A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
“There lie in the Cape May harbor tonight three submarines and the “mother” tender of the submarines, also a United States cruiser, ready to take part in the Independence Day maneuvers in the bay tomorrow.” – The New York Times, July 4, 1916.
People are often surprised to learn of submarine activity near Cape May. In The First Resort, I discussed two famous submarine incidents that occurred in the area: the sinking of the USS S-5 and the surrender of the German U-boat 858 after World War II. I’ll discuss each of those stories in greater depth in the next two columns, but for this issue we’ll focus on the ships that were ported in Cape May harbor.
The US Navy patrolled the Atlantic coast with pre-WWI submarines like these four, ported in Cape May harbor near what is now the Coast Guard base. Don Pocher
The US Navy first ported submarines in the Cape May harbor in 1916, and the excerpt that begins this column details part of that year’s Independence Day festivities. As a thrill for local citizens and a demonstration of the German U-boat threat, a challenge was arranged between four submarines and anyone in the area with a boat. The subs involved were the D-3 (USS Salmon), L-1, L-2 and L-4.
The locals were told to patrol the area however and wherever they liked. While the patrol was in place, the submarines would come from out at sea and attempt to enter the harbor without being noticed. As an added obstacle, the local boats were joined by the 300-foot destroyer USS Beale. Newspapers of the day noted that hundreds of boats were involved in the operation, but ultimately each of the submarines entered the bay undetected.
The Navy threw an even bigger party two months later on Labor Day, celebrating the official opening of the $2,000,000 Cape May harbor and the commissioning of both the Cape May submarine base and the new Navy Reserve base which would be known as Camp Wissahickon.
The USS N-7 worked in conjunction with submarine chasers 71 and 73, searching for German U-boats in the waters off Cape May. Don Pocher
Among the activities planned was a mock sea battle, designed to demonstrate the importance of submarine patrols off Cape May. The submarines involved were the K-1 (USS Haddock), K-2 (USS Catchalot), K-3 (USS Orca) and the K-4 (USS Walrus). A flotilla of four battleships comprised of the USS Rhode Island, USS Louisiana, USS Alabama and USS Illinois were deemed the ‘enemy’ aggressor and the submarines were the ‘good guys.’ The submarines were joined by two destroyers and other assorted ships from the Navy Reserves.
After two hours of fighting and the involvement of over 2,000 reservists, the battle was over and the local Cape May sailors won. According to a July 5 Philadelphia Inquirer article, “The war game drew an enormous crowd to the resort for this Labor Day holiday. More than ten thousand people arrived on trains and the steamship Cape May, which made her first daylight trip today. The maneuvers were plainly visible from the beach.”
Cape May’s submarine base was closed in 1924, when the Navy relinquished the base to the Coast Guard and it became a first line of defense in a new, more domestic conflict: preventing rum runners from delivering bootleg alcohol during Prohibition. The Navy returned to town during World War II, but it was a temporary situation until after the war, when the Coast Guard was given complete ownership of the base. Today the base serves as the Coast Guard’s only Recruit Training Center.