In 1918 the idea that any war could ever again touch American shores was considered very far-fetched by many U.S. citizens. Newspapers were filled with victories and defeats on the fields of Ypres and the Somme, true. But that was in Europe, a battleground since time immemorial.
The closest World War I had struck to the United States was when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s submarine fleet, known by the increasingly familiar term “U-boats,” cruised up and down the eastern seaboard from Newfoundland to the Florida Keys. Even though a lone submarine, U-53, had sunk thousands of tons of commercial shipping in 1916, the war still seemed remote to most residents of Orleans, Mass.
On Sunday, July 21, 1918, residents of Orleans woke to a blistering heat wave, one that had already been blamed for several deaths around the state. Summer people staying at Nauset Heights, a residential community, repaired to their porches in hopes of catching a sea breeze. The Atlantic looked empty aside from a tugboat, Perth Amboy, pulling a chain of four barges south. Then, at 10:30, an explosion turned every eye seaward. Without warning, the tug and its four charges had become the targets of German submarine U-156’s deck guns.
U-156 was a large cruiser-type submarine built in the Atlas Werke shipyard of Bremen. Converted from merchant submarines of the Deutschland class, such subs were capable of very long war patrols of several months. Along with torpedoes and mines, they could be equipped with heavy deck artillery—two 150mm and two 88mm guns. Under the command of Kaptänleutnant Richard Feldt, U-156 was probably no stranger to the U.S. East Coast; it is thought to have carried some crewmen who had sailed the New England coast regularly prior to the war. The sub had already claimed several ships, including the heavy cruiser USS San Diego off Long Island’s Fire Island. On July 19, only two days before U-156’s appearance off Nauset Beach, San Diego was sent to the bottom by a mine deployed by U-156.
After U-156’s crew fired a few range-finding shells, one of the submarine’s deck guns landed a shell on the pilothouse of Perth Amboy, shattering the right arm of 25-year-old John Bogovich, the tug’s helmsman, and wounding deckhand John Zitz. Despite his injury, Zitz joined his crewmates in fighting the resulting fire.
With the tug in flames, U-156 turned to the now stationary barges. Barges Lansford, No. 766, No. 403 and No. 740 received a mix of cannon and smaller arms fire. Three carried no freight, but the fourth, Lansford, was hauling a cargo of granite. One by one the barges fell victim to poorly aimed but steady German fire. On Lansford, Captain Charles Ainsleigh was slightly wounded when a burst sent either splintered wood or metal into his right arm.
As was the custom of the day, Ainsleigh’s family lived with him on the barge. Among them was his 11-year-old son, Jack, who retrieved the flag flying from Lansford’s mast and began waving it defiantly at the German sub. Apparently unsatisfied with mere symbolic resistance, young Ainsleigh retrieved a .22-caliber rifle from below deck and prepared to return fire before his father stopped him.
Meanwhile, a large crowd gathered on Nauset Heights and the beach to watch the spectacle. A letter from Herbert R. Gills, a Houghton Mifflin editor, to his son Russell, described “people…thronging in automobiles and on foot” to witness the events. James Westaway McCue, who accompanied his father, Dr. James Patrick McCue, to the scene, recalled the prevalence of a “carnival spirit”—despite a report that several German shells had come down in the marshy inlets of Nauset Harbor. Dr. J. Danforth Taylor, an East Boston physician, telegraphed the Boston Globe during the engagement and fed the newspaper a blow-by-blow account.
In short order each American boat launched its lifeboats and made for the shore. The barges foundered, but Perth Amboy remained afloat, still aflame and billowing smoke. The observers responded in droves when it came time to assist the fleeing lifeboats. Power and rowboats were dispatched from the two lifesaving stations in the area, Nauset in the north and Orleans to the south. Passengers on the overcrowded Perth Amboy’s dingy were transferred to a Coast Guard rescue boat, including the tug’s injured sailors, Bogovich and Zitz. They made for the Orleans Station, while Lansford’s crew, including the Ainsleigh family, rowed directly for Nauset Beach.
Young Jack Ainsleigh was applauded as he continued to wave Lansford’s Stars and Stripes from the bow of the lifeboat all the way to shore. Dr. Taylor looked after Captain Ainsleigh, whose wound appeared worse than it really was, due to an ill-placed bandage that failed to stop the flow of blood. Dr. McCue attended to Bogovich, the more seriously injured of the two sailors. While he would live, the prognosis was that he would lose his right arm. The Ainsleigh family was alotted room in a house on Nauset Heights, while the two Perth Amboy crewmen were removed to Dr. McCue’s home to ready them for a train trip to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
With the passengers of the boats seemingly out of danger, thoughts turned to the absence of any American military response. As it turned out, just about every unfortunate coincidence that could happen, did happen. There were servicemen at the nearby Chatham Naval Air Station in Provincetown, but they were playing baseball against the crew of a minesweeper. Two airplanes stationed at NAS Chatham were away when U-156 appeared—they had been sent out to locate and rescue the crew of a patrol blimp that had crashed into the sea, and were flying the crew members to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Finally, a seaplane from NAS Chatham was dispatched to the action off Nauset Beach. Its pilot later claimed to have had the sub plainly in his bombsight, but the weapon’s release mechanism failed. A crew member climbed out of the cockpit and released the bomb by hand, but it missed the U-boat and failed to explode. U-156 then turned its fire on the seaplane, forcing the pilot to keep his distance. Another seaplane joined the flight, but its bombs also failed to function properly.
As the “Battle of Orleans” drew to a close, U-156 slipped below the surface and headed north. American planes continued their search for the sub, but to no avail. Over the course of the next several weeks, U-156 continued to patrol off the New England coast, sinking several more commercial vessels.
Why, people later asked, would the German raider turn from sinking a 12,680-ton warship to attacking an innocuous tug and four barges, three of them empty? The value of the ammunition spent by U-156 outvalued both the boats and their cargo that the Germans sought to sink.
Odds are that Perth Amboy was never the U-boat’s quarry. One of U-156’s supposed missions was to cut underwater telegraph cables along the U.S. coast. Orleans just happened to house the American end of a direct wire to Brest, France. The submarine was unsuccessful in severing this vital communications link, but Perth Amboy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another theory is that the tug was a poor alternative to missed targets. Colliers (coal transports) were an appealing target to a U-boat. Like Perth Amboy, many such transports preferred to take the free route along the Atlantic side of the Cape rather than the safer canal route. Indeed, two colliers, Arlington and J.B. King, had passed through Orleans waters not long before U-156 unleashed its salvo. Having missed these prizes, perhaps Feldt decided sinking a tug would be better than nothing.
Another hypothesis claimed the entire attack was a hoax to boost the sale of Liberty bonds. First and secondhand accounts of pilots stationed at the Chatham Naval Air Station tell of an American sub staging a fake attack on the coast of Cape Cod. Why else, they argue, would a submarine surface in broad daylight and attack such a questionable target within 10 miles of a naval air station?
The general belief in the summer of 1918 was that the German military sent U-156, along with six other heavy U-boats, to the U.S. East Coast to strike fear into the American people. If that was the case, U-156’s attack off Nauset certainly failed, given the theatrical atmosphere of the proceedings. Nor was the American military brass impressed. Rear Admiral Spencer S. Wood of the 1st Naval District called the U-boats’ actions a “circus stunt.” Regardless, the U.S. government seized the Cape Cod canal the day after the U-156 incident to provide safer passage between New York City and Boston at no charge.
The war was destined to last a few more months. U-156 was not. On September 25, 1918, on its way home to Kiel, the sub struck a mine at Scapa Flow in the North Sea. The entire crew of 78 was lost.
Not many reminders of the Cape Cod incident survive today. Beneath the waters off Nauset Beach are the rusten-crusted remnants of the sunken barges, which still occasionally ensnare fishermen’s nets. The Orleans Historical Society Museum houses a few pieces from the fight: a shrapnel fragment, wood from Perth Amboy’s pilot house and photographs of the scene.
But some primary research materials remain in Orleans. They include the telegrams exchanged between Dr. Taylor and the Boston Globe, along with other records of the attack. They are preserved in a display on the men’s washroom wall at the Orleans Yacht Club.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.