(The essay was originally published as “Courtesy During Wartime,” by the Newport Daily News on October 7, 2016.)
One hundred years ago today, October 7, 1916, a German submarine visited Newport for several hours before departing to sink at least five European merchant ships off the coast of Nantucket. At that time the United States was still a neutral country in World War I, a war that had raged in Europe and elsewhere for over two years. The major belligerents included Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, one the one hand, and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, on the other. The US would enter the war in April, 1917.
On Saturday afternoon, October 7, the German submarine, U-53, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, entered Newport harbor and anchored near the cruiser flagship of Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commander of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla, based in Newport. Besides Rose, the crew consisted of three officers and 33 enlisted men.
U-53 was an impressive piece of German engineering and technology. At 212 feet long, it was powered by two 1200-horsepower diesel engines, enabling it to reach a surface speed of 17 knots, a submerged speed of 11 knots, and also to range 9,400 nautical miles. For armament it had four 18-inch torpedo tubes and a pair of 3.5-inch deck guns. According to Rose, it could receive radio transmissions from 2,000 miles.
Once anchored, Rose brought his crew on deck in full uniform complete with medals. He made courtesy calls to both Rear Admiral Gleaves and Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight, commander of the Newport Naval Base and president of the Naval War College. He was told that because of United States neutrality, he could remain but a few hours in Newport or risk internment. Unfazed, he invited high-ranking naval officials and their wives aboard the submarine for a tour and drinks, also inviting members of the press. Before departing the city, Rose was seen handling local newspapers which carried shipping news, suggesting perhaps the true motive for his visit. The very next day it would sink off Nantucket at least five European merchant ships.
However, while the October 7 edition of the Newport Daily News carried a small article on the visit, its lead article was on the World Series between the Boston Americans and the Brooklyn Nationals. Its bold headline read: “More Than 42,000 See the First Big Game.” The game was played “before what was apparently the largest crowd which ever looked upon a battle of base ball (sic).” (Boston won that game and the series four games to one.) Also reported on the front page were the winners of the individual baseball titles. Tris Speaker, playing for Cleveland, won the American League batting title (.390) while Lou McCarty, playing for New York, took it for the National League (.339). Ty Cobb finished second behind Speaker in batting but stole the most bases (68) and had the most runs scored (113).
The paper also contained a large ad for the remarkable “Studebaker”: “Success Is the Thing that Succeeds.” It asserted great claims for the superior performance and sales of the vehicle for the previous 13 months throughout the country as well as in Newport and closed with “Buy a Studebaker,” $875 for a 4-cylinder and $1085 for a 6-cylinder.
Two days later on October 9, the Daily News gave a full report on the nefarious activities of U-53 after departing Newport on its “…Errand of Destruction Off Nantucket Lightship.” It indicated that upon leaving Newport “she changed from a craft intent upon paying social courtesies to one of destruction.” “Soon after daylight Sunday [it] sank her first ship near Nantucket Shoals lightship which is well outside the neutral zone.” In sum it sank at least five merchant ships, three British, one Dutch, and one Norwegian.
The Newport navy flotilla was mobilized to rescue passengers, most ships departing only half-manned. There were no reported casualties from the sinkings as Kapitanleutnant Rose allowed all passengers and crew to abandon the ships before he torpedoed them.
Admiral Gleaves indicated that there were 220 survivors, including 32 women and 10 children. The survivors were brought to Newport by the navy ships; mild weather and calm sea allowed no loss of life in the rescue operations. Newport’s population, including such high society people as Mrs. French Vanderbilt and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, remained at the Government Landing “practically all night, waiting to receive the survivors,” who were cared for locally then subsequently given transport to New York City and Boston.
Historian Brian Wallin underlines the significance of that weekend for Americans by stating: “it demonstrated to Americans the destructive power of German U-boats and served as a warning of what would come if the United States entered the war on the side of the allies.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.