In the pre-dawn light on October 8th, 1916 the American Transport Lines freighter S.S. Kansan was in international water off of the Nantucket Lightship, heading for a stopover in Boston on the 9th, when an unfamiliar shape suddenly appeared close by. This soon proved to be the German submarine U-53, one of the new U-51 class of long range boats, on its first patrol.
The Kansan hove to as ordered and was promptly boarded. After calling at Boston the Kansan was to head for St. Nazaire in France with a mixed cargo already on board that included steel billets, iron pigs and even a number of horses. The commander of the U-53 could declare this cargo as contraband under the terms of the blockade and seize the Kansan as a prize, except for the fact that the Kansan wasn’t actually in international commerce yet, so under Prize Court rules the cargo wasn’t vulnerable. The U-53 allowed the Kansan to proceed to Boston.
Due to a report from the Nantucket Lightship, US Navy vessels were sent from Newport, RI to the area, but these were unable to interfere in the subsequent events as no other US flag vessels were involved.
The U-53 stopped and sank five other ships that day. Three were British, one was Dutch and one was Norwegian, the latter two, although neutral-flagged, were carrying contraband cargo. One of the British ships, the Stephano, was carrying passengers and the US Navy ships had to assist in the evacuation of the ship. At the end of the day the U-53 set a course for Germany.
The previous day the U-53 had paid a surprise visit to Newport. U-53’s skipper, Fregattenkapitan Hans Rose paid courtesy calls on Rear Admiral A.M. Knight, commandant of the US Second Naval District, and Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, aboard the cruiser USS Birmingham, and then gave tours to both admirals aboard U-53. Admiral Gleaves even brought his wife and daughter.
This incident was noteworthy for three reasons. First, neither the Royal Navy nor the US Navy were previously aware of the range of these U-Boats, and this was a wake-up call. Second, American media opinion was that the US Navy should have prevented the sinkings in spite of neutrality. Third, His Majesty’s government felt that the US Navy was complicit by allowing the U-53 to leave Newport.
The U-53 made it back to Germany and went on to complete twelve more patrols, sinking 87 merchant ships and the destroyer USS Jacob Jones. The boat was surrendered on December 1st, 1918.
The Kansan wasn’t as fortunate. She was damaged by a U boat-laid mine in the Bay of Biscay and eventually sank in shallow water on July 10th, 1917. The wreck was salvaged for scrap in 1928.
Here’s a photograph of the Kansan in her prewar paint. I can’t reproduce the image due to the copyright but you can look it up yourself.