It was six months after the United States entered the war before the first American submarines departed for the European war zone, and none made it. The vessels were small boats designed for coastal defense rather than for operations on the high seas. They crossed the Atlantic as far as the Azores but could go no farther, and operated out of Punta Delgada for the rest of the war, with no particular success.
Another squadron of American submarines, of the larger L class, crossed the Atlantic successfully and operated out of Bantry Bay, Ireland. It was one of these boats, the L-11 under Lt. A. C. Bennett, that fired two torpedoes at a surfaced German submarine only to have the second torpedo overtake and strike the first short of their mark, exploding them both.
On July 10, 1918, another of the American L-class submarines, the L-2 under Lt. E. A. Logan, had a strange experience. It was returning to Bantry Bay on the surface, having completed a patrol. In the evening at about 6:30 a lookout in the L-2's conning tower sighted an object on the submarine's starboard bow. Captain Logan gave the order to investigate, and the L-2 headed for it. On the way a tremendous explosion close aboard almost lifted the American submarine's stern out of the water. The lights on the submarine went out, and several motors were thrown out of alignment. At the same time an enormous geyser broke the surface less than 200 feet away, and water from it showered down on the L-2.
When the cascade of water had dropped back into the sea, Logan saw a periscope extending 6 feet above the surface here the blast had occurred. It quickly slipped from sight,and Logan immediately gave orders for his submarine to dive.
Beneath the surface the L-2's hydrophone operator could hear oscillator signals being sent out by another submarine. No answering signals were being made. Apparently what had happened was that there had been two German submarines patrolling off Bantry Bay, perhaps for the purpose of attacking returning American submarines. It seems likely that one of the U-boats fired a torpedo at the L-2, which missed but passed on to strike and sink the other.
Probably the worst run of luck of any of the L-class boats was experienced by the L-4 under Lt. Lewis Hancock. On one occasion Hancock sighted a U-boat but was out of position to fire a torpedo and instead attempted to ram it. He hit it only a glancing blow and the U-boat got away. Later he sighted another U-boat.on the surface and this time he fired a torpedo, but it missed. A week later he sighted still another U-boat and fired a torpedo — and missed again.
Two days later Hancock sighted another U-boat and fired two torpedoes this time, taking no chances. The first missed and the second suffered a malfunction in its guidance equipment that sent it boomeranging back toward the L-4, narrowly missing it. (Adding insult to injury, the "U-boat" proved to be a British trawler which, understandably, was mad as a hornet about the whole business.) Two weeks later the L-4 itself experienced a malfunction and sank, fortunately in shallow water, and its crew was able to repair it.
Back in operation the L-4 was riding on the surface with the Stars and Stripes and its signal flags flying when Hancock sighted an American destroyer approaching. From the numbers on its bow Hancock quickly identified it as the USS Allen. Hancock's pleasure at seeing it changed abruptly when the Allen opened fire. The shooting at the L-4 stopped only when the Allen was just two thousand yards away and had identified the submarine as American. Fortunately the destroyer's gunnery was as poor as the submarine's luck.
(The L-4 was not the only L-class boat to be attacked by a ship of the United States Navy. The L-10, commanded by Lt. James C. Van de Carr, was depth-charged by an American destroyer, and finally surfaced in desperation. On the surface Van de Carr found that the attacking destroyer was the USS Sterrett, commanded by the man who had been his roommate at Annapolis.)
On the whole the United States Navy's surface ships fared better than its submarines in action against U-boats. In November, 1917, the American destroyers Fanning and Nicholson were escorting a convoy off the British Isles. On the bridge of the Fanning, Coxswain David D. Loomis, a lookout, sighted an object through his binoculars. "Periscope!" he called. Immediately the officer of the deck, Lt. Walter S. Henry, shouted the helm orders that headed the Fanning toward the object. The Nicholson, too, peeled off from its station.
By the time the destroyers reached the spot, the periscope had disappeared, but the ships dropped depth charges set for the depth at which the submarine would probably be. While the convoy continued on its way, the two destroyers stood over the spot for ten or fifteen minutes without sighting evidence of any success of their attack.
Suddenly the stern of a U-boat emerged from the water at an angle of 30 degrees. It was followed by the conning tower, with U-58 painted on it in white. Both destroyers immediately opened fire, and the Nicholson dropped another depth charge.
The submarine's conning tower hatch opened in the din of the firing, and round-faced Kapitanleutnant Gustav Amberger appeared, his arms raised in surrender. In quick order all of the submarine's four officers and thirty-five men emerged and ran out on deck, and the firing stopped. The American ships were close enough to hear the submariners' surrendering shouts of "Kamerad!" The U-58 soon sank, and its crew was taken aboard the destroyers as prisoners. The Americans were jubilant with their catch, and the Germans were happy enough at finding themselves alive to break into song.
Many nights American destroyers received messages from Hans Rose on the U-53 who, in the autumn of 1916, had paid a surprise visit to Newport, Rhode Island. The messages always gave a fictitious position and ended with the taunt "Come and get me; I am waiting for you." After more than one wild-goose chase the destroyers came to ignore them.
Rose, however, did sink one American destroyer, the Jacob Jones, with a single torpedo fired from the extreme range of two miles. At considerable risk to himself, the U-boat captain surfaced and sent out an SOS to the American naval communication center at Queenstown, Ireland — something the Jacob Jones, which sank like a stone, had not had time to do for itself. The position Rose gave was not fictitious this time, and many of the Jones's crewmen probably owed their lives to his message.
On September 2, 1918, the U-53 was severely damaged and was thought to have been sunk by depth charges from the American destroyers Wilkes and Parker, but it managed to limp back to its port in Germany. Both Rose and the U-53 survived the war.
Four days after the Wilkes and Parker almost ended Rose's career, three American submarine chasers operating 150 miles west of the southwestern tip of England picked up the noises of a submarine on their hydrophones at 11:30 in the morning. One of the American craft, under Ens. Ashley D. Adams, immediately attacked, and though the attack apparently did not damage the submarine, it did succeed in putting one of the nearby submarine chasers out of action with the blast of a depth charge.
For the next two hours the remaining chasers followed their contact, listening with hydrophones. The sounds they heard were not definite enough to warrant attack, but before long a slight wake, such as submerged submarines sometimes make in calm seas, was seen on the surface. The wake was right over the place where the hydrophone operators thought the submarine was lurking. On the strength of this evidence, depth charges again were dropped and this time a black cylinder about 2½ feet long shot up from the depths to a height of 60 feet in the air. It apparently came from the submarine, which sank to the bottom in 300 feet of water.
With their sensitive hydrophones the listening American sailors could hear the sound of hammering in the sunken U-boat. The Germans were apparently trying to make repairs. Since the submarine chasers had expended all of their depth charges, they could not destroy it. A message was sent for assistance, and the chasers stayed on the scene, but during the night the location of the submarine was lost.
The next day, with assistance on hand, all of the hydrophone operators strained to hear a sound that would fix the U-boat's position. They heard nothing until five in the afternoon, and then came sounds "that made the listeners' blood run cold." Twenty-five shots from a pistol were heard, indicating that twenty-five men in the helpless submarine had shot themselves.
In addition to the growing skill and strength of their naval forces, the Americans contributed improved technology to the war against submarines. The highly sensitive hydrophone was an American contribution, and it was used by the Royal Navy as well as the United States Navy.
Near the end of the war, a British destroyer put one of these underwater listening devices to unusual use in an attack on a submarine in the area where the Adriatic Sea joins the Mediterranean. After dropping depth charges, the British destroyer stopped its engines and hove to, with its hydrophone operator listening intently for the slightest whisper coming from a submarine below. The earphones of the hydrophone apparatus were connected to a wire which went over the side of the ship and dropped down 15 or 20 feet into the sea. At the end of the wire was a lead pipe from which protruded the sensitive copper-wire antennas of the listening device.
Before long the British hydrophone operator heard a slight noise, which suddenly increased to a roar louder than anything he had ever heard in his earphones before. Then, just as suddenly, the noises ceased.
The British sailor could offer no explanation for the roar, but the reason became clear a minute or two later. Over the side of the ship, pulling himself up hand over hand on the wire of the hydrophone, came an enormous German sailor, dripping wet, up from the bottom of the sea.
In the sinking of his submarine the German had been blown out of the conning tower, or had gotten out some other way — he himself did not know exactly what had happened — and in thrashing around in his attempt to reach the surface he had grabbed onto the lead pipe and the sensitive copper antennas of the hydrophone, setting up the roar that had almost burst the listening British sailor's eardrums. Following the wire upward, the German came to the surface and pulled himself up on deck, the only survivor (and the only evidence) of the sinking.
A delighted British officer of the destroyer wrote to an American friend that "we have found a new use for your listening device — salvaging drowning Huns."
Another American improvement in antisubmarine devices was made by Ralph C. Browne, an electrical engineer of Salem, Massachusetts. Browne developed an antenna which fired mines electrically. As a result of it, U-boats could no longer occasionally scrape past a mine safely. It was estimated that Browne's electrical detonator increased the efficiency of antisubmarine mines by a factor of four; where four mines were needed to do a job before, a single one of the improved mines could do the job now.
The new detonator made it possible to put a mine barrier entirely across the 250 miles of the North Sea from northern Scotland to Norway. Instead of the prohibitive number of 400,000 mines which previously would have been required, the job could be done with 100,000 mines now. The North Sea mine barrier project was adopted on November 2, 1917, and by the end of the war some 70,000 mines had been sown, 56,000 by minelayers of the United States Navy. It is thought that the barrier accounted for twenty U-boats.
Britain was more than willing to give credit to the Americans for their antisubmarine efforts.
"When the war is over," said the London Daily Telegraph, "the nation will form some conception of the extent of the debt which we owe the American Navy for the manner in which it has cooperated not only in connection with the convoy system, but in fighting submarines. If the naval position is improving today, as it is, it is due to the fact that the British and American fleets are working in closest accord."
Britain's first sea lord, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, was equally free with his praise.
"The American officers and men are first-rate. It is impossible to pay too high a tribute to the manner in which they settled down to this job of submarine hunting, and to the intelligence, resource, and courage which they have exhibited. They came on the scene at an opportune moment."
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