ORLEANS — Reuben Hopkins held a full house in thrall last week as he shared his eyewitness account of the July 21, 1918 German U-boat attack off Nauset Beach, the only World War I attack on U.S. soil. The Coast Guardsman's voice was clear, his memory sharp.
After he spoke, Hopkins was unable to join a panel of historians to take questions at the initial event of the Orleans 1918 Commemoration Committee. That's because he died in 1974, suddenly, while clamming near the location of the Coast Guard station where he had viewed the attack as a 22-year-old.
“For about a month, shipping had been very disturbed,” Hopkins recalled in a talk recorded in 1968 and played back at Snow Library May 17. “We knew there were submarines active on the east coast, that many fishing boats had been sunk, burnt on the Banks.”
The explosion of a shell rocketed Hopkins out of his bunk that Sunday morning a century ago (he was resting after handling the midnight to 4 a.m. watch). Running upstairs to the tower, already manned by another Coast Guardsman, he saw the tug Perth Amboy and its four barges under fire “from what I could plainly make out as a submarine. Its third shot hit the pilot house straight.”
The German U-boat 156 was “a true threat,” panelist Ron Petersen, chairman of the Orleans Historical Commission, said. Its first mission had taken it to the coast of Portugal, where it had shelled a town, killed civilians, and destroyed a church. “Ironically,” he said, “it was trying to destroy a cable station (in Orleans) and failed that time as well.”
Germany and the United States had been at war since April 1917. By 1918, said panelist Michael Hicks, a member of the historical commission, six enemy subs probed America's east coast, sinking ships and trying to cut undersea communication cables.
The French Cable Station in Orleans “was very important economically to many companies in France and the U.S.,” said Duane Chase, a volunteer at the museum now located in the station. “General (John J.) Pershing (leader of the American expeditionary force in Europe) used this cable line to connect with the military in the United States. There was no more important device in World War I than the cable.”
When the Coast Guardsmen reported the attack, “we were ordered to go to the assistance of the tug,” Hopkins said in 1968. “Nobody found any fault with that order.”
The order was given by the keeper of Coast Guard Station 40, Robert Pierce from Harwich, the son of a Wampanoag. “That was the life of the lifesaver,” Petersen said “They put themselves at extreme risk, but probably never more so than this time, to effect a rescue under enemy fire.
“He hopped in the boat himself,” Petersen said of Pierce. “He steered and headed right into the enemy fire. The concussion from the (sub's) deck guns blew the hats off several of the Coast Guardsmen.”
The Guardsmen met up with the lifeboats coming from the tug and barges, and were advised by the tug captain that all had been evacuated. Two crewmen had been seriously injured and were treated by Guardsmen on their way to shore. When it was discovered the two men had Austrian backgrounds (that nation was Germany's ally), orders came from Washington to detain them for questioning. But “the courtesy and compassion of Orleans prevailed,” said Petersen, “and the two were put on a train to Boston to be treated in a hospital.”
Much of this was witnessed by Hopkins from the watchtower. With his mates, he had run toward the water to help but had been sent back upstairs because the observation post had been left empty. “They wanted a man who could signal,” he recalled. “I was probably a better signalman than an oarsman. I took my glass and had what I thought was a ringside seat.”
It's from that perch that Hopkins watched the response from the Chatham Naval Air Station. “The commander over there said perhaps it was an American submarine practicing firing. He talked in a very low drawl. I was kind of hopping up and down with impatience. I thought the times demanded action.”
Eventually, Hopkins watched as two planes, a modern “flying boat” and a more traditional pontoon plane, came into view. “One fellow got right up over the bluff on a beeline for that sub,” he said. “I thought he was going to drop bombs. It appears he was trying to frighten the sub, and the sub just wouldn't frighten. Now this is hearsay, but I hear he dropped a monkey wrench.”
“Reuben Hopkins said he didn't see any bombs,” Petersen said. “There were bombs. They didn't explode...The saga of the naval counterattack is a perfect example of Murphy's Law. A lot of things did go wrong here, all understandable and explainable.”
At the time of the attack, many of the naval station's pilots and planes were away searching for a lost dirigible, and some personnel were up in Provincetown playing baseball. The man whose Southern drawl Hopkins remembered was actually second in command, and “as soon as he heard the shots he tried to get planes ready to fly,” Petersen said. “There were two on the ground. The first one wouldn't take off. The bomb release lever on the plane that did take off didn't work.”
Had a bomb gone off, pieces of the U-boat might be treasured relics on Orleans mantelpieces today. The marksmanship of the Navy men was superb. Ensign Eric Lingard made his first bombing run at 800 feet, 200 below the recommended level, but the bomb release wouldn't work. He then doubled down on his second run, coming over the sub at 400 feet as a crew mate, Chief Special Mechanic Edward Howard, rode the wing and dropped the bomb by hand, well within the 100-foot kill zone. No explosion.
Base commander Capt. Phillip Eaton, who had been searching for the lost dirigible, made a bombing run at 500 feet. His release lever worked, but the bomb didn't. “It also would have destroyed the sub had it exploded,” Petersen said. Lingard went out again in the afternoon and found an oil slick; he dropped a bomb but it didn't explode.
During the initial aerial attack, the sub “kept right on firing,” Hopkins said on the recording. “They pretty well shot up the rest of the barges and intermittently went back to the tug. Then, with the damage done, why the submarine's men started to wind a crank to lower the gun more or less flat on the deck. Then they submerged and took off.”
Hopkins reported to Provincetown and Chatham that the sub was gone, “but I was mistaken. About five minutes later, there they were again, this time pointed directly toward shore. I found myself looking down the muzzle of that gun. Understandably, it gave me mixed feelings. I didn't know exactly what to do. It took 'em three shots to hit that tug, which I don't think was bad shooting. I'd give 'em one. Pretty soon, a flash came. Right by my window just to the left of the station came this scream like an express train going through a tunnel.” But the Germans cranked the gun down again and “submerged and off they went and never were seen again.”
There may have been a “mission accomplished” vibe on the U-156 as it motored away. Hicks said a cable was sent from the sub stating that it had found and cut the transatlantic cable. “That proved not the case,” he said.
Petersen noted that the town's response to the only World War I enemy gunfire attack on U.S. soil echoed its stirring reply to the attack here by British troops in 1814, the battle that gave Orleans its “defiant and self-reliant” reputation.
Many more stories about the attack and the town's response were shared at last week's event, including those told by historian Bonnie Snow, and many more will be offered in the months to come. The May 17 symposium will be repeated July 12 at 7 p.m. at Snow Library. Jake Klim, author of “Attack on Orleans,” will speak at the Orleans Historical Society at 7 p.m. on July 19, followed by a talk there the next day at the same hour by Paul Hodos, who wrote “The Kaiser's Lost Kreuzer” about the U-156. On July 21 at 5 p.m., a centennial commemoration ceremony will be held on Nauset Beach, and on July 22 at 3 p.m., the historical society will host an illustrated talk on “American Popular Music during World War I.” Go to historicorleans.org/1918-wwi-u-boat-attack-on-orelans/ to learn more.