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Easy prey for a U-boat

It’s Aug. 14, 1918, and the five-masted Maine-built coasting schooner Dorothy B. Barrett, a vestige of the 19th century, is in her death throes off New Jersey, the victim of 20th century technology: the German U-boat. “The last we saw of our vessel she was in flames and fast sinking, but whether the Germans had boarded and fired her or she had taken fire from the shells I do not know,” said Capt. William Merritt, who had taken to the dory with his crew of 10 and were picked up by a patrol vessel while rowing ashore.

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Since the beginning of World War I in 1914, the U-boat, or unterseeboot, had dealt crippling blows to Allied shipping in European waters. Now the Germans were invading U.S. waters with a long-range version of the deadly craft. The ponderous wooden ship was simply no match.

In May 1918, under the command of Korvettenkapitän Heinrich von Nostitz, U-151 sank six schooners in a single day. They were easy prey. Von Nostitz would surface at close range, train a gun on the vessel and hail the captain and crew, giving them mere minutes to abandon ship. Gathering what they could, the mariners took to the small boats and rowed off a safe distance to watch helplessly. A bombing team was then sent aboard to scuttle the vessel. Torpedoes were far too valuable to use on a wooden sailing ship, so timed explosives often were used.
The U-boat captains could be gallant, offering water and rations — and condolences — to the schooner crews. “Good luck,” one reportedly shouted to a survivor. “The New Jersey coast is just 40 miles away.” Then they would scramble back into their submarine and sink out of sight. The easy pickings didn’t last. Air and sea patrols began tracking the U-boats, submarine nets and mines held them at bay, the schooners began defending themselves, and the convoy system made it harder for a U-boat to catch a vessel by itself. In November 1918 the war came to an end, but the U-boat had dealt a crippling blow to the U.S. commercial sailing vessel, speeding its inevitable demise.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.