Attack on Orleans: the only time the continental US took enemy fire in WWI
By Jake Klim
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the Attack on Orleans; when shells from a German submarine crashed ashore on Cape Cod, Massachusetts during the summer of 1918. That strange raid on the normally peaceful arm of New England was the only time the continental United States received enemy fire during World War I.
On that fateful day, the German submarine U-156 surfaced from the depths approximately two to three miles off the coast of Nauset Beach. For reasons that largely remain speculative, the raider began firing on a tugboat and her string of four barges. The 32 sailors aboard the five vessels—including a handful of seamen injured by exploding shrapnel—abandoned ship and hastily launched lifeboats for shore.
Lifesavers, or surfmen, from U.S. Coast Guard Station Number 40 witnessed the one-sided battle from the beach and rowed out in the direction of the fire to rescue those they could. Before launching their surfboat, the keeper of the station dialed nearby Chatham Naval Air Station and implored the aviators to send pilots and machines to meet the threat. The resulting sorties were the only naval-air action that occurred in the western Atlantic during the war.
Although upwards of one thousand citizens watched the spectacle from shore, the Attack on Orleans is a story very few Americans, outside the proud town of Orleans, have ever heard.
I was born on Cape Cod, just 20 miles from the town of Orleans. I’d always loved history, especially military history, and had a certain affinity for World War I, partly because as a child I didn’t know much about it. We spent weeks learning about World War II in history class each year, but I always endeavored to know more about that first war, which preceded the second. My interest only increased in college after I took a class called “The First World War”—an entire course dedicated to the history of the conflict.
Since leaving college, I have worked as a documentary television producer for a wide range of production companies in the Washington, D.C.-area including National Geographic, WILD, Animal Planet, American Heroes Channel, The Weather Channel, among others. I’ve been for very fortunate to interview veterans from World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq. Working on content about World War I, and interviewing veterans from that era, would certainly be a dream, but sadly in the mid-2000s participants from the war were few and far between. (Although I did have the great pleasure to talk on the phone with two of America’s oldest living veterans in the twilight of their life, before they passed away).
One afternoon in 2012, while strolling through the history aisle looking for “new releases” at my local Barnes & Noble, my mind recalled the submarine attack off Cape Cod. I had read snippets about the U-boat raid that occurred off Nauset Beach in Orleans during World War I, but I always wanted to know more about it. I could “see” a book about this unknown event on the shelf alongside the other “new releases” in front of me, and I was interested in sharing this unknown story with the masses.
I went home that afternoon and began to read up on the subject. Surprisingly, a definitive account of this historical event had never been written. What’s more, the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I was just two short years away. Additional anniversaries—the U.S. entering the war (2017) and the centennial of the actual Attack on Orleans (2018)—would be right around the corner. Time was of the essence.
I tell stories for a living—through video—but I never considered myself a writer, or someone who could research and author a non-fiction history book. I knew next to nothing about the book publishing business, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by at least trying. I began by creating a timeline of the entire Attack on Orleans and then placed first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses in between the various timestamps carefully noted by officials associated with the event. Sources led me to other sources, which in turn, led me to further sources. I traveled to archives, historical societies, and met up with local historians many of whom were all too eager to share their files with me.
I also did my best to weed out inconsistencies and embellishments that didn’t line up utilizing some of the more “official” documentation I came across. I wanted to tell the “real” story. Information that was subject, would be preceded by an “allegedly” or “reportedly”. At some point, I recall looking down at my MS Word document and realized I had already typed up 20,000 words. It was time to start shopping an outline to agents and publishers. Thankfully, the History Press gave me a chance.
Very early in my research, I became familiar with the two outfits that responded to the Attack on Orleans—the waning United States Life-Saving Service and the fledgling air arm of the United States Navy—and I thought it best to try and tell the story through the eyes of someone associated with each. Luckily for me, I had in my possession copious after-action reports and interviews which helped breath both life and much needed accuracy into the story. I briefly traced both Keeper Robert Pierce and Ensign Eric Lingard’s parallel lives leading up to the Attack on Orleans, as well as their respective fates after. Sadly, I ended up learning that Lingard, the backbone of my book and the aviator who piloted the first flying boat to arrive on scene, succumbed to pneumonia after his plane crashed at sea, heartbreakingly just weeks before the Armistice on November 11, 1918. It was a sobering reminder that some Americans here on the home front—and not solely those fighting the war abroad—paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War I.
I dedicated my book, Attack on Orleans: The World War I Submarine Raid on Cape Cod, to Eric, a man without kin, in an effort to memorialize his heroic actions defending our coastline during the war.