200 Plus

U-boat Threat Returns to the Shore

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 18, 2018

Following the raids of the U-151 in early June 1918, the East Coast seemed to return to normal, and most hoped that the threat from German U-boats along the shore was over. But a June 29 telegram from Admiral William Sims in England to the Navy Department seemed ominous.

“Second cruiser submarine at sea. At present off west coast of Ireland. Her field of operations not yet known. Cannot reach longitude of Nantucket before July fifteenth. Shall keep department informed.”

There was a U-boat sighting in the mid-Atlantic, but as the 15th came and went, all was quiet in local waters. On July 19, the 504-foot-long armored cruiser USS San Diego was approaching New York harbor. It had originally been built in 1904 and named the battleship California, but in 1914 the Navy reclassified the ship as a cruiser and changed its name. The San Diego had been serving as an escort for convoys carrying troops to Europe and was on its way back to Hoboken, N.J., after a brief stop at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The naval court of inquiry found “The U.S.S. San Diego, under the command of Captain H.H. Christy, was making passage from Portsmouth, N.H., to New York, N.Y, at or about 11:05 A.M., July 19, 1918. … She was zigzagging by an approved plan, speed 15 knots. … The Captain was steering a safe and proper course at the time to minimize the submarine and mine dangers in those waters. … All lookouts, gun watches, fire control … were at their stations and on the alert. All reasonable and necessary orders to safeguard the watertight integrity of the ship in dangerous waters had been given and were being carried out.”

Then at 11:05, “an explosion took place in proximity to the skin of the ship, at about frame No. 78 on the port side and well below the water line. As a result of the explosion the ship began to list to port, and she finally rolled over and sank, bottom up at about 11:25 A.M. The explosion was an exterior one, and as a result of this explosion the skin of the ship was ruptured in the vicinity of bulkhead No. 78.”

The New York Times reported on July 20, “No wake of a torpedo was seen. The first thing Captain Christy noticed was, while standing on the wheelhouse eight feet above the forward bridge, he felt and heard a dull explosion. He immediately sounded submarine defense quarters and the general alarm. Everything went quietly and according to drill schedule. The Captain ran full speed ahead and sent an officer to investigate the damage. At the time he thought the ship would not sink. Two motor sailers were ordered rigged out, but not to be lowered until further orders. … At the submarine defense call the men went quietly to their stations and manned the guns. They stood by the port guns until they were awash.”

Meanwhile below decks, “Lieutenant Millen, on watch in the starboard engine room, closed the water-tight door to the engine room and gave the necessary instructions to the fireroom to protect the boilers.

“The ship listed to port heavily so that water entered the gun ports on the gun deck. The vessel listed eight degrees quickly, then hung on for seven minutes; then gradually listed eight degrees quickly, then hung for seven minutes; then gradually listed, the speed increasing until thirty-five degrees was reached. At this time the port quarter-deck was three feet under water. The ship then rapidly turned turtle and sank. Captain Christy went from the bridge down two ladders to the boat deck, slid down a line to the armor belt, then dropped down four feet to the bilge keel and thence to the docking keel, which at that time was eight feet above water.”

One of the crew told his story.

“I was working on a gun in the forward turret at about 11:30 A.M., when I suddenly heard a terrific explosion which shook the ship. Immediately the ship started to list to port, and Captain Christie was on the bridge shouting orders.

“Guns were being fired from all sides of the ship, and I could hear the boys shouting that they had made a hit. They fired at most any object that met their eyes, under the impression that it was a submarine. This kept up for about ten minutes, the ship continuing to list steadily but slowly. Then Captain Christie called out from the bridge, ‘All hands abandon ship.’

“We stuck to our posts until that order came, and then we hurriedly proceeded to launch our boats. All the boats launched on the port side were smashed to pieces as soon as they hit the water. On the starboard side we got into difficulties very soon, owing to the derangement of the electrical power which worked the cranes.”

Twenty-year-old Jean Miller wrote to his parents in Iowa.

“I was on the port side forward when the explosion occurred, and it affected that part of the ship almost the same as the firing of a six-inch gun, but, owing to the fact that we were having no drill and that the ship began listing to port immediately, we knew differently. I did not hear submarine defense quarters sounded but of course it was. We immediately put on life preservers and stood by to abandon ship. It was simply wonderful the way the men behaved, keeping cool and ready to do anything necessary. When it became apparent that the ship would go down, the order to abandon ship was given, which was done in marvelously orderly precision. Of course, I did not think much of just then, but later had time to think it over. You probably know that a great many fellows were getting ready for liberty in New York, where we were due in for a few hours, and consequently were scantily clad. I was dressed just as I said I generally was about the ship. Only a suit of underclothes, a pair of trousers and a white hat. Happened to have a handkerchief and some clothes-stops in my pockets. That was absolutely all that I saved, and that was more than some fellows did. What I hated (losing) worst was my new saxophone.”

The explosion had destroyed the ship’s radio so no distress signal was ever sent out, but there were nearby ships.

“Soon after we left the ship, yea before she was clean under water, we saw another vessel which we thought was coming our way, but later passed by. You should have heard the cheering and singing just as the ship went down, but when (we) saw the other ship going away, an awful stillness prevailed, until we saw some more ships coming. I don’t see how that other ship could help but see us or at least hear our gunfire, but perhaps they did not.

“We were in the water about three hours before anybody was picked up by an oil tanker Bessum bound to Boston from Baltimore, but of course she turned back to New York. After we got on board, we ate some emergency rations we had with us and later got some grub from the galley.”

Finally in New York the young sailor’s ordeal ended.

“That night they gave all hands liberty and made no stipulations as to uniform or personal appearance. Some went with just underwear and dungaree trousers, and perhaps a hat. By the way, I never even got my head wet while in the water and my hat stayed on all the time. I slid down a line into the water feet first and swam about 20 yards to a life raft, where I stuck. Had lots of fun. Had to keep up our spirits.”

The court of inquiry answered the question of why the U-boat had not been seen off the East Coast: It had a secret part to its mission.

“The court is of the opinion that the loss of the United States ship San Diego was due to an external explosion of a mine.”

The San Diego was the largest U.S. warship sunk in World War I and today is a popular dive site. In 1918 it gave a warning to the people along the coast … the U-boat war would continue.

Next Week: The bombardment of the USA.


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