“Lewes was full of frightened persons on Friday,” The Wilmington Evening Journal reported on July 16, 1917, “when what was thought to be a submarine was discovered off the beach near the Breakwater, and the citizens were satisfied that the Germans would land in a short time.”
Enemy soldiers did not come storming ashore; but it was not the first time that coastal residents were terrified that enemy troops were headed their way, nor would it be the last time.
Residents of the Delaware coast had a long tradition of being on the front lines of America’s wars. During the American Revolution, enemy ships regularly patrolled the waters around Cape Henlopen; and during the War of 1812, a British squadron bombarded Lewes.
Rumors of enemy vessels off the Delaware coast were rampant during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, but these threats did not materialize.
In August 1914, World War I began in Europe, and President Woodrow Wilson declared that United States would not enter the conflict.
The German use of submarine warfare, however, convinced Wilson to abandon his neutral stance; and in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Three months later, a suspected submarine was spotted near the Delaware Breakwater, prompting a panic in Lewes.
The large, grey object near the breakwater remained motionless as the gentle waves flowed over it. When the supposed submarine failed to move, and enemy soldiers failed to appear, some in the crowd that had assembled on the shore decided it was time to get a closer look at the presumed U-boat.
The Evening Journal noted, “A few brave fishermen, head by Clarence Edgins and George Horner, slipped out to scout around.” The two men discovered a large, dead whale, more than 150 feet long, stuck on a sandbar.
The dead whale had been no reason to panic, but rumors persisted that German submarines were lurking off the Delaware coast. A year later, those fears fed a full-fledged panic among those defending the coast.
In June 1918, the tanker Herbert L. Pratt, commanded by Capt. H. H. Bennett, was heading northward past Rehoboth toward Cape Henlopen. Sailing nearby was the tanker Arco. Suddenly, an explosion tore through the hull of the Pratt. The tanker’s crew quickly made for the lifeboats and rowed to safety.
Capt. Bennett reported that he had spotted the wake of a submarine, and in the best tradition of jingoistic journalism New York Times reported: “(The Arco) ran a gauntlet of shellfire, but managed to keep out of range till well inside the barrier, where the submarine would not follow.”
The “gauntlet of shellfire” 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 scurrying in pursuit of the phantom submarine.
The New York Times breathlessly reported, “Tonight the waters surrounding the southern end of New Jersey and the Delaware shore are swarming with chasers.”
The explosion aboard the Herbert L. Pratt had been caused by a submerged mine, planted by a German submarine days earlier. The enemy vessel was long gone by the time the waters off Cape Henlopen were swarming with patrol boats.
The dangerous German mine was no dead whale. The danger was real, but the panic that was caused by the explosion led to a useless waste of ammunition, as the navy patrol boats scuttering about the coast fired at phantom submarines; and Lewes remained “full of frightened persons.”
Evening Journal, July 16, 1917,
New York Times June 4, 1918.
German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920, p. 126.