200 Plus

U-151 Has a Busy Day

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 30, 2018

Noon on June 2, 1918, found Capt. Heinrich Nostitz and the U-151 off Long Beach Island, with orders to bring World War I to the shores of America. Nostitz had already sunk three ships that day when to the south he sighted the four-masted schooner Edward H. Cole, whose captain, H.G. Newcombe, later reported, “At 3.10 in the afternoon when about 50 miles southeast of Barnegat Light, we sighted a boat on the starboard bow about 2,000 yards away. She circled around and came aft on the port quarter. When she came pretty close I put the glasses on her and saw it was a German flag she was flying. She came up then about 150 feet off us and told us to clear away the boats, as they were going to sink us.”

Feeling they were still undetected by the U.S. Navy, a German officer boarded the schooner.

“An officer and some of the men lowered a boat from the submarine and came on board and demanded the ship’s papers and took them, and while in the cabin he told me we had seven and one-half minutes to clear. His men had already placed bombs on the ship, two on each aide, and I believe there were others. He told me to get some clothes and supplies, but we were too busy getting boats cleared to do it; we had no water or compass in the boat. I went down into the cabin and got a few papers, licenses, barometer, etc., and showed them to the officer and asked if it was all right. He said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ We got into the boat and pulled away, and about 16 minutes after we left the ship sank. … (A)bout an hour after this we were about 4 miles away from the submarine, which had not moved, when the steamer hove into sight. The submarine opened fire, firing five shots.”

The steamer was the Texel, heading for New York from Puerto Rico. Her captain, K. B. Lowry, told his story.

“The  first intimation we had of submarines operating in the vicinity was when a solid shot was fired, passing over the vessel forward of the funnel and ricocheting about 200 yards to port. I immediately went up to the navigating bridge and proceeded to maneuver the vessel in a manner to elude the enemy as prescribed by the United States Navy Department. … I immediately ordered the helm hard starboard, as to bring the aggressor directly over the stern. When the vessel had assumed this position I steadied and ordered all possible speed. The vessel at the time of the attack was running at her maximum speed. A second shot was fired when the vessel had assumed her new position. This shell was of shrapnel variety and exploded on the water to the starboard of the vessel. … (F)urther attempt to escape or to disconcert the enemy seemed not only useless but an act unnecessarily exposing the crew to injury or loss of life.”

The Texel was boarded, and Lowry had a chance to come face to face with his pursuer.

“He asked me for any and all papers that the vessel might have. I told him that being in the coastwise trade that we carried no navy Instructions or codes, and that in view of the fact that the vessel had been formerly of Dutch nationality we carried no register – the Navy Instructions had been thrown overboard previous to this time. After leaving the ship all the vessel’s papers were in my boat in charge of the second officer. I destroyed the register, manifest, and articles as he headed toward our boat, rather than let them all fall into his hands.”

Lowry’s victory with the papers was a small one. He watched helplessly.

“Three bombs were set at the base of each mast. Bombs were also set in the engine and fireroom, but as to the numbers I can not say. When all the bombs were set, the lieutenant ordered me to leave as they would explode in 10 minutes. As he proceeded to leave, I did as ordered. … I had a good chance to see the commanding officer. He was about 5 feet 8 inches; probably weighed about 200 pounds, a stocky build; he had light hair, wore a mustache and Van Dyke beard: he was about 40 years of age and wore a Navy uniform with long overcoat. … He spoke English.”

Finally, having read newspaper accounts of German atrocities, “I asked … what are you going to do when we get in the boats? Are you going to shell us? … We don’t bother you at all; Get away. … My boat left the ship at 5.10 p.m. and the explosion took place at 5.18 p.m. After the explosion the vessel settled rapidly by the stern and listed to the starboard, sinking at 5.21 p.m. … As soon as she was out of sight we shaped our course for Absecon and pulled away. … At 6:20 p.m. we again heard four shots, which probably signified that he had encountered another victim.”

What Lowry was hearing were shots being fired at the liner S.S. Carolina, carrying 218 passengers and a crew of 117 bound for New York from Puerto Rico. Capt. T.R. Barber had gotten word of one of the U-151’s earlier attacks that day.

“About 5.55 p.m. I got the wireless S O S saying the Isabel B. Wiley had been attacked by a submarine. … I immediately ordered all lights closed down on my ship; I ordered the chief engineer to open her up all he possibly could and steered due west by the compass. … I just got my vessel steadied on the new course and scanned the horizon to find the submarine, when I saw the conning tower and two guns on my starboard quarter distant 2 miles. Although the weather was quite hazy at the time, I could make out the outline plainly. … Shortly after about 6 p.m. she fired, the shell falling astern of my ship about 100 yards. The second shot went overhead and landed straight ahead about one-half yards, the third shot landing quite close to amidships on the starboard side. … I had already ordered the chief wireless operator to send out a wireless S O S that we were being attacked by gunfire from a German submarine. After the second shot I stopped my ship, ported by helm and brought her broadside onto the submarine. I hoisted the signals, ‘I am all stopped’ and the American ensign.”

Capt. Barber made a critical decision.

“I at the time gave the wireless operator orders to send the foregoing dead reckoning position broadcast, but thinking if I sent it out he would possibly shell the ship, and having many women and children aboard the ship, I recalled the order. Later the chief wireless operator informed me that the submarine had wirelessed under low power the message: ‘If you don’t use wireless I won’t shoot.’”

From the bridge of the Carolina, Barber saw, “he was flying the signal ‘A.B.’ abandon ship as quickly as possible. I had already ordered a boat full out and now I ordered all hands to leave the ship. The women and children were put into the boats first and the men entered after the boats were lowered. After I had seen everyone off the ship into the boats, and after I had destroyed all the secret and confidential papers, I, myself, got into the chief officer’s boat, this being the only boat left alongside. Upon clearing the ship’s side, about 6.30 p.m., I was ordered by the submarine commander, both in English and by signals with the hand, to make for shore. … I collected all the boats near me and moored them head and stern one to the other.”

The captain and horrified passengers watched from the lifeboats. “When the boats were clear, the submarine then ranged alongside the ship on the port side at what seemed a short distance off and at 7.15 fired one shell into No. 2 hold, lower port, as near as I could judge. She then fired another shell into the wireless and another into the vicinity of my own room behind the pilot house. The submarine proceeded around the ship’s bow and seemed to watch her sink from there. The Germans did not board the steamer as far as I could see. … The ship remained steady about 20 minutes then listed to port, gradually sinking on her port side, and finally sank at 7:55 p.m. with the ensign and signals flying. Great clouds of fire and steam arose as she went down.”

As the sun set, the U-151’s day was coming to an end. It had sunk six American ships and left almost 450 people adrift in 18 lifeboats off the Jersey Shore, wondering if they would ever see the dawn. Meanwhile on shore, the U.S. Navy finally had to admit the war “over there” was in fact right here.

Next Week: Rescued.


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