On a foggy summer day, 100 years ago Saturday, the tugboat Perth Amboy and its four barges were sailing a few miles off of Cape Cod en route to the Chesapeake Bay. Suddenly, a German submarine broke the surface.
The 200-foot U-boat fired shells at the unarmed vessels, but some wayward shots struck the shores of Orleans — the first foreign attack on US soil in more than 100 years.
Almost four years after the start of World War I, what had always felt like a distant threat had found its way onto America’s doorstep.
The centennial of the often-forgotten incursion will be commemorated in Orleans this weekend. A town commission has planned several events, including lectures by authors who’ve written about the attack, a concert of popular music during that time, in addition to a summer-long exhibit at the historical society.
This moment in history acted “as a precursor of a country that had been fairly inward-looking and had felt protected by its long distance from the mires of Europe and the terrible wars that had taken place in Europe,” said Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “The ocean was this barrier, and suddenly this ocean wasn’t a barrier anymore.”
There were 32 people aboard the five American vessels. A few were injured by shrapnel, but they all managed to escape into lifeboats.
Although the submarine struggled to hit its targets at first, it managed to sink three of the four barges. Each barge’s captain was accompanied by family members, most of whom lived on board and subsequently lost their homes during the onslaught.
The Lifesavers, an early version of the US Coast Guard, were the closest first responders. Two seaplanes from the Chatham air base responded to the scene by 11:15 a.m.
East Boston resident J. Danforth Taylor was vacationing at a cottage on Nauset Beach when he saw the submarine firing on the barges, according to the Globe’s coverage at the time. He rushed to call the Globe newsroom and started to relay what he saw.
Because there was so much confusion about the attack, Taylor’s account would go on to be one of the most accurate versions.
Fortunately, the shells landed harmlessly on the beach. According to the Globe’s initial article, many beachgoers began to gather on the beach once they realized that the nearby homes weren’t a target. “The bolder ones are now seated on their cottage piazzas watching the fight,” Taylor told the paper.
Pamela Feltus, the executive director of the Orleans Historical Society, said many people on shore started firing their duck-hunting rifles at the U-boat, with little success.
As much as this moment represented a loss of American isolationism, it also became a patriotic symbol.
Jack Ainsleigh, the 11-year-old son of one of the barge’s captains, stood on deck waving the American flag as German shells rained down, according to Feltus. When his father finally convinced him to get on a lifeboat, Ainsleigh stood up again to wave the flag from the boat.
At the time, people couldn’t figure out what had motivated the Germans to go after a target of such little significance. One recent theory suggests that they may have been attempting to sever an underwater communication cable that ran from Orleans to France.
Otherwise, Feltus said, “Why it decided, on a nice Sunday morning, to suddenly surface and suddenly start attacking an innocent tugboat and barges—who knows?”
There is no way of knowing the German version of the story because the submarine hit a mine on its journey back to Germany, killing everyone onboard.
Drummey said he still struggles to find the best way to describe what happened on the beach that day.
“Parts of this are really—I don’t know what the word is — they’re kind of zany,” he said. “They’re kind of funny in the odd sense of a battle as a kind of spectator event.”