200 Plus

Deadly Sinking of the Carolina

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 06, 2018

As the sun set on June 2, 1918, the U-151 had finished its historic day off the coast of New Jersey. It had destroyed six allied ships, including the liner SS Carolina, and left nearly 450 people scattered in 18 lifeboats along the Jersey Shore. The victims in each of the lifeboats would eventually tell their stories, but it was those from the Carolina which revealed the true gravity of the ordeal since the ship was attacked just before dark and most on board were not experienced sailors.

George Howard was a steward who had been on the Carolina for about one month.

“It was Sunday afternoon at six o’clock that we heard the first shot. We paid no attention to it, thinking some American battle ship was practicing nearby. Close after came a second. Immediately after a third boom was heard, and a shell whistle overhead. Then we discovered the submarine. Immediately there was a rush to the boats. Apparently without any orders from the captain or other officers the boats were loaded, luckily without mishap.”

The captain of the U-boat, as was his custom, had allowed the Carolina to be abandoned before sinking it.

“We had pulled off some distance when a fireman who had been left behind called for help. The German commander told the nearest boat to rescue him and then recommenced firing. Seven or eight shells were fired into the Carolina before she sank. The first few set her afire so that she was blazing as she went down. … Immediately upon her sinking the German ensign broke out from the halyards of the submarine, replacing two signal flags that had been there when we first sighted her.

“The submarine remained on the surface during the whole time of the sinking. She cruised in and out among the lifeboats, the men on her or her deck gazing curiously at us. … We were in lifeboat No. 1, the only one with a motor in it. We towed the other lifeboat through the night until about half-past one o’clock Monday morning, our tow line separated and some of the men reported that the other lifeboat had capsized.”

The lifeboat was now in the middle of a series of violent thunderstorms.

“We fought and scrambled like mad for our very lives. During the night the body of the dead stewardess floated alongside me and I took off the life preserver she had been wearing, now useless to her. … At dawn we were able to take our bearings and succeeded in getting the boat bailed out. Luckily there had been four oars tied to the boat, so we were able to continue rowing once we righted her. But after we had picked up the girl and three men we were all too exhausted to move.”

The lifeboat continued to head west.

“We passed the floating bodies of the others who had been in our boat, but we were too weak to take them in. We rowed along in that fashion until about noon we picked (up) boxes of crackers. These were eaten sparingly because they were so dry that many of them would have made our thirst unbearable. … Revived somewhat by the food, such as it was, we plodded along until half-past two o’clock, when we were picked up by the British tramp Appleby.”

Twenty-year-old Lillian Dickerson was on the last lifeboat to leave the Carolina.

“I was down in my room dressing for dinner when there was a loud report. … It was then just ten minutes past six o’clock. I ran up on deck, but everything was quiet. Then there were two more shots. Both of them fell about sixty yards astern. … I ran forward to where the captain was – he was standing by the bridge. ‘What is it’ I inquired, and then he turned to me and said it was a German submarine.

“There was no confusion at all: nobody could believe, of course, it was a submarine. We all went to our respective boats – on my side of the boat there was no discreditable conduct. We women all got into our boat. There were eight women and eighteen men, eight of whom were of the crew. The boat was then lowered to within twenty-five of the water.”

Manually launching a lifeboat was not an easy task. As it was being lowered, “Suddenly the boat – which was a seagoing dory – tilted to one side. There had been two men at each end caring for the davits, but one of them had lost his balance and fell overboard, the rope slipped from the other man’s hands and our boat fell into the water.

“Thanks to the tin air compartments the boat soon righted itself, but there was more than two feet of water in her. We bailed it out and then the men began to row.”

Dickerson and her boat finally got clear of the Carolina.

“At twelve minutes past seven o’clock her deck guns opened again. She fired six shots in the next ten minutes which hit the Carolina amidships, the whole ship bursting into flame. The ship did not blow up. She burned for half an hour and then shortly after eight o’clock sank below the water’s edge.

“There were ten lifeboats in the party. … There was a motor boat ahead of us, which gave three of us a tow, but the rope snapped in a few minutes, leaving us to the mercy of the sea.” In the darkness, “The water got rougher and rougher and at half-past ten o’clock that night we got caught between two thunder storms which drenched us to the skin. The hawsers which linked us to another lifeboat snapped and we were left entirely alone. … It was very cloudy at dawn and during the morning we heard gunshots coming from a distance. Then we came upon a bunch of wreckage, among which we found a box containing six blue shirts, which the women put on to keep warm.

“We worked in shifts at the oars, each taking two hours at them and two hours for rest. There was a chance to get a little sleep occasionally – the women slept during the two nights in the water up to their waists.

“On the second night we saw a ship passing astern and we sent up five rockets, but could not seem to attract their attention. We knew there was nothing we could do but row, so we got back to the oars. At dawn we saw white points capping the water – Heaven only knows what it was – we supposed it was Atlantic City, and we were right.”

The New York Herald of June 5 reported what must have been one of the strangest scenes in the history of the Jersey Shore.

“Lifeboat No. 5, of the Carolina’s complement … came ashore on the beach at Atlantic City at the foot of South Carolina avenue, at two o’clock yesterday afternoon. … The survivors were so wholly exhausted that life guards, bathers who thronged the beach and participants in the Shriners’ parade, which was passing at the time, rushed into the surf and out to the battered lifeboat, as it rose on a swell and rode safely to the beach on the crest of a huge comber. The rescuers dragged the survivors bodily from the boat and carried them ashore in their arms.”

To add to the moment when World War I literally came to the Jersey Shore, the Herald noted, “The Lulu Temple Band, of Philadelphia, which had been leading the Shriners parade along the Boardwalk, struck up ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and thousands of visitors who had hurried to the scene from hotels and boarding houses tossed their hats into the air and cheered. Their enthusiasm seemed to put new life into the rescued, although many of them were swooning from reaction after their terrible voyage in the frail little Yawl.”

For some survivors, the anthem would always have a special meaning.

“One fragile woman about thirty years old fainted as a muscular life guard lifted her from the yawl and ran with her to the tent. Dr. Bomart, chief surgeon of the beach forces, brought her a stimulant. Just at that moment the notes of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ floated into the tent. The woman, rising suddenly and leaning on her elbow, screamed hysterically, ‘We’re safe, safe at last!’ Then she sank back again into unconsciousness.”

As more stories from survivors began to appear in the nation’s press, one question began to surface: Where was the U.S. Navy?

Next Week: Get the U-151!


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