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Death Strikes From Friendly Fire

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 22, 2018

One of the most dreaded phrases for the morale of the military is “friendly fire,” when death and destruction are brought down on helpless comrades by their own forces or allies. One of World War I’s most distressing incidents of friendly fire took place in August 1918, northeast of Barnegat Light.

The story begins with the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in 1917. Fear of U-boat attacks led the Navy to construct a class of 110-foot wooden “submarine chasers,” armed with one gun and depth charges, and equipped with listening gear. One of these was the SC-209, built in Camden and delivered to the Navy in early 1918. It was manned by a crew made up mostly of naval reservists from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

After the sinking of the tanker Frederick R. Kellogg off the Jersey Shore, the Navy initiated a new tactic. Herbert Stone commanded one of the sub chasers.

“When orders were issued by the Bureau of Operations at Washington, about the middle of August, 1918, for the formation of a special scout and hunt group to operate off the Atlantic Coast in search of the elusive German U-boats which had been taking toll of American shipping …While up to that time the enemy had sunk something over thirty ships right at our doors, he had been very careful not show himself to armed naval vessels and was content to take the unarmed and peaceful merchant ships bound up and down the coast. … The squadron chosen for this work rendezvoused at Norfolk, Va., and consisted of nine chasers. … Each boat was fitted with the latest listening devices, wireless telephones and night signaling systems, and each carried an extra supply of 400-lb ‘ash cans.’ … As soon as all the vessels reported the squadron proceeded up the coast in hunt formation, stopping and listening every hour, but hearing nothing, but the slow beat of an occasional merchantman’s engine. … The squadron operated in groups of three boats each, the boats of each group being in line, about 400 yards apart, and the groups spaced so as to cover as wide an area as possible. Orders were very strict as to lights and none were to be shown under any circumstances. … (R)unning without lights is always a nerve-racking operation on a dark night, especially on a small vessel which does not loom against the skyline as do the big transports, and so cannot be seen looking down against a background of sea from the deck of a large ship.”

The Army transport Felix Taussig was inbound from France and its crew was on edge, having heard there was a U-boat operating off Jersey. Capt. Wade also told of an unnerving incident.

“On Monday, August 26th, at 10 P.M. Taussig sighted large camouflaged steamer on her starboard side about one point forward of beam at a distance of about 2 miles. … Taussig then changed course in order to haul away from steamer and started to zig zag. Steamer followed each of Taussig manouvers, at the same time working blinker light placed at stern of vessel, and sending the letters T.N.T. at intervals of approximately 10 minutes. … The steamer was not recognized by any one aboard the Taussig. Captain Wade of the Taussig believes that the signals aboard steamer may have been meant for enemy submarines which might have been in the vicinity. … A small sailing vessel was sighted coming from the north which crossed strange steamers bow headed in Taussig’s direction. Sailing vessel afterwards disappeared astern of strange steamer. … The above incidents are mentioned as having aroused suspicions of gun crew and as having brought them to the high tension which precipitated their action in subsequent event.”

According to Stone, “When the listener on No. 188 reported the beat of a steamer’s engine about two points off the starboard bow, both of the other chasers also reporting the sound on approximately the same bearing. Standard speed was resumed and the group proceeded on its course. About 3:10 a.m. the lookout in the crowsnest of No. 188 reported a large steamer two points on the starboard bow headed toward the squadron.”

Henry Chambers commanded the gun crews on board the transport.

“Second officer reported to me that lookout had just sang out that there was an object, resembling a submarine, on port beam about 20 ft. away. Captain gave orders to Second officer to sound general alarm. Gun Crews at their stations. The boat sighted was headed in same direction as Taussig with no lights showing. … Forward gun fired four shots quick succession. Vessel sighted showed red light after third shot fired. After light was flashed, ordered cease fire, but forward gun had already fired three shots before order reached them, and fired one more shot just at the time that cease firing was given.”

Chambers summed up the incident.

“After three shots were fired several lights were flashed on in the vicinity where we were shooting and I realized we were firing on a submarine chaser; gave order ‘cease firing,’ but one more shot was fired by forward gun, as they did not receive the order in time, it looked exactly like a submarine. Five shots were fired, four from the forward gun and one from the after gun. The second and fifth shots seemed to be hits. About one minute expired between the firing of the first and last shot. After the fifth shot the object disappeared.”

The Philadelphia Ledger reported on Aug. 27, “American submarine chaser No. 209, operating out of Philadelphia, was mistaken for a submarine. … Seventeen members of her crew, including the commander and the executive officer, are missing. A number of these men are Philadelphians. … (T)he merchant ship was the American steamship Felix Taussig. In the darkness her naval armed guard mistook the chaser for an enemy submarine and opened fire, destroying the little craft before the mistake was discovered.”

While the Navy simply wrote the incident off as a mistake, there were local implications. According to the Tuckerton Beacon of Aug. 29, “George F. Randolph, son of Mr. and Mrs. R.F. Randolph, of Atlantic City and nephew of Geo. F. Randolph, cashier of the Tuckerton Bank, is among the sixteen missing members of the crew of submarine chaser 209. The 209 was sunk by the guns of the American steamship Felix Taussig at 3.15 o’clock Tuesday morning, south of Long Island. The Taussig mistook the chaser for a German submarine in the darkness of the early morning.”

While the Navy was ready to move on, Ensign Randolph’s father wanted people to know his son’s story, and he wrote an open letter.

“My son enlisted in the United States naval reserve, fourth naval district, May 27, 1917, as coxswain and was attached to the sub patrol boat ‘Absegami,’ serving on her for several months. He was then transferred to one of the new sub chasers, No. 209, on which he met his fate. … On May 27, one year from the date of his enlistment he received, on his merits, the commission as ensign U.S.N.R.F. and directly was raised to executive officer on his boat.

“Enroute from New London to a southern port they made a stop at Atlantic City. This was on August 23. My son spent the night at his home, which was the last time we ever saw him.”

On learning of the sinking, the grieving father left Atlantic City.

“In a brief interview with survivors at the Brooklyn navy yard I learned a few details of the disaster. One survivor said: ‘We were in the forward part of the boat, below decks, asleep, when we were wakened by the shooting. We got on deck as soon as we could and on reaching the deck found our boat had been hit and was on fire and sinking so rapidly that she was then all under aft. Our first thoughts were to try to extinguish the flames, but she was sinking so fast we prepared ourselves to jump overboard. While doing this we heard cries in the wreckage of the pilot house and went to the rescue. We found Chief Boatswain’s Mate Thomas B. Haran badly injured and pinned under the wreckage. We succeeded in extricating him and getting him on a life cushion.”

A crewman told the father, “I was at the wheel and Mr. Randolph was with me in the pilot house. Captain Bowes was below asleep, but came up after the first shot and asked what was wrong. I told him a ship was firing on us. Mr. Randolph was trying to attract their attention on the blinker but could get no answer from them. The third shot had been fired when Ensign Randolph went below for something. This is all I remember until helped from the wreckage.”

The father visualized what he believed were his son’s last moments.

“My son … was below when this fourth shot hit the boat and the explosion came and without a doubt killed him with the other 15 noble boys who were asleep in the after part of the boat and whom I am fairly convinced, my son had gone down to warn and to get them out.”

Whether dying going over the top in France or down below off Barnegat Light, the feelings of those left behind are the same: The term “mistake” doesn’t make it any easier.

Next Week: Dying at Camp Dix.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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