Attack on Orleans!
July 21, 1918
July 21, 1918 was a hot and hazy Sunday on Cape Cod. The United States had been at war with Germany for over 15 months. Eager to avoid paying the new Cape Cod Canal’s high toll, the Perth Amboy, a 120-foot steel tug under the command of Captain James P. Tapley, towed four barges southward, along the Outer Cape, bound for Virginia. First in line was the Lansford, a schooner barge returning from Maine to New Jersey, empty except for Captain Charles Ainsleigh, his wife, two sons and Rex, the family dog. The second vessel in tow, barge 766, carried a load of Cape Ann granite; barges 703 and 740 held no cargo, only ballast. Each barge had a captain accompanied by family members. In all, the five vessels carried 32 people.
At over 200 feet in length, the U-156 was one of the largest submersibles in the German navy and was designed to carry supplies past enemy blockades. In addition to two torpedo tubes in the bow, the U-156 was equipped with two long-range deck guns and a cable-cutting device… and Orleans was the US terminus of a communications cable linking the U.S. with France.
Attack and Counterattack
The Perth Amboy and barges passed Nauset Light at 10:15 AM. In pre-dawn hours, crewmembers had alerted Captain Tapley of possible periscope sightings but the warnings were dismissed on the premise that U-boats would not venture into shallow waters so close to the frequently patrolled coastline. About two miles from the Perth Amboy, Captain Schuill of the fishing vessel Rose, spotted a submarine breaching the surface and the initial assault on the Perth Amboy occurred just before 10: 30 AM. A deckhand spotted what was likely a torpedo passing by; it missed the tug and exploded on shore, below the home of Dr. J. Danforth Taylor. Two more torpedoes followed a similar course. By now, the tug was in sight of U.S. Coast Guard Station 40 in Orleans where William Moore, #1 Surfman, had a clear view of the calm seas from the lookout tower. The U-156 was lying low in the water, shrouded in a haze punctuated by the flash of deck guns firing. The Perth Amboy’s pilothouse took a direct hit and the tug, now stopped dead in the water, was burning. Moore alerted Robert Pierce, the station keeper, who began rescue reparations as shelling from the two powerful deck guns inflicted damage to the vessels and injury to the crews. Shellfire could be heard for miles and crowds of curious citizens began to gather on the bluff above Nauset Beach.
The sub then turned its attention upon the Lansford where a wounded Captain Ainsleigh and his family prepared to abandon their sinking barge. As the attack progressed, the U-156 sunk each barge in succession.
What followed next was a textbook example of Murphy’s Law. If it could go wrong, it did. Ten minutes into the attack, Pierce initiated a call to the Chatham Naval Air Station but it would take another ten minutes for operators to get through. Most of the station’s pilots were already in the air, conducting a search for a missing blimp while others were reported to be in Provincetown, playing baseball. One of the newly arrived planes was made ready, only to develop a spark plug problem that prevented takeoff. A second plane was prepared but it was known to have a crankshaft problem that could cause engine failure. Nevertheless, Ensign Eric Lingard took off with a two-man crew and a single payload.
At 10:58 AM Ensign Lingard’s plane was over the sub. Chief Special Mechanic Edward Howard pulled the release lever but the bomb stayed put. Howard then jumped out of the plane, onto the lower wing and released the bomb, which failed to detonate. The U-156 fired back at the plane before submerging.
Shortly after 11:00 AM, Captain Charles Eaton ended his search for the missing blimp and flew back to Chatham Naval Air Station, where he was briefed on the U-156 attack. Eaton returned to the skies with a single bomb. Facing shrapnel fire from the sub, Eaton deployed his single payload. Like the first bomb, this one also failed. In frustration, Eaton threw a monkey wrench at the sub, followed by the rest of the tools onboard the plane. Frightened by the unexploded bomb, the U-156 charted a zig-zag course out of the area. The attack was over after approximately 90 minutes.
Following the Nauset Beach attack, Kapitänleutnant Richard Feldt continued the submersible’s mission of laying mines and attacking Allied and neutral ships. The sinking of the armored cruiser USS San Diego on July 19, 1918 was attributed to a mine placed by the U-156.
The U-156 attack focused attention to the Cape’s vulnerability and prompted significant changes designed to make the East Coast more secure. On the day following the attack, President Wilson transferred control of the Cape Cod Canal from private ownership to the U.S. Railroad administration, thereby it making economically viable for vessels to traverse the coast in relative safety.
Salvaged, repaired and renamed the Nancy Moran, the former Perth Amboy went back into service. Ironically, during World War II, the ship was sent to England under the Lend-Lease Act and participated in the Dunkirk evacuation. On May 31, 1946, the tug collided with a tanker in the English Channel and sank, bringing to a close the saga of a tugboat that has earned its place in history.
Orleans, Massachusetts was the only place on U.S. soil to incur an enemy attack during World War I. Although there were injuries and some were serious, no human lives were lost. Rex, the Ainsleigh’s family dog, was feared to have been trapped in the cabin of the sinking Lansford but managed to escape and was reunited with his family. A chicken in its cage was another non-human survivor.
The U-156 failed to sever the transatlantic cable.