It was July 21, 1918 and World War I was in its final year.
The Perth Amboy, a tugboat owned by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co., and four barges were traveling off the coast of Cape Cod when a German submarine surfaced.
The U-boat attacked the unarmed tugboat and barges. Shells fired by U-156 landed on the shores of the tiny seaside town of Orleans, Mass., making it the only U.S. land to be struck by enemy fire during the war.
This little-known event is the subject of a new book, Jake Klim's "Attack on Orleans: The World War I Submarine Raid on Cape Cod" (History Press, $19.99, 128 pp).
Central to the book is the tugboat owned by Lehigh Coal & Navigation.
The company, based in Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), provided water supplies and shipping services in the Lehigh Valley region. It's also known for its construction of the Lehigh Canal.
"The Attack on Orleans" is a detailed historical account, but also has a breezy, journalistic style that can be appreciated by casual history lovers.
Klim, a documentary TV producer in Washington, D.C., developed an interest in the battle as a kid growing up just 20 miles from Orleans.
"I tell stories for a living and I'm a history geek," Klim says. "I happened to start digging in it one day and the more I dug into the history I learned there's also a lot of folklore."
Klim sets the stage for the attack, telling first the story of the USS San Diego, which was en route to New York when an explosion ripped through the hull.
"It had taken only 28 minutes for the San Diego to sink," Klim writes.
There were no signs of a submarine, so much debate ensued about what sank the ship.
Despite what happened to the San Diego, crew members aboard the Perth Amboy and its vessels weren't concerned. They believed they were safe because they were so close to shore.
"'The Perth Amboy was the finest tug in the fleet,' boasted the manager of the freight company, and although the Cape was notorious for bad weather, on July 21, 1918, the sea was eerily calm," Klim writes.
The barges pulled by the tugboat were largely empty. Only one of the four barges had any cargo.
The vessels were carrying 32 people; many were Portuguese who had just immigrated to America. Also on board were the four wives of the barge captains and five children.
"Just before 10:30 that morning," Klim writes, "a deckhand on the Perth Amboy was startled by the sight of something white skipping through the water."
The German sub attacked the ships with torpedoes and then shells. The blast of a shell crashed through the tug's pilothouse, injuring John Bogovich, who was at the helm of the tugboat.
"Stunned and shaken, he noticed that his right arm was nearly severed with two deep, jagged wounds above his elbow," Klim writes.
Later, the tugboat's Capt. James Tapley would write a letter to family members about the attack, according to genealogy website PA-Roots:
"It was not until a third shell had exploded near us that I discovered a submarine about a mile off shore of us and partly submerged. This, I was sure, was the source of the trouble. I had not long to wait before a fourth shell hit the tug and exploded with a terrible report.
"At the time I was partially stunned, but soon regained consciousness to find both doors blown off the pilot house and a large hole in the roof over my head."
The tugboat was ablaze and badly damaged. "As many as 20 shots were fired at the tug, enough shots to sink the entire Lehigh Valley fleet," Klim writes, "but the steel ship refused to sink." Three of the four barges were sunk.
Some of the shells from the sub landed on the shore, terrifying those who had came to the beach to watch the commotion.
No one was killed in the attack.
A New York Times headline about the event read: "U-BOAT GIVES NO WARNING: Women and Children Shelled in Barges; One Man Loses an Arm."
The Times had part of their headline wrong, Klim notes. Bogovich did not lose his arm.
Klim tells how members of the Coast Guard, under enemy fire, saved those aboard the tugboat and barges and how members of the Chatham Naval Air Station attempted (unsuccessfully) to take down the sub.
The sub disappeared into the sea after the attack at Orleans and continued to menace unarmed ships off the Cape. In the fall that year, the sub struck a mine off the coast of Norway and sank.
Joe Garrera, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum and the Lehigh County Historical Society, was not aware of the Valley's connection to this World War I event. The society has no records about the attack or the Perth Amboy's connection to the Valley.
The book's release coincides with the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. While the 90-minute battle at Orleans may not have affected the outcome of the war, it holds special meaning, Klim says.
It was the only time during World War I that American shores were hit by enemy shells and the first time any battles were fought on U.S. soil since The War of 1812.
"Americans were disconnected from the war," Klim says. "Here you have an enemy who can come up from the depths undetected and begins shelling you. This was a terror campaign."
Klim mentions in the book's introduction how the marker dedicated to the attack is on a private stairwell leading to the beach, out of sight of the thousands of sun-searching vacationers each year.
"I'm from Cape Cod and no one knows about this there," Klim says. "This is something that each anniversary ticks away and the generations will take this to their grave, and they are not sharing the stories."
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