This Was Then: The Perth Amboy

When the Germans took aim at a tugboat.

The tug Perth Amboy, shelled by a German submarine in the summer of 1918, awaits repairs at the wharf in Vineyard Haven. Courtesy Chris Baer.

One hundred years ago this week, one day after the first (and only) German attack on U.S. soil in World War I, wounded survivors arrived in Vineyard Haven Harbor to a rousing ovation.

The 213’ German submarine U-156, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Richard Feldt of the Imperial German Navy and his crew of 77, had been harassing the Atlantic fishing fleet for weeks, laying mines and sinking fishing boats as well as one armored US Navy cruiser (the USS San Diego, off Fire Island.) On Sunday morning, July 21, 1918, the tugboat Perth Amboy was headed south around the lower Cape toward New York City, towing three empty barges and one barge full of granite, when the U-boat attacked. It reportedly fired three torpedos — each missing their mark — and over the next ninety minutes fired at least 147 rounds from the sub’s dual 5.9-inch deck guns at the hapless tug.

The shots went wild, and many snarky comments were later made about the Germans’ terrible marksmanship that day. At least one shell hit the shoreline in Orleans, and large crowds of beachgoers gathered on the beach to examine the crater and watch the battle three miles offshore. But the Perth Amboy was incredibly lucky, as this U-boat had sunk every ship it attacked thus far in its mission. Miraculously, none of the 32 men, women, and children on board the tug and barges was killed, but at least fourteen crewmen were injured, some seriously. All four barges sank.

Four naval bomber seaplanes were scrambled from their station in Chatham. The aviators circled the sub, dropping a series of powerful bombs, but they were all duds — none detonated, and no damage was done. The sub returned fire, and missed. The U-boat departed to the south, unharmed. The passengers and most of the wounded crewmen were taken to shore on lifeboats, but the captain and a handful of sailors remained onboard.

Many have speculated why the U-boat would bother wasting an estimated $50,000 of ammunition on an unarmed tugboat carrying almost no cargo. Did it mistake the Perth Amboy for the two loaded colliers carrying a valuable load of coal which had passed the area earlier that morning? Had the sub been caught in the act of trying to locate and cut the transatlantic telegraph cable which ran from Orleans to France? (Ironically, one of the sinking barges reportedly landed on and damaged it.) Or was it, as Rear Admiral Spencer Wood would soon declare, an act to “impress the American public with the nearness of the German operations”?

The upper part of the Perth Amboy was badly burned and riddled with shells, but there was almost no damage below the waterline, and its engine remained in good condition. Rear Admiral Wood described the attack as “little short of ridiculous” and “a circus stunt.” An inquiry was opened on the malfunction of the American bombs.

The Perth Amboy was towed into Vineyard Haven harbor the next afternoon by a second tug for preliminary repairs. Vessels in the harbor, having heard the news in advance, saluted the ship with “ the prolonged blowing of whistles and the sounding of gongs,” according to the Boston Globe. The cheering went on for several minutes. Manuel Gomez, steward, was admitted to the Marine Hospital for a leg wound caused by a piece of shell.

As thousands of curious onlookers crowded the wharf over the next couple of days, the Perth Amboy’s remaining crew distributed scores of shrapnel pieces to souvenir hunters. Capt. Edward Jones Smith, the 71-year-old Vineyard Haven gentleman in charge of the wharf, was given the most impressive souvenir — the pilot’s gold watch, melted and embedded into the electric light fixture it had been hung upon in the wheel room shortly before the first shell struck. (The retired whaler’s son, Edward “Iceberg” Smith, would later become a Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard, and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.) Historian Henry Norton called it “the most exciting incident” of the war for most Vineyarders.

Coal barges were held in Vineyard Haven Harbor for the next few days out of caution. Four days later, the privately-owned Cape Cod Canal was seized by the Federal Government. Vessels which previously had to choose between paying a steep toll to use the canal, or circumnavigating the Cape, could now safely cross for free.

The U-156 went on to attack another 29 fishing vessels, steamers, and other vessels along the Atlantic coast over the next five weeks, sinking 28 of them. Finally, attempting to return home in September to a country which was rapidly losing the war, the sub was believed lost with all aboard in a minefield in the North Sea. The Perth Amboy was repaired at a cost of about $25,000, and remained in service another three decades.