When German U-boats Brought World War I to the Delaware Coast

The people of Lewes were stunned. After a century of peace, war was again at their doorstep.

The Wilmington Evening Journal reported on June 4, 1918: “Never since the British fired on Lewes [during the War of 1812] Has this city been so hectic as it is, and for most of the population there was no talk of sleeping last night.

In 1914, World War I had begun in Europe, and the United States was determined to remain neutral. The sinking of the Lusitania, the German submarine war and other factors convinced the United States, in 1917, to go to war.

For more than a year America’s participation in World War I was confined mostly to Europe, but on June 4, 1918, 16 men and two women, tired, frightened, half alive, made his way along the pier to the firm ground of the Cape. Henloopen.

These 18 weary people were the survivors of a German submarine attack on the passenger ship Carolina off the US east coast. World War I had crossed the ocean to the Delaware coast.

In April 1918, the German submarine, U-151, left the city of Kiel on the German Baltic coast, and a month later the submarine reached the mid-Atlantic coast. After deploying mines near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and off Cape Henlopen, U-151 went to fire on American ships.

On the evening of June 2, 1918, the German submarine spotted the American liner Carolina, 50 miles east of Cape Henlopen. Returning to the surface, the submarine fired five rounds over the bow and stern of the Carolina, which slowed to a stop.

The Germans ordered everyone aboard the Carolina to board the lifeboats. When the last of the lifeboats, carrying over 300 passengers and crew, was cleared from the liner, the Germans fired seven shells from the submarine’s deck gun at the Carolina, which sank first.

On May 1, 1915, the British freighter and passenger ship Lusitania set sail for England on her final voyage from New York.  The British liner was sunk off Ireland on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat, killing 1,150 people, including 114 Americans.  (AP Photo, File)

Lifeboats full of survivors were left adrift on the calm ocean more than 50 miles from the mid-Atlantic coast.

On June 3, the day after the Caroline sank, two tankers, the Herbert L. Pratt and the Arco, were sailing north between Rehoboth Beach and Lewes.

Suddenly, an explosion lifted the Pratt as if hitting a sandbar. The bow of the Pratt quickly filled with water, the engines stopped running, and the crew abandoned ship.

The Pratt’s sailors were picked up by passing ships and landed at Lewes, where they reported they had been attacked by a German U-boat.

The report of a submarine caused consternation among Navy patrol sailors and the captain of the tanker Arco, which steamed for the safety of the Delaware breakwater. In the best tradition of chauvinist journalism, The New York Times reported that the Arco ran, “a gauntlet of shells”.

Michael Morgan

The “shell glove” was imaginary and did not exist; but the report that a German U-boat was off Cape Henlopen sent a small flotilla of patrol boats rushing in pursuit of the phantom U-boat.

The New York Times breathlessly reported: “When they reached a point seven miles off the coast, they began to fire violently, and the sailors here believed they had spotted the trace of the one of the submarines. Tonight, the waters around the southern tip of New Jersey and the Delaware coast are teeming with hunters to do battle with the Huns.

World War I had come to the doorstep of the Delaware coast.

Main sources:

Evening newspaper, June 4, 1918.

The Morning Leader, Regina, Saskatchewan, June 6, 1918 http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=0cVSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kjcNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6096,754133&dq=lewes+delaware+carolina&hl=en

The Miami Herald, June 5, 1918, Newspaper Abstracts, http://www.newspaperabstracts.com/link.php?id=55011

New York Times, June 4 and 5, 1918.

German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920, p. 126.

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Earnest A. Martinez