News & Opinion | July 20, 2018 10:18 am

This Tiny Cape Cod Town Survived WWI’s Only Attack on U.S. Soil

A German U-boat appeared and fired at five vessels and the beach before departing.

A sign describes where a German submarine three miles offshore on July 21, 1918 attacked a tug and barges and where artillery shells struck the beach below on Nausett Heights in East Orleans, Massachusetts on July 11, 2016. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The only attack to take place on U.S. soil during World War I occurred in Orleans, Massachusetts on July 21, 1918. Three miles offshore, the Perth Amboy, a 120-foot steel tugboat, was chugging south along the outer arm of Cape Cod, heading to the Virginia Capes. There were four barges in tow, the LansfordBarge 766Barge 703 and Barge 740. The five vessels carried a total of 32 people, including four women and five children.

Just before 10:30 a.m., the German U-156 emerged and fired on the five ships. The shells were not making much contact with the boats at first, instead pounding the ocean around the Perth Amboy or hitting the beach behind. But eventually, one of the shells did hit the Perth Amboy and Captain James Tapley ordered his crew to abandon ship.

The Coast Guard heard and saw the attack and tried to figure out how to help. They sent a message to the Naval Air Station and then got into lifeboats to help the sailors. A Curtiss HS-1L flying boat and crew was sent out, but the Mark IV bomb got stuck. The bombardier jumped out of the cockpit and onto the wing to release it. But the bomb was a dud and didn’t explode.

Everything that could go wrong, it seemed, did. Another plane was sent, but its bomb also didn’t work. The pilot dumped all of the plane’s tools and the toolbox on the sub with the hope of giving the German sailors a concussion. But the Germans didn’t know that the planes above it were out of ammo, so they decided to head back to sea. The submarine dived and disappeared. The American sailors who were injured made a full recovery.