ORLEANS, Mass. — Over 3,000 miles from the trenches and battlefields of the Western Front, where many hundreds of thousands had already died, residents of Orleans, Massachusetts, were enjoying a typical summer morning on July 21, 1918, waiting for the fog to lift off the shore.
Then suddenly, a German U-156 submarine broke the surface and brought World War I home. Orleans became the only part of the United States to be shelled by the enemy. For a brief moment, “over there” had become “over here.”
Just after 10.30 a.m., the heavy thump of something hitting land signalled the first attack on American soil in 100 years.
“I don’t know if it was the first shot or the sound of my feet hitting the floor,” the late Ruben Hopkins, then a 22-year-old guard at Orleans’ lifesaving station No. 40, recalled in a recording. “I was out of my bunk up there in seconds flat.”
To this day, it remains a mystery why such an advanced submarine would attack a target that had no real value. While instilling fear in the American public by attacking shipping was a tactic, going so close to shore seemed an undue risk. One theory is that the sub had hoped to cut the underwater communications cable that ran from Orleans to France.
A commemoration is planned for Saturday afternoon on Nauset Beach to mark the 100th anniversary.
That day, the Perth Amboy tug, towing four barges, was taking the long route around the elbow of Cape Cod rather than passing through the newly opened Cape Cod Canal. German Capt. Richard Feldt’s U-156 was watching and started shooting.
Looking out from the station watchtower window, Hopkins recalled: “I could clearly make out the shape of the submarine. I saw a splash where it hit in the water next to the tug.”
The Perth Amboy took a direct hit to the pilothouse, and a member of the crew was wounded. The sub then directed its attention to the barges.
The local lifesavers, some of the best in the U.S., launched their boat directly into the line of fire. Their motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Nothing, however, really prepared the lifesavers for such a close encounter with the enemy.
Residents flocked to the beach to see what the excitement was about before shells hitting land sent some scurrying back home. Dr. Danforth Taylor, visiting his daughter on the bluff above Nauset Beach, telephoned The Boston Globe immediately.
Miles away at the Chatham Naval Air Station, Ensign Eric Lingard piloted an HS-1L flying boat and flew north, since lifesavers had already reached the tug and barges. His first two bombing runs were unsuccessful.
Hopkins recalled: “I couldn’t see he dropped anything. It appeared to me he was trying to frighten the sub, and the sub just wasn’t frightened.”
Just behind Lingard, an R-9 Seaplane came in for a run at 500 feet. The bomb hit its mark but also did not detonate.
The German submarine, perhaps feeling that it had achieved its mission or thinking its luck was running out, dived back below the surface and left Cape Cod.
In less than an hour, the attack was over. The Perth Amboy was still afloat, although heavily damaged, and three of the four barges were on their way to the bottom of the ocean. While no one was killed in the attack, two crew members were sent off to a Boston hospital badly injured.
Feldt and his U-156 continued attacking ships running up through Canada and Newfoundland. However, just two months before the Nov. 11 Armistice, the sub failed to clear the Northern Barrage minefield between Britain and Norway. It was never heard from again.
Lingard never got to see the Armistice, dying of pneumonia just a week before his 27th birthday ‚Äî less than two weeks before the end of the war.