Languid summer Sunday mornings at the shore are commonplace for Cape Codders, but 100 years ago residents of Orleans near Nauset Beach experienced something quite extraordinary and not in the least relaxing. On July 21, 1918, a German long-range submarine, the U-156, surfaced just southeast of the beach and began firing upon a tugboat, the Perth Amboy, and the four barges it was pulling. World War I came to Cape Cod shores that day, as a crowd of nearly 1,000 people perched on the cliffs looked on in amazement.
“The German Navy essentially operated all over the world. The North Atlantic was no exception,” says Jake Klim, author of “Attack on Orleans: The World War I Submarine Raid on Cape Cod,” and one of the featured speakers at a week-long commemoration of the event’s centennial hosted in July by the Orleans Historical Society.
The U-156 shelled the five ships, as the men, women and children aboard the barges climbed into lifeboats. Some shells overshot their target and actually hit the beaches and the marshes of Orleans. “It was the only time during the entire First World War that foreign shells landed on American soil,” says Klim.
A surfboat from Coast Guard Station No. 40, a couple of miles south of Nauset Harbor, headed out to help survivors to shore, while two seaplanes from the Chatham Naval Air Station attempted to bomb the submarine, but their missiles proved to be duds. The military response was enough, however, to cause the U-156 to re-submerge and slink out of Cape Cod waters.
Everyone aboard the five boats survived. The four barges sunk, and although the Perth Amboy sustained damage it remained afloat. In fact, years later it was retrofitted and put into service across the Atlantic in the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk.