200 Plus

Three Ships Sunk Before Noon

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 23, 2018

In April 1918, Capt. Heinrich Nostitz, in the U-151, had been sent to the United States’ East Coast with orders to take the war to the Americans. As May ended, he had placed bombs on three ships, taking their crews prisoner in order to keep his presence a secret. Then he placed mines off the mouth of the Delaware Bay and along the Jersey Shore, finally cutting two underwater cables linking New York City to Canada and Panama.

This part of his mission completed, Nostitz decided there was no more need for secrecy. One of his prisoners, H.M. Saunders, remembered, “At 5:30 a.m., June 2, word was passed to prisoners by an officer, who said: ‘Get ready, there is a sailing vessel alongside we are going to put you aboard of.’ All the 21 men were ordered upon deck. A little later the schooner Isabel B. Wiley and the steamship Winneconne were sighted.”

Thom Thomassen was the master of the three-masted schooner Isabel B. Wiley, then off Barnegat Light.

“I came upon deck and noticed off the port quarter a suspicious looking object about 1,200 yards away. The craft was heading toward my ship, and as it approached I noticed it had two flags and a small German naval ensign. When about 1,000 yards off the submarine fired a shot and the shot fell about 100 yards off the vessel. I then went below and got an American ensign, came on deck and hoisted it. Then I hove my vessel to and hauled down the jibs. … As the submarine approached us, another ship appeared ahead of us and the submarine fired a shot at her.”

What he had seen was the unarmed steamship Winneconne, commanded by Waldemar Knudsen.

“I came on the bridge at 7:30 a.m. Sunday and heard that the third mate and chief officer had seen a schooner and a dark object which they thought was an American patrol boat lying alongside the schooner. At 8.10 a shot was fired and we tried to make for shore. At 8.12 they fired another shot and a shell burst about 200 or 300 yards ahead; the Winneconne hoved to. … The submarine came closer ready for action and then launched a small boat. An officer and two men came on board and gave orders to leave the ship immediately, as they were going to sink her. I asked him how long they were going to give us, and he said he would give us one-half an hour. … He took the ship’s log, ship’s register, and ship’s papers. We launched the two boats and the crew got in. The chief mate and I were still on board and were under the impression that we were to go aboard the schooner, but he told us to launch the small boat and go alongside the submarine, which we did. He placed four bombs on our ship, one on the fore deck, one on the aft deck, one in No. 1 hatch and one in No. 2 hatch.”

The chief officer, H. Wasch, told that when the Germans boarded the steam ship, he stated, “Good morning, fine weather to-day. You men take to your boats; you had better get your boats ready.” The captain asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘Well,’ replied the officer, ‘I got to sink you. … War Is war, and I cannot help it.’ We lowered the boats; the crew took two lifeboats, the captain and I took the other. Finally he said; ‘Hurry now, I can not wait any longer. I gave you enough time.’ So we left the ship and proceeded to the submarine. All the prisoners on the submarine boarded our boats and then we left the submarine.”

The captain and crew of the Wiley watched.

The “Winneconne was stopped and the crew got into three boats; the submarine then came toward us and ordered my lifeboat alongside. I asked him what he wanted. And he said that he desired to put some men in my lifeboat whom he had on the submarine. He put 11 men from the submarine on my boat; that made 19 men on board my lifeboat. He ordered the boats from the Winneconne to come alongside and distributed 12 men from the submarine on the three lifeboats.

“I consulted with those in the other three lifeboats and concluded that, as I had the only power lifeboat, it would be best for me to make for shore as soon as possible, with a view of hailing some ship and have them advise the location of the other three lifeboats and to send them help. I instructed the other three lifeboats to remain where they were. At 5.30 my boat sighted the Ward Line steamer Mexico. They picked us up and sent a wireless to Washington that three lifeboats, holding 50 men, were in the position I indicated.”

This was the first confirmation that World War I was being fought off the Jersey Shore, but before that message was transmitted, Capt. W.H. Davis recalled, “On Sunday, June 2, about noon, in a calm sea, the schooner Jacob M. Haskell with a cargo of coal … about 50 miles east by south of Barnegat Light, was fired upon by having a solid shot sent across her bows. A few minutes later a second shot was fired across the ship’s bows and the approaching submarine displayed the international signal ‘Abandon Ship.’ We made arrangements to abandon, and dropping the boats into the water prepared to take the crew off. While we were doing this, a row boat containing one officer and six heavily armed seamen rowed alongside. The men came aboard the schooner and the officer demanded the ship’s papers, log book, and crew list, which were delivered. The captain then directed men to hurry and get the crew off. During this time, the bombing party had placed four bombs over the ship’s side – two forward, one on each side, and two aft, one on either side. … (T)hey were hung so that the bombs themselves rested about 2 feet under the surface of the water and alongside of the schooner’s hull. The men went about their work in a business-like manner; the officer was so polite that he almost got on our nerves.”

And finally, one last exchange.

“As we were shoving off, an officer on the deck of the submarine hailed us and demanded the ship’s papers. When told that the papers had been turned over to the boarding officer, ... he ordered us to proceed on our way. A few minutes later the Haskell was blown up and disappeared with all sails set. As we were starting on our way, the boarding officer called out: ‘Good luck. The New Jersey coast is just 40 miles away. Better go there.’”

On shore, the bathers were enjoying a wartime vacation. It was the first big weekend of the summer season. The U-151’s logbook summed up the morning’s work.

“6:20AM Course 246. Sail sighted.  Course set for the sailing vessel. It is the American 3 masted schooner Isabel. B. Wiley, registered in Philadelphia (776 tons) … 6:50AM Sailing vessel is stopped with a warning shot. At the same time, a steamer is sighted. Course set for steamer. Steamer is stopped with a warning shot. Boarding party is sent over; it is the American steamer Winneconne (formerly the steamer Stinne) registered in New York, on its way from Newport News, VA to Providence, Rhode Island (1869 tons) cargo: coal. … 8:40AM Winneconne is sunk by demolition charges. Crew in the boats called alongside. Meanwhile the crew of the schooner Isabel B. Wiley have already left their ship and are alongside. Our prisoners are distributed among the four boats, the boats are outfitted with fresh water and provisions and are released. … 9:30AM Three masted schooner Isabel B. Wiley is sunk with demolition charges. Cruise southward continued. … 11:25AM Sail sighted, it is the 4 masted schooner Jacob M. Haskell (1778 tons) registered in New York, from Norfolk to Boston, cargo: coal. … 11:50AM Schooner is sunk with demolition charges.”

Three ships sunk before noon – and for Capt. Nostitz and the U-151, the day was just beginning.

Next Week: A passenger liner.


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