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U-Boat Stalks Atlantic Shipping

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 09, 2018

The U-151 had been built to run the British blockade and minefields in order to carry cargo between Germany and the United States, but in April 1918 she set out on a mission armed with mines, torpedoes and two deck guns. From London, U.S. Admiral William Sims wrote to Washington on April 30 saying, “As there are only seven cruiser submarines built, we are able to keep very close track of these ships. At the present time one of these vessels is operating off the west coast of Spain, en route home, two are in the vicinity of the Canaries … at the moment the only one that might cross the ocean is the one now coming out of the North Sea, as the other three have been out too long to make a long cruise likely.”

On May 15, Sims wrote of the importance of keeping news about the U-151 away from the American public.

“There are circumstances which render it highly important that nothing whatever should be given out which would lead the enemy even to surmise that we have had any advance information concerning this submarine, even in the event of our sinking her, and that such measures as are taken by the department be taken as secretly as possible and without public disclosure of the specific reasons.”

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels recorded that on the same day, “the steamer Huntress, 4,997 gross tons, bound for Hampton Roads, reported that she had escaped a torpedo attack made by an enemy submarine. … These reports were considered authentic. All section bases were ordered to be on the alert.”

In Washington, Daniels plotted the course of the U-151 as it approached the American coast.

“That the submarine was proceeding westward into the waters of the fourth naval district was indicated by information received on May 20 from the master of the J.C. Donnell, who, upon his arrival at Lewes, Del., on that day, reported that his ship’s radio had intercepted a (transmission) from the American steamship Jonancy 3,289 gross tons on May 19, saying that she was being gunned and giving her position as 150 miles east of Winter Quarter Shoals. On May 21, at 11.15 a.m., the Canadian steamer Montcalm relayed a message to Cape May radio station from the British steamer Crenella, 7,082 gross tons, stating that a submarine had been sighted at a point about 80 miles off the Maryland coast. Six shots were fired at the Crenella by the submarine, but no hits were registered. At 1 p.m. on the same day the Montcalm reported that the Crenella had escaped.”

The U-151 finally succeeded. Captain C.D. Holbrook told his story.

“The Hattie Dunn sailed from New York on May 23, 1918, en route for Charleston, S.C. … On Saturday, May 25, about 10:10 a.m., when about 15 to 25 miles off Winter Quarter Lightship, I heard a cannon go off: I looked and saw a boat, but thought it was an American. That boat fired once; I started my ship full speed to the westward. He fired again, and finally came alongside and said: ‘Do you want me to kill you?’ I told him I thought his was an American boat. He told me to give him the papers, and get some foodstuff. He then wanted me to get into his small boat, but I was anxious to get ashore, so I immediately got into one of my own boats and shoved off. He halted me because he did not want me to get ashore. He then put a man into my boat so that I would come back to the submarine. An officer and other men from the German submarine then boarded the schooner and after placing bombs about her ordered the crew of the Hattie Dunn to row to the submarine, which we did. The schooner was sent to the bottom by the explosion of the bombs. … The second officer in command aboard the submarine gave me a receipt for my ship.”

Later that day the four-masted Hauppauge met the U-151. Capt. Sweeny told his story.

“The voyage was uneventful until the morning of Saturday, May 25, when at about 10.15 a.m. we sighted what appeared to be a submarine standing to the westward about 5 miles distant. We immediately heard a shot and the remark was passed by one of the men that firing was going on somewhere. A few minutes later we heard another shot and then a third one. We tacked ship and headed in about northwest for the shore. This brought us broadside to the German submarine, who immediately fired a shot which landed about 225 feet away. We kept going at a speed of about 4 or 5 knots, and a second shot was fired, which passed through the ship’s side about 5 feet above the water. … We stopped the schooner … and shortly after the submarine came close to us. … An officer aboard the submarine called to us: ‘Leave your ship immediately,’ and the submarine then pulled away from the ship, 50 feet or more, and ordered us to come alongside. We obeyed and went aboard. Then they took me back to the schooner for the papers: They also took three bombs with them which they placed aboard Hauppauge. We had just returned to the submarine when the bombs exploded and the Hauppauge sank at 11:30 a.m.”

As the U-151 was bringing the war to the shores of America, thousands of her sons were boarding transports heading for France and the trenches of the Western Front. One of the ships, the S.S. Nestor, carried part of the 78th “Lightning Division.” Trained at Camp Dix, it contained most of New Jersey’s draftees and almost all of those from Ocean County.

On board was Capt. Bernard Eberlin, who wrote after the war, “At 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, May 19th, one-half hour after we embarked, the food ship ‘NESTOR’ left her berth, and amidst cheered and frantic yells from our men, made her majestic trip down the New York Bay. … The majority of the men remained on the decks watching with mingled feeling the shores of our beloved country, as they began to disappear from our view. The Statue of Liberty never looked so glorious to us before as it did on this memorable occasion. This Bronze Lady, the Queen of the Harbor, seemed very lifelike to us as she watched our departure, telling us in terms which could not be misunderstood what she expected of us, and extending to us all her best wishes for success and a speedy return to our own land.”

For many this would be the last view of their home.

“We were very fortunate indeed that we had excellent weather during our entire trip on the ocean, and sea-sickness was confined to but a few men. … The soldiers used hammocks to sleep in at night. These were suspended from the ceilings when used, and neatly rolled up and placed in bins during the day. … Lifeboat and fire drills were held daily, and sometimes several times a day. Each man was assigned to a lifeboat or life raft and took his position at his station. When the signal for either boat or fire drill was given, all officers and men would go by the most direct route to their proper stations, and within a few days each man acted as if he had lived aboard the ship for months. … From the time we cleared the New York harbor each of us found a new, but inseparable companion in the form of a life preserver. These we wore all day, and kept close at hand during our sleep. Lights of any sort were not allowed to be shown on the ship at night, hence all port holes, and all other places from which light could be seen were carefully closed or screened. Smoking was prohibited on decks at night. All these precautions were absolutely necessary, for we were crossing a huge body of water infested with enemy submarines.”

For protection from U-boats, the transports traveled in groups.

“In the convoy with the A.S. NESTOR were thirteen other transports, among which were the MENTOR, ST. LOUIS, H.M.S. VIRGINIAN, AQUATANIA, SAXON, MARVADA, and JUSTICIA. … At 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon of May 29th, while we were off the Northern Coast of Ireland, one of the transports in our convoy fired several shots at what they believed to be an enemy submarine. This story however has no official confirmation as far as we know, and are all in doubt as to whether a submarine actually dared to appear and was sunk, or the gun crew longed for target practice. At any rate, this incident afforded us all a little excitement, and led us to feel that we had scored our first victory even before we set foot on the soil of France.”

Capt. Allison Colonna was also on the Nestor.

“At about 2:00 P.M. there was a scurry among the destroyers. The dirigible descended above a spot some half mile off our port bow. Guns began to speak from the transports and destroyers. It only lasted for about five minutes, however, and we couldn’t see any visible results. But we were told that a sub had been spotted and destroyed. … Late that night we took the pilot aboard and proceeded up the Mersey. Few of us slept a wink. After the long strain it was good to see ourselves surrounded by the lights of shipping. … At last, about 2:00 A.M., we docked and settled down to wait until morning for a glimpse of Merry England.”

The men of the “Lightning Division” were finally over there…  and at the same time, the U-151 was over here.

Next Week: Where’s our Navy?

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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