Orleans, Massachusetts is a quiet town in Cape Cod with a population a little over 5,000 and is known for its bass and blues fishing. Nauset Beach at the edge of town is today known as a great place for off-road-vehicle fans to drive through dunes and catch the sunset. But in 1918, Orleans became the site of something far less tranquil. Orleans, Massachusetts became the only part of the Continental United States to be attacked during World War I.
In July of 1918, the quiet town of Orleans was enjoying the hot summer on a Sunday morning. While great war was raging in Europe, those in Cape Cod truly felt that it was millions of miles away. Three miles off the coast of Nauset Beach, the tugboat Perth Amboy was pulling four barges in the morning fog. The U.S. Navy was aware that an attack could happen on the coast of New England. The German U-boat SM-U156 had been off the coast of the Eastern seaboard for some time. It was on July 21, 1918, when that fear of attack would come to fruition. According to “Attack on Orleans” author Jake Kilm, “Right around 10:30am, a deckhand on the Perth Amby sees something either skimming across the water or flying across the water. Just as he’s about to yell, ‘submarine’, a third projectile comes screaming through the sky and crashes right into the pilothouse.”
There were 32 men, women and children aboard the tugboat and barges who were quickly moved to lifeboats as the shelling continued. Kilm continued, saying, “The aim from the German guns apparently is not very good and some of these shells go wild and some actually land on the beach and the marshes, and that makes the event significant.” A crowd gathered along the beach to watch the event unfold. Twenty minutes after the incident had begun, a single Navy plane flew past, dropping a single bomb on the U-boat. Unfortunately, the bomb didn’t explode. Had it worked, the U-boat would have been in trouble. A little while later, some more planes arrived dropping bombs near the U-boat’s location. This was enough to scare the German submarine away after 90 minutes of shelling. By the time the lifeboats made it to shore, over a thousand people were on the beach. The news quickly reached Boston, when Dr. J Danforth Taylor called the Boston Globe and said, “This is Dr. Taylor of East Boston, I am at Nauset [Beach] on Cape Cod. There is a Submarine battle going on just off shore.” To the tiny town, it was the most excitement they had ever seen.
By the end, no one was killed and only two men were injured. Three of the four barges were left sunk. The Perth Amboy, while badly damaged, would be able to be repaired and keeping working. She would end up being sold to Great Britain during World War II and would help evacuate French citizens during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The SM U- 156 would eventually hit a mine of the coast of Norway while returning to Germany and sink to the bottom. Before heading back, she would sink allied merchant ships off the coast of Maine and Canada for a few weeks.
The dramatic event on that Sunday morning would leave an impression on the tiny Cape town. The continental United States would not see another attack on its shores until September 11, 2001. World War I clearly showed the powerful capabilities submarines could have during wartime. Submarine development would quickly advance and by World War II, submarines would be powerful components for both the Allied and Axis sides of the war.