The two attacks on U.S. soil that have largely been forgotten.
The American public consciousness has a weaker link to the First World War than to World War II. There are several reasons for this, one of which is probably that people think the United States never came under direct attack the same way it did at Pearl Harbor or the Aleutian Islands. This idea, however, isn’t quite true: American soil was attacked in World War I. Twice, in fact, although one was ineffective enough to be farcical and the other wasn’t recognized at the time for what it was.
July 21, 1918, was the date of the only overt attack on continental U.S. soil in World War I. Germany’s doctrine of unrestricted submarine warfare called for attacks on Entente shipping, including U.S. ships, wherever possible. However, only 7 of the nearly 400 German submarines had the range to actually cross the Atlantic. In June 1918, U-boats sank several American ships off the East Coast but no land-based targets were attacked.
At around 10:30 a.m. on July 21, 1918, a submarine surfaced off the town of Orleans, MA, on the east shore of Cape Cod. It quickly opened fire with its deck guns on the closest target, the tugboat Perth Amboy and the four barges it was towing. The gunner had poor marksmanship and most shots went wide, skipping along the surface of the water. Some, however, hit true, collapsing the tug’s pilothouse on the helmsman and sinking the barges, forcing the crew to abandon ship in their lifeboat.
The local Coast Guard station launched a rescue boat. Putting themselves in harm’s way, they intercepted the lifeboat and provided first aid to the injured, including the bleeding, unconscious helmsman whose arm was shattered.
Meanwhile, Chatham Air Station some seven miles away was alerted. The timing couldn’t have been worse: most planes were away searching for a lost blimp and the few crews supposedly present were off base playing a Sunday morning baseball game. At 10:49 a.m., Ensign Eric Lingard and his two-man crew took off in a Curtiss HS-1L flying boat with a single bomb onboard. Once they located the sub, they flew over it several times but the bomb release mechanism failed repeatedly. Finally, the bombardier jumped out onto the lower wing, grabbed the bomb and dropped it by hand. It fell, landed close to the U-boat… and failed to explode.
Lingard climbed beyond the deck gun’s firing range and started circling to mark the interloper’s location. Chatham Air Station’s commander, Captain Philip Eaton, eventually arrived from the blimp hunt, was briefed on the attack and took to the air again in his R-9 seaplane. Once at the battle site, he dodged anti-aircraft fire to make his run, dropped his own bomb within 100ft of the sub… and watched as it, too, failed to detonate.
He then allegedly proceeded to throw the contents of his toolbox at the U-boat in frustration, followed by the toolbox itself. Though this last ditch attempt predictably failed to do any damage, the U-boat’s captain finally lost his nerve, not knowing that the plane was out of bombs and gave orders to dive and retreat.
Meanwhile, the residents of Orleans were watching the battle from the shore. Afterwards, a local search revealed that several of the incompetent submarine gunner’s shots went so wide they landed in the nearby marsh, making this the only overt, if unintentional, attack on U.S. soil during World War I.
This wasn’t, however, the only attack to hit the American mainland. Two years earlier, on July 30, 1916, a much more serious blow was struck in a German covert operation. The U.S. was still a neutral country at the time, selling munitions to both sides. Due to the British blockade of German ports, however, 90% of that trade benefited the Entente. Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the U.S., had built up a significant spy ring and decided to use them to stem the flow of munitions to Entente forces in Europe.
The attack was aimed at Black Tom Island, an artificial island in New York Harbor next to Liberty Island, used to store ammo headed for the frontlines. On the night of the sabotage, German agents lit fires on the island with incendiary bombs. The flames spread, blowing up 2 million pounds of ammunition.
The explosion was equivalent to a 5.0 to 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. Brooklyn Bridge shook, windows in Manhattan shattered and the Statue of Liberty suffered damage, which forced the torch to be closed to the public, remaining closed ever since. The explosion could be felt in Philadelphia. Bullets and shrapnel flying through the air hindered firefighting efforts.
Though the destruction was much greater than the one wrought by the U-Boat off Orleans two years later, it wasn’t linked to the war at the time. The FBI did not exist yet and the lack of clear jurisdiction and poor coordination between various institutions jockeying for authority – local police, New York police, state police, railway authorities and others – hindered any effective detective work.
Historically, the United States enjoyed good fortune in that many of the wars it was involved in largely occurred far away from its home soil. These two attacks, however, should serve as a reminder that no nation is ever completely safe from the ravages of war. Every conflict, even ones we think of as occurring halfway across the world, has the potential to reach us when we least expect it. You can learn more about how battle in distant lands helped shape and protect America on our historical tours about the American Civil War, World War I and World War II.