“ORLEANS, MASS., July 21.- An enemy submarine attacked a tow off the easternmost point of Cape Cod today, sank three barges, set a fourth and their tug on fire and dropped four shells on the mainland.” [Dallas Morning News, 21 July, 1918]
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When most people think of Cape Cod, they think of sandy (or rocky) beaches, windswept expanses of dune grass, Henry David Thoreau, the Kennedys, and for the summer of 2012, sharks. But on July 21st, 1918, the town of Orleans, on the outer portion of the Cape’s “elbow,” became the site of the only attack on US soil by the German Empire during World War I. This incident was the first time since the War of 1812 that the territorial United States had been directly attacked by a hostile force.
At approximately 11 o’clock in the morning, the German U-Boat SM U-156 surfaced about 2 miles off Nauset Beach, the easternmost point of Cape Cod. It commenced firing at the American tug boat Perth Amboy and the four barges that the tug was towing from Gloucester, Massachusetts to New York City. Upon sighting the vessel , Captain J. H. Tapley of the tug immediately sounded a warning and ordered the four barges abandoned. Under heavy shelling, the Perth Amboy and its barges were set afire. Three of the barges sank, fortunately giving the 41 crew and passengers sufficient time to board lifeboats and escape to shore.
The attack continued for about an hour, during which a crowd of thousands of Cape Cod residents were drawn to the area by the sound of the U-Boat’s guns. According to a news piece on the incident by the Bellingham Herald of Washington State,
"The flashes of the guns and the outline of the U-Boat were plainly seen. Danger was not thought of until a shell whirled over their heads and splashed in a pond a mile inland. Three other shells buried themselves in the sand of the beach.” [The Bellingham Herald, 22 July 1918]
Ten miles to the north, meanwhile, the Chatham aviation station had responded to the attack by deploying two hydroplanes, armed with depth charges. The appearance of these craft caused the U-Boat to briefly break off its attack and submerge, only to resurface when the planes once again flew north towards Chatham. This time, when the planes turned around and began to fly low as if in preparation for an attack, the German vessel disappeared under the waves and was not seen again.
Damage from the raid was estimated to be in the range of $90,000 for the destroyed barges and $100,000 for the Perth Amboy. Torpedoes, shells and other ordinance fired by the U-Boat was estimated to have cost the German Empire the equivalent of $15,000. There was general confusion as to why the submarine would have gone to the trouble of navigating the treacherous shoals of Cape Cod just to waste ammunition on small craft. The opinion of the United States government was that the Germans were attempting to shake American morale by targeting American soil, and that Orleans, in the extreme east of Cape Cod, was just in an exposed position. Others have suggested that SM U-156 had been stalking a larger collier that had passed by on its way to New York just days before, and that the Perth Amboy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
All accounts seem to agree that the attack could have been much worse than it was. No American warships were around at the time of the raid, leaving the U-Boat free to do as much damage as possible. Despite their free reign, the Germans were unable to sink all of the barges and succeeded only in damaging the tug without managing to completely destroy her. None of the crew were killed, nor were several women and children whom who were aboard, although one sailor had his arm blown off. Although several shells were aimed at the town of Orleans, one landed in a pond and three others buried themselves harmlessly in the sand. Accounts of the attack describe the Germans taking half an hour to hit and sink one of the smaller barges. This was derided by American newspapers as poor shooting but could also suggest outdated or malfunctioning equipment.
Sobered by this close call, the American Navy began to improve the defenses of the First Naval District in New England. Ships began to sweep the waters off of Massachusetts. To shorten shipping routes and protect other coal convoys, the Federal government assumed control of the Cape Cod Canal, providing direct access to Buzzard’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod Bay. The busy port of Boston remained open, but merchant ships were warned of the risk before setting course for open waters.
SM U-156 managed to escape undetected, although rumors persisted amongst the residents of the coastal Northeast that pursuing American warships had been heard and even sighted engaging the U-Boat. The submarine is believed to have sunk after striking a mine in the North Atlantic in September of 1918, several months after its assault on Cape Cod.
The children of Orleans, quick to capitalize on the event, set up a table overlooking Nauset Beach. On the table was a cage with a sheet over it, and in the cage was a chicken. For ten cents, gawkers at the beach could lift the sheet and behold the “chicken that survived the sub attack.”
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Have you spotted submarines lurking just around the corner? Do you have a chicken you'd like to show me, or an island to sell? Chickens cannot be placed in the appropriate place below, but comments certainly can.
“Submarine Drops Four Shells on Shore and Sinks Three Barges off Cape Cod.” Dallas Morning News. 22 Jul. 1918: 1. Print.
“U-Boat again is in action off Atlantic Tug and Three Barges Sunk by Submarine off.” The Bellingham Herald. 22 Jul. 1918: 1, 8. Print.
“Taking over the Cape Cod Canal.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 27 Jul. 1918:6. Print.
"1918 U-156 Submarine Attack of Nauset Beach." http://www.nausetheights.org/history/community/