200 Plus

U-boat Takes Aim at Cape Cod

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 25, 2018

By the end of July 1918, the nation was still trying to understand how the Germans could sink the armored cruiser USS San Diego just a few miles off Fire Island, N.Y., when it was faced with the ultimate humiliation, the shelling of the U.S. mainland. On July 21, Capt. Marsi Schuill was on a fishing trip off Cape Cod, Mass.

“We were about 5 miles off Orleans at 10:30 this morning, and the sea was as calm as a mirror. About 2 miles ahead of us the tug and her tow of four barges was steaming lazily along. Suddenly we heard the report of a big gun. We looked toward the tug and her tow and were startled to see a submarine break water. … She looked like a big whale, with the water sparkling in the sunlight as it rolled off her sides. Then we saw the flash of a gun on the U-boat and saw the shell strike the pilot house of the tug. A few minutes later we saw fire break out and the crew running toward the stern. Then the U-boat turned her attention to the barges. We then saw one of the deck guns on the U-boat swung around toward us and there was a flash. A shell came skipping along the water. I ordered full speed ahead and the Rosie jumped ahead through the brine, making us feel a little bit more comfortable. The Germans must have fired as many as five shots at us, the nearest coming within 10 feet of our stern.”

Capt. Charles Ainsleigh and his family were on one of the barges.

“It was just about 10:30 when we heard the first shot fired. … The shots seemed to come out of the haze and in a few minutes, we saw, less than half a mile to the east of us, the hull of the dripping submarine. She opened up with a rain of shells upon us, but few of them struck any of the barges. Such poor marksmanship I never saw. Whether they were just playing with us it is hard to tell, but if we had been equipped with a gun I think we could have caused her much worry.”

But eventually the U-boat found the range.

“One after another, however, the shells got to us until there were five holes in our barge and she settled at the bow, with the stern out of the water.

“My little boy Jack appeared to enjoy the whole affair and his display of courage is truly remarkable. As soon as the shells began coming toward us he insisted that he get his American flag, which was in the cabin … I told him that he had better gather his things together and get ready to get into the boat, but instead this boy, who is only 12 years old, went to the cabin, got his American flag, and standing there on the deck, defiantly waved the flag in the face of the German commander.

“My other boy got out his 22-caliber rifle and was ready for an emergency should one present itself.”

William Ireland told The New York Times, “I was walking down the main thoroughfare of Orleans when I heard a loud report seaward. Like many others, I hurried to the water’s edge. The submarine was quite plainly visible. It was less than three miles from shore and was fully on the surface. Its guns flared continually as it hurled shells at the tug and the barges. We saw the pilothouse shattered, and a moment later the tug burst into flames. Those on board put off in a small boat, and came to shore as the shells flew thick around them.”

Major Clifford Harris was vacationing on the Cape.

“With the first shot there was a rush of people to the beach, and before the affair was over there was a big crowd on the shore. We telephoned the Chatham airplane base for assistance, but it was at least forty minutes before a machine appeared.”

Today in an age of cell phones and social media it would be expected, but in July 1918 the Boston Globe got an exclusive when its telephone rang.

“‘Hello! Is this the Globe? This is Dr. Taylor of East Boston. I am at Nauset on Cape Cod. There is a submarine battle going on just off-shore. … The fight is only a short distance from the shore and is plainly visible to all cottagers here. There is a big German U-boat firing at a tow boat and four barges, but you should see that firing. It’s the worst ever.

“The first shot landed in the surf just below this cottage. At first we thought the Hun was going to shell the houses along the beach, and a number of my neighbors came here to take shelter in my place, as I have a good cellar.”

As the shelling continued, “…the bolder ones are now seated on their cottage piazzas … everybody here with an American flag has it flying from their houses. Wait a moment and I’ll take another look and let you know how the fight is going.”

Back on the phone, “I’ve just been told that the nearest Naval station has been notified and that warships are rushing here from several points. … There is an airship hovering over the fight, but it seems to be doing nothing but looking on.”

The Globe reporter added, “Every move made by the German war craft, the effect of her shots, the acts of the crews of the doomed tug, and her four barges, the sinking of each barge, etc. were bulletined to the Globe by Dr. Taylor in such a graphic manner that it almost seemed at times that the men in the Globe office were also witnessing the unusual drama being played out on the oily waters of Orleans.”

The official Navy version read “The attack was witnessed by large crowds of natives and summer visitors, who had flocked to the cape for the week end, seeking relief from the hot wave. … The attack occurred only a few miles from the naval air station at Chatham. Four hydroplanes attacked the raider with bombs. The depth bombs dropped did not explode. The fire was returned, keeping the planes high. Finally, the U-boat submerged and was last observed heading south. … The appearance of the raider so near the treacherous shoals and tide rips of the cape and her subsequent actions caused amazement to the thousands of eyewitnesses rather than consternation.”

Newspapers played down the attack, especially along the shore, where it was the height of tourist season, but the government did take notice. The Tuckerton Beacon explained on Aug. 1, “Uncle Sam has taken notice that it would not be difficult for German spies or agents to hire a boat down on Barnegat or Tuckerton bay and under the guise of peaceful fishermen, sail out of one of the inlets and there communicate with U-boats according to prearranged plan. To prevent any such nefarious scheme a guard boat is now stationed just within each inlet and every craft as it nears the channel is hailed and if it shows an inclination to go outside, it is boarded and passengers and crew subjected to sufficient examination to prove that their purpose is innocent. Without such precaution it would be a comparatively easy matter for a group of German spies to hire a boat on the pretext of fishing and upon reaching the inlet to overpower the captain and take possession of the boat.”

As the Beacon went to press, two ships were about to bring death and suffering to America. The U-117 was heading toward New Jersey, and a merchant ship was suffering an outbreak of what was called the Spanish flu.

Next Week: A secret weapon?


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