The year 1916 saw two unusual occurrences involving German submarines in American waters.
The first was an attempt to find a way of getting around the strangling British sea blockade of Germany. As a blockade runner the Germans built a merchant submarine of 1,800 tons called the Deutschland. The unarmed boat sailed for the United States and arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 9, 1916. In Baltimore it was loaded with 750 tons of dyes and chemicals worth about a million dollars.
In a sense, the audacious submarine was thumbing its nose at the British blockade, a blockade which had irritated the United States on more than one occasion, and its arrival in still-neutral America occasioned a cheer. The Baltimore Sun ran an editorial saying "hats off to the Deutschland," and the German ambassador to the United States, Count J. H. E. von Bernstorff, recalled later that
"the days after the arrival of the Deutschland were the pleasantest I experienced in America during the war."
The merchant submarine returned safely to Germany, and not long afterward a sistership called the Emden sailed for the United States but was never seen again. Germany built no other merchant submarines.
Three months later, on September 20, 1916, the U-53 sailed from Wilhelmshaven on a mission to attack Allied shipping in international waters off the coast of the United States. The first week in October found it in sight of the New England coast line.
The problem for the U-boat's commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. Hans Rose, was to find merchant ships and, having found them, to know which were bound for British or French ports. Rose knew that the New York Times carried a daily shipping page which listed the names, nationalities, times of departure, and destinations of major ships leaving New York. Since there were no copies of the Times available to him at sea, Rose conceived his bold plan: he would sail into an American port and buy one.
So it came about that at two o'clock on the autumn Saturday afternoon of October 7, 1916, the U-53 sailed boldly into Narragansett Bay under the eyes of startled sailors manning U.S. Navy destroyers at anchor there. From the submarine's flagstaff fluttered the ensign of the Imperial German Navy, with its emblazoned maltese cross. In the conning tower was Rose, and on deck in the crisp sunshine were his four officers and many of his thirty-three crewmen.
When the submarine had anchored at Newport, Rhode Island, Rose went ashore. Conforming to proper naval etiquette, he paid a duty call on the senior American naval officer there, Rear Adm. Austin M. Knight, commander of the naval district; and on Rear Adm. Albert Gleaves, commander of the destroyer flotilla. He then made his way into Newport and bought a copy of the New York Times .
When Rose had returned to the U-53 a deputation of American naval officers, likewise conforming to naval etiquette, returned the call he had made on Admirals Knight and Gleaves. On the wardroom table of the submarine the Americans saw Rose's copy of the Times , opened to the shipping page.
At 5:30 in the afternoon the submarine returned to sea and took a position near the Nantucket Shoals Lightship. In short order it sank the Allied and neutral ships Blommersdyk, Westpoint, Stephano, Christian Knudson , and Strathdene , after first ordering their crews to abandon ship.
To nearby U.S. destroyers Rose flashed a message which read,
"Do not interfere with this German submarine and her legitimate prey."
Since the United States was still neutral, and since the action was taking place in international waters and did not involve American ships, the destroyers were powerless to intervene.
A few days later President Woodrow Wilson summoned Ambassador von Bernstorff to his vacation home in New Jersey and cautioned him that the incident must not be repeated.
After the United States entered the war six months later, the venturesome Rose became well known to the American naval staff in London. The staff
"had not the faintest idea whether he was fat or lean, fair or dark," said the American commander, Admiral Sims, "yet they knew his military characteristics intimately. He became such a familiar personality in the convoy room and his methods of operation were so individual, that we came to have almost a certain liking for the old chap."
In keeping with the boldness of his visit to Newport, Rose would sail into a convoy with torpedoes flying, contrary to the more cautious approach of many other U-boat commanders when attacking a well-guarded host of ships. More than once he performed acts of humanity for the survivors of ships the U-53 sank, giving food, or keeping lifeboats together on a tow line until help for them appeared on the horizon.
"It is perhaps not surprising," wrote Sims not long after the war, when animosities still ran high, "that Rose is one of the few German U-boat commanders with whom Allied naval officers would be willing today to shake hands."
The year 1916 saw another unusual event in American waters, one in which a United States submarine indirectly caused the destruction of a United States cruiser. On December 15, 1916, the submarine H-3 went aground off Samoa Beach in northern California. All attempts to refloat it having failed, the cruiser Milwaukee was ordered to the scene, and in trying to drag the submarine into deep water the cruiser itself went aground. The Milwaukee's crew and everything of value that could be removed were saved, but the ship itself was pounded to pieces by a battering surf. Eventually the H-3 was refloated and it rejoined the fleet-but its crew was not at all disposed to claim credit for the destruction of a heavy cruiser!
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