200 Plus

U-boat’s Mines Claim a Victim

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 24, 2018

As October 1918 was drawing to a close, news from the Western Front held the nation’s attention, causing many to overlook one of the greatest demonstrations of bravery that ever took place in the surf off Barnegat Light. A few days after the event, the New Jersey Courier tried to sort through and explain the conflicting stories.

“The Spanish steamer Chaparra, sugar laden, from Cuba for New York, sank off Barnegat during the heavy fog on Sunday night. She is supposed to have struck one of the mines laid by the recent visiting U-boats from Germany. … The story as first published in the evening papers of New York and Philadelphia, on Monday, was that two steamers had been torpedoed off Barnegat, implying that U-boats were again off the coast. This probably grew out of the fact that the landing of one boat’s crew at Forked River station, was phoned to Asbury Park, and thence to the newspapers while the landing of the other boat’s crew phoned from the south side of the inlet, Barnegat City, to Atlantic City, and from there reported to the city papers.”

There were other reasons for confusion.

“None of the crew could talk enough English to make themselves understood, hardly enough to tell the name of their ship. It is supposed the ship was struck about ten p.m., Sunday, as it is alleged that an explosion was heard on the beaches about that time; and the vessel went down in a few minutes, barely giving the crew time to tumble from their berths into the lifeboats.”

The Courier discounted that another U-boat was operating off LBI.

“About three weeks ago the steamer San Saba was sunk by hitting a mine not far from the same place. Minesweepers report that they have gathered in not a few mines off Barnegat in the track of ships bound for New York, and Barnegat fishermen tell of sinking some of them, by cutting them loose from their buoys. Other mines have come ashore at the inlet, with the buoys attached.”

The story begins with the 249-foot Cuban merchant ship Chaparra, built in 1906. The U.S. Navy investigated its sinking.

“Capt. Jose Vinolas, the captain of the Chaparra, testifies that he is a native of Barcelona, Spain; that he was the captain of the Chaparra, and that she was flying the Cuban flag. … That they had a full cargo of sugar consisting of 14,000 bags. … That they sailed from Cardenas, Cuba, on October 22, 1918, bound for New York.”

As they neared their destination, “the weather was clear with a moderate sea. Saw no submarine. There were various other vessels in the vicinity which were not molested, which leads him to believe that the ship struck a mine. Ship’s papers went down with the ship.”

Then without warning, while they were “10 miles from Barnegat, making 8 miles an hour and that on the night of October 27, at 10 p.m., they felt a heavy blow just forward of the bridge on the port side; there was a terrific explosion, and the vessel was fairly lifted out of the water. At the same time a column of water was thrown up which covered the bridge. The vessel listed to port and capsized, sinking within 2½ minutes. They only had time to launch two boats from the starboard side, and managed to save 23 of their crew of 29. That he fears that the 6 missing men were killed. That they made for Barnegat Light.”

The captain later told his story to the Philadelphia Ledger.

“We heard one explosion, ‘A submarine,’ someone yelled, but we saw no sign of a U-boat. But our ship was listing rapidly. I grabbed the compass and ordered the men into the boats. Six of the crew were killed by the explosion. … We put a few tins of biscuits and beef into our lifeboats and lowered away just in time before the ship foundered.”

The two lifeboats soon separated, and according to the captain, “I rigged up a rough sail on my boat, but we did not know where we were going. It was just a case of trusting to luck. Several times during the long night we saw the lights of ships twinkling. We yelled but no one heard us. There was a light fog when we drew away from the Chaparra, but the mist deepened after a few hours. It was a terrible experience. Stare as we might we could only see a few inches ahead of us. Every long swell threatened to turn us over into sea. Worst of all we didn’t know where we were drifting.”

The Ledger reported, “Mrs. Frank Thompson, wife of the assistant keeper of Barnegat Light, peering seaward yesterday morning through a light fog, saw a tossing object that the waves threatened to engulf at any moment.

“The toy of the surf proved to be a boat filled with ten survivors of the Chaparra, who had been floating rudderless for nearly ten hours.”

Mrs. Thompson recalled, “I often hear the sound of shots at sea, and lately I have been on the lookout more than ever. Being at a lighthouse is no new experience for me. My husband and I have been here for several months. We were at the light on Faulkner’s Island, Conn., for several years. When you are around a lighthouse watching gets to a habit and your sight becomes exceptionally keen through constant watching.”

The Ledger stated she did more than just listen.

“Mrs. Thompson ran out into the surf until the water reached her waist. The shipwrecked men, chilled by exposure and exhausted by their efforts to keep afloat, lay almost helpless in the tossing boat. The woman calling back an appeal for aid toward the lighthouse, managed to grasp the painter (a rope attached to the bow) of the boat, and pitting her strength against the surf drew it slowly toward the beach.

“When the little craft grounded on the shore Mrs. Thompson assisted each man to the beach. Two of the crew were so exhausted that they had to be carried up the beach.”

The captain was in the lifeboat.

“After we drifted for hours the fog began to lift a little bit. The first thing we saw was a woman running towards us and wading out into the surf. How glad we were. When she had landed us safely she ran and got hot drinks for us. We almost forgot the black night we had passed through.”

Mrs. Thompson concluded, “Although they were all on the verge of collapse all the men knelt down in prayer when they reached shore. Two of the men prayed that their brothers who had been among the crew might be saved.”

The Oct. 30 New York Times paid tribute to her bravery, saying, “Mrs. Thompson was acting as a volunteer watcher early yesterday when she saw a small yawl bobbing up and down on the waves just outside the breaker line. Through the heavy fog she could just make out the forms of men apparently exhausted pulling feebly at the oars. They were in danger of being swamped, when she rushed from the keeper’s house and fought her way into the surf until she was waist deep in the water.

“Grabbing the bow of the yawl as it swung around by a big comber she struggled until she had righted the craft and pointed its nose to shore. Then she dragged into shallow water and beached it. She assisted seven of the men safely to the sands and helped to carry two others, too exhausted to walk, to the house.”

LBI had a true hero, unfortunately for the most part lost to history. The Chaparra was the last ship to be sunk in local waters. But there was one more footnote, only 10 days before the armistice Ocean County would have its own unknown to mark the savagery of World War I.

“On Friday last, November 1, Coroner Parker was again called to the beach by the finding of another body. Coastguard Alvah Jones was the finder, and the body had drifted in the inlet, and was up the bay nearly to Island Beach coastguard station. The body was badly decomposed and the clothing had been stripped off, so there were no marks of identification. It was buried in the State of New Jersey plot for unknown castaways in Riverside cemetery.”

The war at the shore was over, but in France the county’s men would fight on until the bitter end.

Next Week: Fighting to the last minute.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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