Attack on Orleans Centennial is coming!

Originally published by the Cape Cod Chronicle, March 2. 2018

As the weather starts warming up, we start thinking about the summer. And this summer in Orleans, we will be remembering a momentous event in town, perhaps even national history, although it has been largely forgotten.

In 1918, the Great War was raging. The United States had finally officially joined the war in April 1917, and by the next summer, American soldiers were fighting in the trenches and on the oceans. But in general, the war stayed “over there” and Americans felt more threatened by the flu epidemic than foreign soldiers. Except for the hot and hazy morning of July 21,1918.

At about 10:30, three miles off Nauset Beach, a German submarine attacked the tug boat Perth Amboy and the four barges it was towing, sinking all four barges. It also shelled the beach. Life –Saving Station No. 40 at Pochet launched a surfboat under heavy enemy fire to rescue survivors. Chatham Naval Air Station scrambled a plane to drop a TNT bomb on the u-boat (it did not go off and the pilot followed with a wrench he hoped might do more damage). Local myth has Orleans citizens firing guns from the beach, thinking their duck hunting rifle might be the thing to sink the metal ship. A local doctor spent the attack on the telephone at his house on Nauset Heights, relaying events to a newspaper in Boston as they happened.

In the end, the u-boat sailed away and all the survivors were rescued. Two were injured enough to be taken by train to Boston hospitals, one under heavy guard because he had a German name. There were no fatalities on either side. There are many mysteries surrounding that morning- among them what the U-156 was doing off the coast of Orleans and whether the shells that struck our shores were intentional.

This summer, Orleans will be commemorating this event, the only attack by a foreign power on US soil between the War of 1812 and September 11th. The Orleans Historical Commission, in conjunction with the Historical Society, the US Coast Guard, the French Cable Station, the Chamber of Commerce, the Nauset Heights Association, Snow Library, and undoubtedly other interested organizations are busy planning appropriate ways that we can recognize this seminal event in our history. In addition to a summer-long exhibit at the Historical Society, there will be events that week including lectures by Jake Klim and Paul Hodo (authors on books about the event), a concert of popular music of the era, and other events still being planned. A full schedule of events will be available soon.

To support the exhibit, the Historical society is looking to borrow artifacts from the attack that people might have in their homes. Please contact us ( or 508-240-1328) if you have any. Part of the exhibit will also look into Orleans and World War I, so if you have any historical items related to this era or information on Orleans men who fought in the war, we are also looking for that. Hopefully with the help of the attics and walls of the area, we will spend this summer with a fresh look on that summer a century ago.

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