July 21, 1918

German U-Boat Attacks Cape Cod

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1918
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On this day in 1918, people in the Cape Cod town of Orleans were astonished to see a German U-boat surface offshore and begin firing on an unarmed tugboat and the four barges it was pulling. Torpedoes set the tug ablaze and injured its crew, while constant shelling sank the barges. Thanks to the skill and courage of Coast Guardsmen, everyone was rescued. Some of the shells fired from the sub landed on the beach, making this the first time the U.S. mainland had been attacked since the War of 1812 and the only time the country was attacked during World War I. The state had been producing arms, vehicles, and supplies for the war effort and sending soldiers abroad, but no one expected what occurred that Sunday in Orleans.

Before the U-boat finally submerged and disappeared, nearly 800 people had witnessed what local historians later dubbed the "Battle of Orleans."

On Sunday, July 21st, haze on the horizon promised another steamy summer day in Orleans. Many people were at church, but some residents of oceanfront cottages were at home enjoying the view. Gazing out to sea, they could follow the slow progress of the 140-foot iron-hulled tug Perth Amboy towing four wooden barges.

Perhaps more than most other Americans, people on Cape Cod were aware that there was a war on. A French naval ship guarded the French Atlantic telegraph cables that had been laid in nearby Nauset Harbor, while U.S. Marines secured the cable company's property. Down the road in Chatham, the navy had recently completed an airbase, while vessels from the Chatham Coast Guard Station patrolled the waters. But the greatest change since the conflict began in August of 1914 was the increasing traffic in the nearby shipping lanes as American vessels carried ammunition, food, and supplies overseas.

It was this shipping that eventually drew the U.S. into the European war. Determined to cut off supplies to the French and English, Germany had pledged to use its newest weapon — the submarine, or "U-boat" — to fire on any vessel in what it considered a "military zone." Americans were outraged when, in March of 1915, a German U-boat sank the passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 2,000 civilians, including more than 100 Americans.

Determined to cut off supplies to the French and English, Germany had pledged to use its newest weapon — the submarine, or "U-boat" — to fire on any vessel in what it considered a "military zone."

Feelings intensified as German U-boats repeatedly sank merchant and civilian vessels. The sinking in October 1916 of six merchant steamships off Nantucket brought the war very close to home for the people of Massachusetts. As submarine attacks on U.S. vessels continued, Congress finally declared war on Germany in May of 1917.

But while fighting raged in France and Belgium in the summer of 1918, it was peaceful on Cape Cod. The calm was shattered on July 21st. A large cigar-shaped object surfaced in the waters off Orleans. People on the east-facing bluff watched in horror as a German U-boat fired torpedoes at, and then shelled, the defenseless tug and barges.

A plane arrived from the Chatham airbase, but its bombs were duds. The Germans kept up a constant barrage. There were 32 people, including the captains' wives and children, aboard the sinking barges and burning tug. Men from the Chatham Coast Guard Station rowed lifeboats directly into the heart of the shelling and heroically rescued them all. Before the U-boat finally submerged and disappeared, nearly 800 people had witnessed what local historians later dubbed the "Battle of Orleans."

People on the east-facing bluff watched in horror as a German U-boat fired torpedoes at, and then shelled, the defenseless tug and barges.

Residents of Orleans may have had the most direct experience with the enemy, but by 1918, there were few people in Massachusetts who had not been affected by the war. Even before the U.S. entered the conflict, the Quincy shipyard had been gearing up production, while the state's textile and shoe factories had increased their output to meet demands for military uniforms, boots, and gear. Arms manufacturers had ramped up production. By the time the U.S. entered the war, industry was producing at record levels. In fact, the high employment rate and general desire to aid the war effort quelled, at least temporarily, much of the labor unrest and radicalism that had roiled many of the state's cities and towns before the war.

The Versailles Treaty brought peace to Europe in 1919, but it also brought a drop in business for Massachusetts manufacturers, which in turn caused conditions that were far from peaceful. Indeed, 1919 would turn out to be one of the most turbulent years in the state's history.

If You Go

The Orleans Historical Society preserves the town's history and stories of its people.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Cape Cod Companion: The History and Mystery of Old Cape Cod, by Jack Sheedy (Harvest Home Books, 1999).

It Happened in Massachusetts, by Larry B. Fletcher (Globe Pequot Press, 1999).

A History of Early Orleans, by Ruth L. Barnard (Orleans Historical Society, 1975).

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