Author Jake Klim chronicles the attack from the first shell fired to the aftermath and celebrates the resilience of Orleans at war.
On the morning of July 21, 1918--in the final year of the First World War--a new prototype of German submarine surfaced three miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The vessel attacked an unarmed tugboat and its four barges. A handful of the shells fired by the U-boat's deck guns struck Nauset Beach, giving the modest town of Orleans the distinction of being the only spot in the United States to receive enemy fire during the entire war. On land, lifesavers from the U.S. Coast Guard launched a surfboat under heavy enemy fire to save the sailors trapped aboard the tug and barges. In the air, seaplanes from the Chatham Naval Air Station dive-bombed the enemy raider with payloads of TNT.
About the Author
Jake Klim was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, just twenty miles from the village of Orleans. As a child, he had read snippets about the attack on Orleans in local periodicals, but always wanted to know the full story. Thus began a lifelong fascination with American history. Today he is a television producer and writer based in North Bethesda, Maryland. He has worked on productions for History Channel, the Military Channel, National Geographic Channel and WILD, among many others.
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A SURFMAN NAMED PIERCE
The life saver's work is always arduous, often terrible.
— John W. Dalton
The town of Orleans is located on the "elbow" of Cape Cod, which resembles a flexed arm protruding into the Atlantic Ocean. Like the sands on its beaches, the borders have shifted over the years, but today, Orleans encompasses approximately twenty-one square miles, one-third of which touches salt water. The small coastal hamlet is squeezed between Cape Cod Bay to the west and the vast Atlantic Ocean to the east, which splashes against Nauset Beach, a ten-mile expanse that extends south to neighboring Chatham. Pleasant Bay rests to the south of Orleans, giving the town a curious shape, as if that part of it has slowly been eroded by the sea over time. The town is peppered with saltwater ponds and littered with geographical features like necks, points and narrows. Countless coves, rivers and marshes rise and drain with the daily floods, giving the air the taste of salt and the smell of tide.
From autumn to spring, the town is a quiet place to visit, but in the summer, like the rest of the Cape, the population of Orleans nearly triples. In July and August, thousands of tourists from Boston, located nearly ninety miles away, and other urban centers take to the narrow, sandy roads that meander like tentacles to the various cottages and vacation homes burrowed among Orleans' bluffs. Once there, tourists descend on the town's pristine beaches, where they fish, surf, harvest shellfish or simply relax in the sand.
Orleans' small-town charm has been welcoming people for centuries. Pilgrims seeking additional land and fertile soil settled in Orleans just before the start of the eighteenth century. However, it would be another one hundred years before the town was incorporated and named after Louis Phillipe II, the Duke of Orleans, allegedly in recognition for French support during the American Revolution. Early settlers cut down trees to clear land for farms and pastures and used that timber to build and heat their homes — and to construct ships. Throughout these growing pains, Nauset Indians and English settlers coexisted peacefully. The Indians even went so far as to teach the colonists how to harvest shellfish, which proved to be a dependable source of food and income for those who mastered the craft.
Others took to the business of salt, which was needed to preserve the vast quantities of fish that arrived from the sea each day. In order to fill this need, saltworks — buildings that produced salt — were constructed throughout the town. They would go on to gain great fame in Orleans and throughout Cape Cod at the beginning of the nineteenth century as salt-making quickly became an extremely lucrative enterprise. As a result, the prevalent industry would eventually find itself in the crosshairs when hostilities broke out between the British and the Americans on Cape Cod during the War of 1812.
On December 12, 1814, Britain's HMS Newcastle ran aground on a shoal off the coast of Orleans. In an effort to lighten the ship's load and shift it off the sand bar, British sailors tossed some of the ship's items overboard, which were, in turn, salvaged by "beachcombers" — local residents who roamed the shores after wrecks in search of goods and treasure. When word reached the British that American vagabonds had ransacked their discarded supplies, tempers flared. Armed barges, under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Marryat, were dispatched with orders to reclaim His Majesty's property and to take revenge on the town of Orleans.
Early on the morning of December 19, British troops seized four unarmed American ships, including one loaded with salt from the nearby saltworks, at the mouth of Rock Harbor Creek on the Cape Cod Bay side of Orleans. The next day, Lieutenant Marryat, hungry for more destruction, decided to burn ships, docks and buildings associated with the town's saltworks industry. Without a moment to spare, militiamen from Orleans and neighboring villages arrived on scene and began to lay down heavy musket fire against the marauding redcoats. Lieutenant Marryat was forced to turn tail, but not before eleven of his men were struck down by, as one British officer snarled, "those wretches in Orleans."
The heroics of Cape Cod's militias that historic day became the stuff of legend. For the second time in less than fifty years, Orleanians had helped throw the British back across the Atlantic Ocean. However, it was the Atlantic itself that proved to be the town's greatest adversary.
Orleanians, and especially residents who have lived along Nauset Beach, are no strangers to the howling winds and tumultuous seas that assault the coast. For thousands of years, nature had wreaked havoc on the town's beaches and the bluffs. When storms hit the Cape's coast, they typically come across the Atlantic, from the east. These nor'easters can pack hurricane-force gales and typically cause erosion and coastal flooding. Usually these storms come with rain, but depending on the temperature, they can also bring snow.
Since the first colonists began to arrive by ship in the early seventeenth century, the wicked seas off Cape Cod have claimed thousands of lives. The outer arm of the Cape contains a series of hidden shoals and sandbars, into which mariners have the tendency to run their ships during inclement weather. The combination makes these waters some of the most dangerous on the East Coast and a graveyard for ships and sailors alike. "There is no other part of the world, perhaps," wrote the director of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1869, "where tides of such very small rise and fall are accompanied by such strong currents running far out to sea."
When word of a shipwreck rang through the town — "Ship ashore! All hands perishing!" — the Cape's good-hearted and curious townspeople would flock to the beach in an effort to lend a hand. Despite their good nature, they could do very little from the beach and would watch helplessly as the sea chewed up wooden schooners, sometimes less than a mile from shore. In the days, and sometime hours, after the disaster, beachcombers would walk the length of the shore seeking various riches brought in by the surf — coffee, foodstuffs, wine, tobacco, cotton or spices — and haul them away by hand or horse-drawn cart. If a crew member were fortunate enough to make it to the beach alive, he would be cared for by the locals. However, most times the waves carried the lifeless body of a sailor in from the wreck.
The Massachusetts Humane Society recognized that something had to be done to aid shipwreck victims, and in 1786, it decided to build small, makeshift huts on desolate stretches of Cape Cod's coast. If a victim actually survived a shipwreck and made it to shore, the cold, wet sailor could take shelter in one of these huts instead of freezing to death on the windswept beach. As time went on, these huts grew into larger stations that housed lifeboats. If a storm raged out at sea, quick-thinking volunteers could report to these stations and launch a lifeboat to assist those in peril offshore.
By 1845, Massachusetts boasted eighteen such stations. But despite these resources, shipwrecks and the subsequent loss of life continued to surge. In 1871, a study was commissioned to determine what should be done. The resulting report indicated that the crews who manned these stations lacked discipline, that certain stations were missing vital resources and that the surf stations themselves were badly in need of repair. As it existed, the surf station project was a failure, but it was too important to abandon.
In time, more money was pumped into the stations, station crews were compensated and station keepers — those in charge of the station — who failed at their duty were sacked and replaced with capable officers. It was also decided, as a result of the report, that surfmen, or lifesavers, should patrol between stations, all day and all night in an effort to give the shoreline more of a human presence.
In what is considered the definitive history on Cape Cod's lifesaving service, author John Willfred Dalton described in his book Life Savers of Cape Cod how surfmen would spend "hours of racking labor [in] protracted exposure to the roughest weather conditions, and a mental and bodily strain under the spur of exigency and the curb of discipline that exhaust even the hardy fearless coast guardians." These "solitary patrols with great peril" would continue day and night "in moonlight, starlight, thick darkness, driving tempest, wind, rain, snow or hail ... an endless line of life savers steadily march along the exposed beaches on the outlook for endangered vessels." Sometimes patrolling surfmen had to hold a wooden shingle in front of their faces to keep sand out of their eyes during such patrols.
The long and often monotonous work of a lifesaver was punctuated by moments of intense danger. If a surfman spotted a vessel in distress during his patrol, he would rush back to his station and rouse the keeper and the other surfmen, and together they would launch one of the station's surfboats into the sea. The water was typically quite cold, and during certain months, it bordered on freezing. Each time a surfman participated in such a rescue, his life was in danger. The trials and tribulations endured by surfmen were more appropriately summed up by their motto: "You have to go, but you don't have to come back."
In 1872, nine new stations were built on Cape Cod, including Station Number 40 in Orleans. The construction of Station Number 40 and others like it could not have come soon enough; by the 1880s, shipwrecks were occurring on the Cape's outer arm at an average of one every two weeks. Tucked back away from the high tide line among the bluffs on Little Pochet Island, Station Number 40 was located approximately five miles from the center of town. The dark red building was comfortable, but it lacked electricity and running water. The first floor had a kitchen, a sitting room, a supply room and an office for the keeper, while the second floor served as a sleeping room for the surfmen and, when circumstances called for it, quarters for rescued sailors. On top of the building, a watchtower jutted into the sky. Here, surfmen could keep a keen eye on the happenings out at sea. By the early twentieth century, Station Number 40 was connected with telephone lines that ran to central stations in Provincetown and Chatham. If a situation were to arise that needed additional attention, the station's keeper could confer with the superior officer in Provincetown or the recently built Chatham Naval Air Station.
Station Number 40 sat on one of the most dangerous sections of Cape Cod's coast. Deadly sandbars offshore constantly kept the station's six to eight surfmen on their toes, so it was imperative to have it manned by good personnel. The men at Station Number 40 were a hardy, disciplined bunch, and throughout the week, they drilled in anticipation for the inevitable rescue. In the first thirty years of its existence, the surfmen at the Orleans station had saved well over one hundred lives.
Robert Francis Pierce rose through the ranks of the lifesaving service to become the keeper at Station Number 40. Tall, gangly and balding, fifty-two- year-old "Bert" Pierce might not have looked the part of a seasoned seaman, but the keeper had been around boats his entire life. The son of a Wampanoag Indian, Pierce was a native Cape Codder, born in the small town of Harwich in 1866. He grew up fishing on boats, and it was clear that someday he would make a living off the sea. When he was in his mid-twenties, Pierce pondered which career path to take in life. Working on ships might offer adventure and good wages, but there was something intriguing to Pierce about the lifesaving service. Candidates were required to submit a "vouchers under oath," which proved they had worked a minimum of three years as a sailor or boatman. Applicants also had to be at least five feet, eight inches tall; weigh no more than 190 pounds; and live within five miles of their assigned station. Finally, interested aspirants were required to provide a certificate of physical health that proved they were resilient enough to endure the hardships required of them.
In 1890, Pierce passed the required tests and was assigned as a lifesaver at nearby Monomoy Point Station. While stationed there, twenty-four-year-old Pierce faced "the greatest of dangers" during the numerous rescues that he participated in. According to one report, "[Pierce] was skilled in the art of handling boats in the surf, and took naturally to the work he has been called upon to perform since joining the life-saving service."
In 1898, having spent eight years in the lifesaving service, Pierce, now married and the father of a young child, was transferred to the Old Harbor Life Saving Station in Chatham, where, at the age of thirty-one, he was awarded the position of number one surfman. This title was bestowed upon the highest-ranking surfman, besides the keeper, at any given station.
One day, while on patrol at Old Harbor, Pierce "saw a skiff with a small lad in her who had come out from Chatham for a little fun." The craft ventured out into the current, which apparently became too much for the child to handle. An after-action report written later described how Pierce saved the day:
Number 1 Surfman Pierce moved the ... surfboat and hastened out to where the frail craft was. The lad of 7 years was crying and trying his best to hold his own against the tide. He climbed into the surfboat, and they took the row boat in tow and landed them safe in the harbor where he [parted] from a very thankful lad promising never to be caught in such a scrape again.
On November 6, 1911, Pierce was promoted to the coveted position of keeper and assigned to the Gay Head Life-Saving Station on Martha's Vineyard. A few years later, he was transferred back to the mainland and assigned to other stations, eventually ending up at Station Number 40 in Orleans.
* * *
Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, there were rumors that a canal would be built through the isthmus of Cape Cod. Once constructed, captains would have the option to bypass the Cape's formidable "forearm," long susceptible to shipwrecks, and quickly cut through the Cape's "shoulder," a distance of only seven and a half miles. A canal would greatly reduce the time it took mariners to get from Boston to New York or any other points south, but most importantly, it would decrease the likelihood that steamers, schooners and crafts of all sizes might run aground during inclement weather. Without ships to look after, many assumed that the era of the surfman, at least those stationed along the arm of Cape Cod, would inevitably come to an end.
After seven years of construction, the long-awaited Cape Cod Canal was finally completed in 1914. It was a welcomed relief that would save sailors traveling south over one hundred miles. However, this shortcut came with a price — a toll. After spending $12 million on its construction, investors were eager to recuperate their losses. As a result, some shipping companies preferred to go the longer, more treacherous route instead of paying the expensive toll, despite the heightened risks to the sailors on board the crafts.
For the time being, the job of the surfmen, it seemed, was spared.
In the years following the canal's completion, the surfmen of Orleans were on the lookout for something more ominous than bad weather and ships in distress. On February 6, 1918, just two weeks before Pierce took command of Station Number 40, the U.S. Navy convened a special meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss an impending concern: "Defense against submarine attack in home waters."
The United States had been at war with Germany for almost a year. Although the Zimmerman Telegram ultimately brought the two belligerents to blows, Germany's fleet of submarines had been sinking Allied and neutral ships since 1914, killing American citizens in the process. Germany's Unterseeboot, or U-boat, was a horrific yet highly effective weapon of war. But for the most part, the German navy, or Kaiserliche Marine, sank ships near Europe, far from American shores. Germany constructed nearly four hundred submarines during the First World War, but only seven were long-range cruisers, capable of sailing from one side of the Atlantic to the other. These "super submarines" were unlike anything the rest of the world had ever seen before. With a cruising radius of twenty-five thousand miles, they pushed the limits of what submarines were capable of during the war.
Germany's super submarines, the board warned, "may appear in American waters without warning" and "may be used on our coast with a view to divert some of our military activity away from European waters." Specifically, their goal was to disrupt American troop and supply transport, but the board also cautioned that the "bombardment of coastal towns may also be done."
Historically, the Atlantic Ocean had served as a buffer between the United States and Europe, but with the advent and subsequent success of Germany's U-boat during the first four years of the war, an enemy from afar now had the ability to sail west undetected toward American soil. If any of Germany's seven super submarines found their way to the western Atlantic, they could instill fear in the veins of the American populace and rattle the psyche of the U.S. government.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Attack on Orleans"
Copyright © 2014 Jake Klim.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 A Surfman Named Pierce 11
2 A Good Enough God for Me 21
3 A Whale with Teeth 31
4 The Germans Are Coming 41
5 You Don't Have to Come Back 53
6 The Counterattack 63
7 Shellshocked 91
8 The Final Cruise 103
About the Author 127