WWI Letters: “The U-boat Ordered Us To Stop”

Earlier this year when I was in Virginia, a smart salesperson convinced me to make a sizeable investment in a sizeable book called “A History of Shenandoah Country, Virginia.” I thought I was buying the book for Civil War history (and indeed I have used it in my new manuscript), but I also found a treasury of letters from World War I printed in the book! It appears that some of the letters were publicly published in local newspapers or later collected for the volume.

The letter I’m sharing today details the sinking of an American passenger ship by a German U-boat. Check out the letter, and I’ve included a few historical footnotes at the end…

The Letter

June 11, 1918

On the 30th of January last, I signed a contract with the Purdy Henderson Co., of N.Y., and Major Steward, Constructing Quartermaster of the U.S. Quarters Department to go to Porto Rico to construct a cantonment, better known as a camp for the housing and training of twenty thousand troops who are to give us a hand in our present and third struggle for freedom…

Owing to the death of my wife’s father and illness of my mother, we decided to return home, leaving San Juan, May 29th, 5 p.m., returning on the same ship, S.S. Carolina, having this time 216 passengers and 111 crew, many of whom were women and children. This trip was extraordinarily good…

On Sunday, June 2nd, 6 p.m., I was talking to a friend who was one of the engineers on Camp Las Casas. I noticed the ship was swinging toward land He and I walked to the starboard bow. Seeing nothing I returned to my room, No. 69, well back on the starboard quarter. Just as I had joined my wife to go to dinner, I heard the report of a heavy rifle; simultaneously a shell exploded about 50 yards astern of the ship. Looking out upon the sea I saw a German U-boat about two miles away. My wife asked what it was. I told her it was a submarine.

We then walked to the dining saloon. As we entered the second shot passed over our wireless. Upon entering the saloon which was crowded the question was asked:

“What is it?

I said a German submarine. Everyone left the saloon for their rooms to get their life preservers.

SS Carolina

Just as I came out on deck the third shot landed about 35 yards off of our starboard beam and exploded.

The U-boat ordered us to stop, also to strop wiring and they would stop firing. Having then sent three radio distress messages which were acknowledged by several stations along the coast, we of course obeyed.

The U-boat came closer and closer until an officer could talk to our Captain, giving us orders to take our life boats by  6:20 p.m. The life boats were in the water, by that time. The U-boat had passed around the Carolina and was drifting about 300 yards astern of her.

The starboard side boats, of which there were five, had to pass between the Carolina and the U-boat in order to join the rest of the party.

In so doing I passed within 100 yards of the U-boat, having a good look at her and the crew, of which there were about 35 or 40 on deck, all in slickers.

After rowing about ¾ of a mile away, the U-boat passed around the Carolina’s bow again, fired 4 six inch shells into her portside, then passed around to starboard side and fired two more shots making a total of 6 shots, setting her on fire in three places.

As we rowed toward land, we could see the ship gradually, but slowly sinking and burning very slowly.

As near as I can say, she sank 8:10 standard time or 9:10 military time. We were thus about 60 miles from land with tide and wind against us. At about 11 p.m. a gale blew up which caused the sea to get very rough. Our boats began to toss and for at least an hour we had to fight this midnight storm, after which it began to rain, quieting the sea slowly.

At day break we could see all the boats except the motor boat and boat 5.

We stuck to our oars. At 11 a.m. Monday June 3rd, we sighted a 4 mast schooner. Hailing it we rowed… It was then 12:30. All hands were aboard the schooner. Two thirty p.m. lunch as served. We then headed for New York. Later the breeze died out and we drifted back to sea about 45 miles, being the 2nd time in the submarine zone. Fortunately they were not around.

German U-boat 151 which sunk the Carolina

Tuesday morning a breeze came up and we sailed in. Dropped anchor five miles off shore.

We then sent a party ashore. They wired N.Y. After they returned, a scout boat came up took us in tow and headed for New York. 1 a.m. Wednesday a tug came out with plenty of food and coffee, also blankets for most every one.

The tug then lined up to our side, carried us up the river and placed us beside the wharf.

The red cross was there with food, coffee, and medicines. Also had auto to carry the passengers to homes already provided; also ambulances and medical corps were there outside the gates to the wharf, where a section of the ladies State National guards of N.Y. were in their autos, ready to take us to hotels and homes or where ever we wised to go.

After getting settled in our hotel we took up the papers finding that the motor boat and 5 had landed at Atlantic City, with 8 passengers and five of the crew missing, due to the motor boat being capsized in the storm on Sunday night. To the best of my knowledge the casualties are remaining at 13, our so called unlucky number.

In conclusion I wish to say this is what we may call the war at our doors.

Therefore we should think and act accordingly. Remember our forefathers died to give us this freedom.

Just ask yourself the question, what will I do to retain this freedom.

Then step out and fight along side of your neighbor whom you have had fighting for you The task will be very much easier, easier for all.

Truly yours, James A. Brill.

Zepp, Va

Historical Notes

  • June 2, 1918, is known in maritime history as “Black Sunday” since six vessel were sunk that day by one German submarine off the United States east coast; one of those ships was the Carolina.
  • U-boat 151 – the infamous perpetrated of “Black Sunday” – had been commissioned in 1917 and during its World War I cruises sunk 34 ships with its torpedoes or deck cannons.
  • Wrecked Carolina has been found offshore from Atlantic City, New Jersey, and some items have been salvaged from the vessel.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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