Editor’s note: Joe Yukna, co-founder of Cape Cod Military Museum, has stories to share about the bravery and exploits of fishermen during the World Wars. The story below is excerpted from old newspaper articles the museum has gathered and tells the story of fishing vessels on Georges Bank being sunk by U-boats during World War One. There will be more stories to come in future e-magazines.
Nine fishing schooners were sunk by a submarine on Aug. 10 (1918) on the southeast part of Georges Bank about 160 miles from Cape Cod. Although about 20 dories were sent scurrying about in the ocean as the U-boat sent vessel after vessel to the bottom, there were no casualties, as far as can be learned. Weather was reasonably calm and inside of 36 hours all dories had been picked up by other vessels and their occupants brought safely to shore.
Captain Lynch, lately skipper of the Anastasia E. told the story to a reporter the other day as breakfast was cooking at his home, 81 Summer Street. A modest man of few words, he nevertheless, injected a wealth of drama into the yarn, while leaving much to be filled in by the imagination. Listen to him:
“We were swordfishing around 41 degrees on Georges. It was about 9 o’clock in the morning when one of my men on the Anita May sighted to the east-ard. It was coming along on the surface but we didn’t know it was a sub until it came closer.
I said, “Boys that looks like a submarine, let’s beat it.” We started to run and he let loose with the big guns. He didn’t shoot directly at us, but over our heads, so that the shells fell ahead of us, churning up the water and making us hesitate to head under where they were dropping.
So we let her lay and he came along side. The submarine captain spoke good English— better than I do—and he told us to put the dories over and board him. The seven of us loaded into two dories pulled over to the submarine and went aboard. The first thing they did was to line us up and take snapshots of us. Wanted them for the Kaiser’s album, I guess.
Those Germans were mostly barefooted and wearing pants of some smooth black material that looked to me like oilcloth. There were about 50 of them and each one had a gun. They asked us some questions and treated us fine.
“Then the captain sent some men over to the Anita May. They put a bomb on her, ran a fuse along the rigging, lighted it, and rowed back to the sub. The captain sent me below so I didn’t see her go, but the boys told me afterwards that when the bomb went off she sank almost immediately.
“I had pleaded with the German for my boat—it wasn’t really mine, it belonged to a Boston man named Costa—I told him it meant my living. But he paid no attention. He told four of my men to take one of the dories and head for Boston. Later on, he let me and the other two boys pull away in the other dory. We rowed all the rest of that day, all night and until 5 o’clock the next afternoon when we were picked up in South Channel by the trawler Acushla of South Boston and taken to Boston.
“I don’t recollect that we were scared much, although we didn’t know just what his intentions were when he started firing those shells at us. But he treated us all right, except for blowing up the boat. We were a little tired when the Acushla picked us up, after rowing for 28 hours, but the captain let us turn to while his men kept right on fishing in spite of what we told them.”
The nine fishing vessels sent to the bottom that day were valued at from $5,000 to $12,000 each. They were part of a fleet of about 25 craft off the Banks, and if recollection of Captain Lynch and other fishermen serves were: The Anita May, the Reliance, the Katie Palmer, Starbuck, Liza Bennet, Earl and Nettie, Old Time, Cruiser, and Mary Sennett. The Gleaner, Captain Edward A. Proctor and the auxiliary schooner Albert Black of Portland, ME were among those fired upon, which escaped.
Exciting and anxious days followed first reports of the submarine’s attack on the fishing fleet. The air was full of wild rumors and although boys from this vicinity were falling on the European battlefields almost daily then, it was the first time the war had come so close to these shores.
The price of swordfish jumped from 32 to 46 cents a pound. There were rumors that 20 to 30 boats had been sunk. A heavy fog hung over the water, although there was little wind, and several dories passed rescue boats and rowed to Nantucket and other ports.
Among the first of the rescued fishermen to reach New Bedford was Captain Edward Russell and Fred Quinlan of the Katie Palmer. Quinlan, whose home was in Maine, said a shot fired across the Palmer’s bow halted her.
“The submarine took us aboard and sent us below, gave us some grub and a drink of rum, while they were blowing up our ship. Then they turned us loose in the dories. There were 50 men adrift by that time, I guess,” said Quinlan.
Three members of the Katie Palmer’s crew rowed 120 miles and landed at ‘Sconset on Nantucket Island. Six survivors of the Earl and Nettie brought to Nantucket reported their schooner sunk by gunfire. The Acushla put into Boston two days after the attack with 14 rescued men from three schooners on board. They included Captain Jackson of the Progress, Captain Albert Sanchez of the Starbuck and Captain Lynch of the Anita May.
Captain Jackson’s boat, Progress was nearly new and one of the finest of those sunk. Ten years after it was sent to the bottom he received $12,000 from the German government in payment for his loss. Others of his crew, including Captain Louis Doucette of New Bedford, received money for personal losses resulting from sinking of the Progress.
Captain Jackson recalled an exchange of words between the submarine captain and Captain Lynch of New Bedford over who was going to win the war.
“We’re going to beat you, and it’s going to be a real licking,” Lynch told him.
(Jerry Ellis, who co-founded the museum with Joe Yukna said that most believe the U-boat was number 156 – the same one that fired on a small convey of barges off Orleans that July. That moment was the only attack on the contiguous U.S. during World War I.)