore about an hour or so before. About a minute after the first shot there came another shot which fell about 50 feet away. I then ran up the American ensign; he had run up a German flag. He was standing about 4 or 5 miles northwest. I hauled down the jibs and hove to. The submarine then came toward us towing a yawl boat belonging to one of the schooners he had sunk before; finally he came alongside. Two German officers and four men came over the Edna’s railing; they shook hands with us and greeted us just the same as they would have done men on one of their own naval vessels. They ordered us to lower our boat and gave us 10 minutes to abandon ship, saying that they were going to blow her up.”

As Gilmore gathered his belongings, “I noticed that they had placed some little black tubes about 10 inches long and one-half inch in diameter, which looked like sticks of dynamite and which were tied to ropes extended over the side of the vessel abreast of the main hatch.

“Twenty minutes after the German officer and his crew had boarded the schooner, and after I had had time to have everything of value placed in the lifeboat, he ordered us to proceed over to the submarine, and laughingly said: ‘You will find some of your friends over there.’

“Upon being ordered below I found Capt. Sweeney of the Hauppauge and Capt. Holbrook of the Hattie Dunn, who said they and their crews had just been taken aboard the submarine.”

The U-boat commander, Capt. Nostitz, explained his actions.

“I went about my task and forthwith despatched three sailing vessels, from which I was able to disengage myself, as they were not equipped with wireless. I took the crews on board. The negroes were huddled together, the Europeans were put in another compartment. The captains were entertained in the officers’ mess room.”

The captives were interrogated.

“The captains described the attitude prevalent in the United States and were of the opinion that people were everywhere opposed to the war and that every one was shouting against it; that it was, merely, begun in the interests of the money magnates; that the press, however, was agitating strongly for it. The extermination of all that was German in language, etc. is being brought about there. All strikes, no matter where they occur, are being attributed to German intrigue. … The appearance of the U-boat before their very coast will hardly tend to improve the morale of the Americans.”

Still undetected, the U-151 began laying mines at the mouth of the Delaware Bay and along the Jersey Shore. The prisoners were allowed time on deck when the submarine was on the surface, but most of the time they remained below. One of them, H.M. Saunders, remembered, “The food was good. In the morning we’d had rolls and fresh butter. The butter was fine. The bread was black and came in loaves 3 feet long. We had cognac nearly all the time.

“They had three graphophones on board. The members of the crew were cheerful and joked with us, especially after indulging in cognac. They were apparently young fellows and frequently talked of their mothers. The crew expressed great surprise when Capt. Sweeney told them we had shipped 2,000,000 men overseas and had 10,000,000 more as reserves.

“None of the Germans would give us any information as to the number of submarines over here. We were told that the U-151 left Kiel on April 14, 1918; the bread wrappers bore the stamp of April 9. The commanding officer said he expected to remain out about eight weeks.”

Another captive, Enoch Roker, told there was some times of stress.

“During the long days and nights the Germans would amuse themselves by playing the phonograph. They played all sorts of Patriotic airs, including those of the United States. I remember ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’ got on the nerves of one officer when it was reached in a medley and he jerked the record from the machine. The German sailors made themselves agreeable to us. They would teach us German in the evening and we would try to teach them English. When the weather was clear and there were no boats in sight we would go out on deck. But the moment a smudge showed on the horizon a young oiler’s helper they called ‘Younger’ (and could not have been more than thirteen years old) would come up and order us below.”

U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave another purpose for the U-boat’s voyage.

“That the U-151 carried a cable-cutting device is apparently borne out by the statements of Capt. Sweeney, of the Hauppauge, and of Capt. Holbrook, of the Hattie Dunn, describing a mysterious device on the deck of the submarine. … Capt. Holbrook stated that on one occasion when the prisoners were below deck they noticed that the submarine gave a sudden lurch and listed on beam end. He was unable to state the cause of the lurch.”

On May 28, the U-boat was off Barnegat Light when two underwater cables linking New York with South America and Nova Scotia were cut. Meanwhile on shore, questions were being asked, and that same day the Baltimore Sun reported, “Three derelict American schooners were reported by a coasting steamer from the southward at New York on Sunday. The master steamer reported that one derelict was a partly submerged three masted schooner. … A capsized fourmaster, starboard side up and hole about four feet square near the bow. … Soon afterward the three-masted schooner Edna, of Mobile, bound from Philadelphia with gasoline for Havanna, was found in a waterlogged condition. A crew was placed on board and the steamer towed the Edna inside of Five Fathom Bank lightship off the Jersey coast and anchored her.”

The government was quick to dispel any ideas that a German U-boat was off the East Coast, and the next day the Philadelphia Ledger ran, “One of the seven derelicts off the Virginia capes which gave rise to rumors that German submarines or raiders had been operating along the coast recently, was the wreck of a coastal schooner, which crashed into another off Winterquarter shoals, Delaware last week. This was learned at the office of the commandant of this naval district, where it was announced that the wreck had been destroyed by coast guard cutters. … The fate of the crew of the schooner and the extent of the damage to the other was not made known.”

On the 30th, the Wilmington Journal carried a story showing that the Navy’s version was wrong.

“The cause of the abandonment of the schooner Edna, while bound from Philadelphia to Cuba, together with the fate of her crew, remains more of mystery than ever. A survey and an examination by a diver yesterday to determine the condition of the vessel, which was towed into Philadelphia … shows that the break, which is below the water line, was not caused by a projectile fired at long range, but by an internal explosion. … Two other abandoned schooners were reported on Sunday as having been passed by an inward-bound Clyde Line steamer, not far from where the Edna was first seen. … Both vessels appear to have been  punctured (with) large holes in their hulls below the water line, as it is thought a torpedo would have done greater damage. No lifeboats were hanging over the vessels’ sides nor have incoming craft reported having rescued the missing crews.”

Off the Jersey Shore, Saunders and the other captives got some good news.

“The next morning, May 31, the submarine came up, but the day was foggy. Another inbound Norwegian steamer was sighted and the submarine submerged as usual. In the afternoon the submarine rose to the surface again; the prisoners were kept below deck. At this time the commanding officer remarked: ‘If I run across a small vessel I will sacrifice it to put you on board it.’

“During the afternoon the submarine was on the surface from time to time, but every time she sighted anything she would submerge. At one time a steamer came so close to us that the vibration of the propellers could be heard distinctly.”

The U-151 was about to make history, and United States Navy would have to admit to the world that the war was over here.

Next Week: Bloody Sunday.


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