NEWPORT — A U.S. Navy crew a few miles east of Point Judith spotted the German U-53 gliding along the surface toward Newport. After initially keeping its distance from the American vessel, Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose asked for permission to enter Newport harbor — and received the OK.
“I salute our American comrades and follow in your wake,” Rose, who commanded the U-53, said through his megaphone.
The purpose of the Germans' audacious, surprise visit remained to be seen. For now, their presence on the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1916, was simply a source of intrigue and excitement.
Historian Brian Wallin gave a lecture Saturday about what transpired after U-53 docked off Goat Island and its implications for the First World War and the then-neutral United States. A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the front room of the National Museum of American Illustration to hear “The U-Boat in Newport Harbor.”
The museum has an exhibit, “American Illustration and the First World War,” that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the resolution of “The War to End All Wars,” with the work of American illustrators “accomplished in swaying opinions and rallying National support for the war effort.”
“By 1916, the Germans were well ahead of the Allies in submarine technology,” Wallin wrote in an article about the episode that formed the foundation of his lecture. “They had excellent torpedoes for both surface and undersea launches. In addition to attack submarines, they were building a fleet of large, long-range merchant cargo submarines capable of round trips across the Atlantic without refueling.”
Upon dropping anchor, Rose made it to shore and met with Adm. Austin M. Knight, commander of the Newport Naval Base and president of the Naval War College, who conducted a “formal and somewhat stiff and formal interview with Rose and informed him that he could remain in the neutral port only a few hours, or risk being interned,” according to Wallin’s account. Rose, which is pronounced Roos-uh, assured the Americans the German boat would depart before 6 p.m.
American officers, including an intelligence officer, accepted an invitation aboard the German submarine to witness its superior technology. Wallin said it ran about 212 feet long and was powered by two, 1,200-horsepower, six-cylinder diesel engines, with a maximum surface speed of 17 knots. The boat carried four 18-inch torpedo tubes, with four backups, as well as two 8.8-centimeter deck guns.
The crew of more than 30 wore their dress uniforms and greeted the American naval officers and civilian onlookers with music played on a phonograph. During the brief visit, the Germans got an opportunity to peruse a copy of The New York Times, which might be all they wanted in the first place, Wallin said. The newspaper published shipping news notices, giving the Germans information about the whereabouts and tracks for specific vessels. As promised, the U-53 crew lifted anchor and departed through Rhode Island Sound, heading out beyond U.S. territorial waters toward Nantucket.
The information gleaned from the newspaper was put to use the next day, when the Germans sank five merchant ships, of which three had British origins and the other two were Dutch and Norwegian, according to Wallin.
Rose, who had a reputation as an effective, yet humane leader, allowed all passengers and crews to board lifeboats before destroying the boats.
With their mission completed, the Germans made the return trip home.
“The entire incident infuriated the British,” Wallin wrote. “The Germans had the audacity to pull into Newport, blatantly gather strategic information (and publicity), and depart unmolested to continue their war patrol, with the neutral Americans not legally allowed to take direct action against them.”
Much would change in the months after the fateful meeting between U-53 and Americans in Newport Harbor.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany, helping tip the scales in favor of the Allies. “The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany on Feb. 1, 1917, was the key event that turned the American public from neutral ground at home to the trenches of Europe,” according to an article on the U.S. Army’s website.
Rose, who went on to sink 79 merchant ships and one American destroyer, finished his submarine career as the Germans’ fifth-most prolific World War I submarine ace, Wallin said. He was briefly recalled to active duty as a training officer at the start of World War II. He died in 1969.
And the crew of U-53 surrendered on Dec. 1, 1918. The British, who failed to intercept and destroy the boat on its way back to Germany in 1916, dismantled the boat in Swansea in 1922.