A Century Ago, World War I Crossed A Line In The Sand

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Local History

Dick Ryder, operations manager for the restored CG36500 rescue boat, talks about the response to the attack of Orleans in 1918.  BARRY DONAHUE PHOTO

ORLEANS This time, there were no shells flying over the dunes.

A crowd gathered in the parking lot at Nauset Beach July 21 to commemorate the centennial of the only enemy gunfire to strike American soil in World War I. In 1918, a German submarine fired at a passing tug and its barges, with stray shells landing on shore.

Selectmen Chairman Alan McClennen set the stage. “You all arrived on Beach Road,” he said. “In 1918, there was no Beach Road, and the beach was 500 feet east. You're standing in a former waterway perhaps traveled by Captain Kidd.” There were only six houses on lower Nauset Heights and three on the upper Heights, plus houses to the east in now-vanished Sand City.

Echoing the “defiant and resilient” spirit the town displayed in 1814 when it repulsed a British landing party, Coast Guardsmen under the command of station keeper Robert Pierce rowed out under fire to meet the tug's lifeboats. Bombs were dropped by low-flying aviators from Chatham Naval Air Station but did not explode. On the Heights, the local guard unit lined up behind parked cars to prepare for a potential land invasion. People are said to have fired rifles toward the sub, and American flags were hung from windows on the Heights.

Dick Ryder, whose grandfather served with Pierce at the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station, is operations manager of the CG36500, the restored boat moored in Rock Harbor that rescued 32 sailors from the wreck of the Pendleton in 1952. On Saturday, he named the crew that rowed the surfboat with Pierce in 1918: David Delano, Winnie Gill and Leroy Penniman of Orleans; Ralph Cook of Wellfleet; and Elmore Kendrick of Dennis. Reuben Hopkins of Orleans, who was recorded in 1968 relating the day's events, was sent up to the station's tower to handle signal flags. The Mon Cochran, a surfboat used today for training by the Cape Cod Sea Scouts, was displayed at the ceremony Saturday; Skipper Dean Skiff encouraged anyone interested in continuing the tradition to contact him at deanskiff@comcast.net/.

The German submarine itself, the U-156, was the topic of a talk Friday night at the historical society's Meetinghouse by Paul Hodos, author of “The Kaiser's Lost Kreuzer.” The U-boat was part of a fleet charged with forcing the American Navy to withdraw from Europe to protect its own shores, which involved sinking merchant ships and troop transports. The U-156's first commander, Konrad Ganser, “was very infamous, pretty ruthless,” Hodos said. “He sank a hospital ship without warning (and) bombarded the island of Madeira. A few civilians were killed.”

The boat's second commander, Richard Feldt, “had a little bit of a moral conscience,” said Hodos. “He was much more comfortable in the stopping of a ship and boarding” rather than just sending it to the bottom.

Feldt commanded an awesome arsenal. There were 18 torpedoes, 1,500 artillery rounds, seven or eight mines, and two deck guns (one of which would be fired at the Orleans Coast Guard station's observation tower). Fifty-six men crewed the Kreuzer, which had a top speed of 11 knots.

The U-156's first “big success” was planting mines that led to the sinking of the USS San Diego, the former flagship of the Pacific Fleet, as it approached New York's harbor. Feldt continued northward, and probably decided to approach Orleans to cut the transatlantic communication cable that ran from there to Brest, France. The American forces in Europe used the link to stay in touch with officials in Washington.

Hodos said Ganser had likely been aiming for the cable station on Madeira when he bombed that island. At Orleans, the author said, the U-boat used its “clunky” cable-cutting apparatus, leading Feldt to believe he had succeeded. That was not the case.

Then, said Hodos, “he surfaces, sees a tug and four barges about three miles off land, and... it's too big a target to rebuff.” There were reports of two “streaks” before the bombardment, which Hodos thinks were warning shots but “I think the tug didn't notice.” The U-156 moved on to wreak havoc up the coast to Canada, where it closed the port of Halifax to transatlantic convoys.

“It wasn't the attack that defined us,” said Orleans Historical Commission chairman Ron Petersen. “It was the response that defined us.”

The Orleans Historical Society Meetinghouse Museum on River Road has an exhibit about the U-boat attack.