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Were Spies on Land Helping the U-151?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 18, 2018

In early June 1918, the German U-boat U-151 brought the reality of World War I to the Jersey Shore. In one day it had attacked and sunk six ships, leaving hundreds stranded in lifeboats awaiting rescue. U-151 then headed south, leaving the U.S. Navy and those on shore in a state of shock and confusion.

Shortly after midnight on June 4, 36 men in two lifeboats from the steamship Texel landed on the Atlantic City beach at Vermont Avenue. Capt. Kenneth Lowery later told their story that after the ship was sunk, “we all knew just where we were after we started, so we naturally headed for Atlantic City. We figured it the best place to come. We had compasses and rations and our men who knew how to handle the oars, were as bright and chipper as if they (were) on a picnic. We rowed all through the night and during the day it was mighty hot. It got so bad that I decided we would work in relays and while one crew rowed the others slept or took it easy. I thank God we got here all right with nobody lost, not even Micky, the ship’s kitten. You can’t imagine what it means when you are drifting alone on the ocean to see a long line that to you means just one thing – land. You just want to get up and sing to everybody and I’m pretty sure that some of my boys cried when they saw Atlantic City. I did not try to keep back a few tears of my own.”

The same day papers across the nation carried an International News Service article.

“Complete secrecy today enveloped the measures taken by the Navy Department for the protection of the Atlantic coast … by direct orders from Secretary Daniels the lid was clamped down on all information. The Secretary made it plain that he considered that every precaution was being taken. … There was a general belief in official circles today that the U-boats have a system of communication with spies stationed on shore. This, it was pointed out, was all the more reason why secrecy should be observed. … The navy shut down absolutely on all information as to what was being done to hunt down the U-boats, in order that possible spies might (not) obtain the knowledge and thus communicate it to the commanders of the submarines.”

On the 6th, The New York Times ran an editorial by a well-known British naval authority, Arthur Pollen, which rattled not only shipping interests, but all of those living along the coast as well.

“It is the nature of things, after being at war for fourteen months without the enemy having struck so near home as this, that the American public should be enjoying the delicious thrills of a new sensation.”

Pollen warned America it was time to wake up.

“I was a good deal in Washington in the course of last Summer and Autumn and I discussed possibilities of the situation with most of the big wigs of the Navy Department, but for one consideration I could see no reason at all why the German Admiralty neglected the very obvious opportunity which Atlantic City, Long Beach, and many other American seaside resorts afforded to that peculiar kind of gallantry which the German Navy exhibits toward women and children.”

Those along the Jersey Shore had to realize they were living in a war zone.

“Many of these seaside resorts are built on a scale inconceivable to those who are only familiar with such holiday places as Margate and Blackpool (both in England). Some of them cover more than a score of square miles and consist of lightly built wooden houses, interspersed with caravansary hotels, just as inflammable as the cottages and bungalows. They are all of them brilliantly illuminated at night, and the temptation to bombard them with incendiary shells, when the killing of holiday makers, not by the score, but by the thousand, was an absolute certainty, presented itself to my mind, as one that no normally constituted German submarine Captain could possibly resist.”

Pollen closed with a frightening warning.

“The Germans have attempted no coup in American waters. Their beginning, so far as authentic reports go, is a modest one, but the war is reaching an ugly stage and Germany’s hands may itch for frightfulness. … If bigger submarines with bigger guns really get to work, a far more serious situation than that which is revealed by today’s telegrams may be created.”

If the editorial wasn’t enough to cause concern, the same day the Trenton Times announced, “The Navy today is making a search for a possible secret German submarine base on this coast. … A host of additional Secret Service operatives joined in the vigorous search now being prosecuted for a band of spies believed to have been active along the Delaware Capes and in communication with the U-boat raiders. Evidence so far uncovered, it was reported from a semi-official source, points to a woman as the master-mind. A carefully concealed wireless station and a system of coded light signals are believed to be the chief mediums of communication between the German agents on shore and the submarines.

“Reports of survivors who had been kept prisoners on board the U-151 for several days, told of the submarine coming to the surface not far off the Delaware Breakwater and communicating with the shore by wireless and by light flashes.”

While the Secret Service looked for spies, the Navy was still in search of the U-151, sometimes with disastrous effects. The New York Times of June 11 reported, “Two navy fliers in a hydroplane that had become disabled and had fallen into the sea on Sunday evening off the coast of Barnegat were rescued tonight by a submarine chaser. The men, who had been without food and water for twenty-four hours, were suffering from lack of sleep and nourishment, and were hurried to Barnegat City (now Barnegat Light) for relief. The damaged plane was towed to this city for repair.”

Once on LBI, they told their story.

“A pilot and an observer, whose names were not announced, started the flight from the naval base at Cape May, and had gone about forty miles when the engine ceased to work properly. They tried to reach the coast, but increasing difficulty with the motor finally caused the plane to drop. The aviators took to the combination boat and waited for help. Although in no immediate danger of drowning they were buffeted around by a heavy sea that compelled continual watchfulness to prevent being swamped.

“It was shortly after 6 o’clock tonight when Lieutenant H.J. Bowes, commander of submarine Chaser 209 saw the plane a mile distant and soon picked the men up. All day yesterday the men had made all sorts of signals of distress, they said, with anything available, but could attract no attention from the few vessels that passed some distance eastward. Just before the rescue rain gave them a little fresh water.”

On June 13, German balloons carrying propaganda leaflets floated over the allied trenches along the Western front with the message “Thousands of Brooklynites are sleeping in cellars fearing a night bombardment. Some of the wealthiest are moving toward Chicago. The few Wall Street brokers who must remain downtown in Manhattan are engaging cots in Turkish baths in the Woolworth building and other skyscrapers. Atlantic City and other seaside resorts are noticeably shy of bathing nymphs on account of fear of submarine shells.”

The cruise of the U-151 had changed the idea of a war being fought as a far-off crusade in Europe to one that was keeping people at home awake at night.

Next Week: Spies, traitors and explosions.


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