200 Plus

New Torpedo Radio Controlled?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 01, 2018

In August 1918, the U-117 was heading toward the East Coast with orders to lay mines and attack shipping off New Jersey. At the same time the Norwegian steamship Bergensfjord was bound for New York, carrying a ticking time bomb that would ravage all of the United States.

The U-117 appeared off New England on Aug. 10 and attacked the fishing fleet, sinking nine vessels with gunfire and explosives. Two days later it was about 40 miles northeast of Barnegat Light. Capt. George Hansen of the Norwegian ship Sommerstadt told the U.S. Navy his story.

“A little after 8 o’clock on the morning of August 12, 1918, I came out on the bridge, where my chief officer and second officer were at the time. I went over to the port side of the bridge and looked out, and I thought I saw something on the water. I went and took the glasses, but I could not make out what it was. I stood for a few minutes looking through the glasses and then saw a torpedo coming along a little aft from abeam of the ship about 150 fathoms away.

“As soon as I saw the torpedo I stopped the vessel and ordered the engines reversed and full speed astern. The torpedo went under the vessel, barely missing it, a little on the fore part of the bridge, and came up on the other side. … I walked across to the other side and I then gave the orders for full speed ahead.”

What he reported next would send chills through the Navy brass … that Germany had a new secret weapon.

“The torpedo went about 1,300 fathoms on the starboard side; then it started to turn to the left. When I saw the torpedo start to swerve around I gave the orders for full speed ahead. After it passed the bow it made two turns, making a complete circle, and then struck our vessel aft on the port side exactly between the third and fourth hold, right at the bulkhead.”

Hansen didn’t have time to think about a new kind of torpedo. He told The New York Times on Aug. 14, “I saw the Sommerstadt would not be afloat long and ordered the crew to lower the two boats. … We saw no sign of a periscope or a U-boat and nothing disturbed the surface of the sea after we got into the boats. … The Sommerstadt filled so quickly after the torpedo struck her that in four minutes she had settled so deeply that her funnel was awash. The steamship began to sink by the stern and as we got the boats clear her bow was pointing skyward. … We made towards the Long Island shore and rowed all day, toward sundown we heard Fire Island’s siren, and made directly for the shore. Soon afterward we were sighted by the naval patrol vessel which brought us to this city.”

He repeated the alarming torpedo story in more detail.

“The torpedo suddenly turned and appeared to be coming directly toward us, when it suddenly disappeared. A moment later it bobbed up off our starboard, proving that it had passed under our ship after making its detour. We watched it turning southward, in the same direction we were going and then we saw it crossing our bow and describing a wide circle. The second time that it came toward us, which was half a mile off after it had crossed our bow from starboard to port, it came straight and struck the Sommerstadt on her port side.”

The same day the Times reported from Washington, “German submarine raids in American waters were understood to have been discussed today at an unusually prolonged session of the Cabinet. … The destruction of the Sommerstadt by a torpedo which passed under the ship’s bow and later circled and struck the vessel amidships gave rise to a suggestion that the torpedo was controlled by radio on the submarine, but this was ridiculed by naval experts.”

As the government played down fears of the new kind of torpedo, there was something else to worry about. In the spring of 1918, American soldiers had come down with influenza, and many of them had carried it on troop ships bound for Europe, where the virus mutated into a more virulent form and received its nickname “the Spanish flu.”

On July 1 the New York Sun carried “Spanish influenza is waging war with praiseworthy neutrality, attacking England and Germany with equal severity. In Germany thousands of people are confined to their beds and the army is rife with the malady and it is reported to be spreading in many parts of the country.

“In London many business houses are depleted and are spraying their places with disinfectants and providing their employees with quinine. Some offices have provided boxes of quinine capsules which employees take twice daily as a part of the office routine. At one theatre all the chorus girls have been affected.”

The same Times front page told the Capt. Hanson story and ran an article about the arrival of the liner Bergensfjord.

“A disease which the officers of a Norwegian steamship which arrived here yesterday insisted was the Spanish influenza, caused the death of four persons on the voyage. When the vessel reached this port yesterday ten men and women severely ill and exhibiting all the symptoms of the disease which caused the death of the other four were taken ashore for treatment.”

The public was reassured.

“At this moment it was learned that the patients had not been isolated, and it was asserted, they would not have passed Quarantine had they been suffering from true Spanish Influenza. …The cases of mysterious illness were reported to the health officer by the surgeon when the steamship arrived at the quarantine station yesterday, and he did not regard the disease as contagious for healthy persons evidently because he had permitted the vessel to go to her pier.”

The next day the New York Tribune announced all was well.

“Attending physicians at the Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn did not believe yesterday that the twelve patients taken there from the Norwegian steamship Bergensfjord were suffering from ‘Spanish influenza.’… In a bulletin issued yesterday the Board of Health stated that the public had no reason to fear an epidemic or introduction of the disease that spread over Spain with a large mortality.

“The very mildness of the disease, says the bulletin, is assurance against any anxiety on this side of the water. The symptoms – fever, general aching of the joints and head, catarrh of the nasal and bronchial mucous membranes usually run their course in about three days.”

With nothing to worry about, the liner’s passengers were free to travel anywhere in the country. By the middle of September 1918, the United States was in the midst of the worst pandemic of the 20th century.

Next Week: Oil and Jersey beaches.


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