During WWI, the only known attack by the Germans on American soil took place on Nauset Beach in Orleans.
July 21, 1918 dawned a “hot and hazy day,” author Jake Klim told a standing-room-only audience at the Atwood House Museum last Sunday. Klim now lives in North Bethesda, Md., where he works in television production. Growing up on Cape Cod, references to the events of that day in Orleans intrigued him. In 2014 he published “Attack on Orleans: The World War I Submarine Raid on Cape Cod” (History Press).
In 1918, American soldiers were spending their first summer in the muddy trenches of the Western Front. The Germans, who were at the forefront of submarine technology, had been busy building over 400 submarines, of which seven were “super submarines,” Klim said. One of these U-boats sank the Lusitania in May 1915. In June 1918 another sank seven merchant ships off the U.S., leaving 450 men, women and children adrift on life raft while many others drowned outright.
“This brought the European war that was over there very, very, very, very close to home,” Klim said.
U-boat 156 departed Kiel, Germany on June 15, 1918 and headed toward the East Coast of America. In mid-July the U-boat set a mine off Fire Island that sank the USS San Diego in less than half an hour.
U-156 disappeared after that, and “popped out of the depths” off Orleans two days later on that hot and hazy Sunday morning. The ocean was “calm with a layer of fog over the horizon,” Klim said. “Everyone came to the beach for the ocean breeze.”
A 120-foot steel tug the Perth Amboy was towing four barges with 32 people aboard. The group had left Gloucester in the dark and rounded Provincetown at 8 a.m. By 10:15 a.m. they were three miles off the coast of Nauset enroute to Virginia.
Ironically, although the Cape Cod Canal had opened four years earlier, the owners of the Perth Amboy did not want to pay the canal’s toll, although using it would cut 100 miles off the journey and provide a safer route.
At 10:30 a.m. the sub emerged in the haze and spotted the Perth Amboy. A deck hand thought he saw something but sub sightings were common – every time a pole stuck up out of the water someone mistook it for a periscope. Yet in a moment the U-boat began lobbing shrapnel and shells at the Perth Amboy and its barges. Some of the shells hit Nauset Beach — marking, as Klim noted, the sole time the U.S. mainland was struck by enemy fire during WWI. Over 1,000 people on the beach witnessed the attack.
Surfmen at Station 40 conferred with station keeper Robert Pierce and decided to row out to the scene to save whoever they could. Meanwhile, Pierce dialed the Naval Air Station in Chatham (now Eastward Point) and advised the officers that an attack was in progress.
The Naval Air Station was strategically placed to protect Nantucket Sound and the approaches to Boston Harbor from enemy attacks. The station’s seaplanes flew from dawn to dusk “to give the skies above the coast a human presence,” Klim said. Airplanes then were dubbed “coffins with wings” because they were so dangerous. When the call came through from Pierce, every pilot was ordered into the sky. “This is a huge deal,” Klim said. “Their one chance to get into the fight.” But some pilots were already out looking for a missing dirigible. Others were playing baseball.
The first crew could not get the seaplane off the runway, which was Pleasant Bay. The second got the flying boat up into the air and took off toward Orleans with three men and a Mark 4 bomb on board. Eric Lingard, who had been a football star at Harvard, was the pilot. Klim dedicates the book to him.
Down below in the water, the shells had hit the first barge tailing the tugboat. On board the barge the Ainsleigh family was cooking breakfast. Their dog Rex jumped overboard, and their nesting hen floated in the water. Their young son Jack was later dubbed a hero for waving a U.S. flag in the face of the Germans.
Meanwhile, the plane arrived from Chatham and dropped three bombs onto the submarine. Alas, the bombs turned out to be duds.
When the Attack on Orleans had concluded, the Perth Amboy was a “smoldering wreck.” Several people from the tug and barges were wounded, and the dog Rex was never seen again.
President Wilson federalized the Cape Cod Canal on the following day and removed the tolls.
Beachgoers collected souvenirs from the attack, and souvenirs still sometimes show up for sale on eBay, Klim said.
The next event in the “At the Atwood Lecture Series” will be on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 2 p.m. when Jeff Proctor will speak on “Rum-Running on Cape Cod.” On Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. Bob Staake will speak on “Creating Art in the Old Village.” For more information on the society’s summer events, including museum hours, visit www.chathamhistoricalsociety.org.