German submarine sightings, mostly imaginary we can surmise today, were increasingly common off the coast of Maine in the months leading up to America’s entry into World War I a century ago. The Bangor newspapers printed every rumor. They included one from East Machias, where a small fish shack, described as a possible U-boat supply base, was found blown to smithereens. Meanwhile, U.S. warships helped fuel the speculation of imminent invasion as they searched among the islands and inlets from New York to Bar Harbor without much luck.
Some cynics found this humorous. One imaginative Bangor Daily News reporter suggested a “big flock of U-Boats” might benefit the Queen City of the East by reducing the price of coal a dollar or two a ton. A blockade of major East Coast ports would curtail the flow of American exports to Europe while cutting down on the demand for coal and ships. “That’s why some selfish people are whispering to themselves, ‘Rah for the U-Boats!’”
Then the U-boats ceased to be a joke even to the most cynical. On Feb. 1, 1917, this banner headline appeared across the top of the Bangor Daily News’ front page, signaling events that would finally launch America’s entry into the war:
WILL SINK WITHOUT WARNING GERMANY ADOPTS POLICY OF UNRESERVED WARFARE
Unrestricted sub warfare meant that U-Boats would sink on sight and sometimes without warning American and other neutral ships, armed or unarmed, in broadly designated areas around Britain and the Mediterranean. Neutral countries were told to warn their ships enroute.
Two days later President Woodrow Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.
American ships had already been sunk during the country’s period of neutrality in 1915 and 1916, but they usually had been warned, allowing their crews to escape. Many Americans had lost their lives traveling on foreign ships, the most notable example being the Lusitania. None of these events had been deemed serious enough to require the United States to enter the war, however.
Several more American ships would be sunk under the new German policy before Wilson and Congress decided it was time to fight. One of them was the Lyman M. Law, a four-masted wooden schooner with a Maine cargo and a crew mostly from around Penobscot Bay and Bangor.
This account is based primarily on Rodney Carlisle’s book “Sovereignty at Sea: U.S. Merchant Ships and American Entry into World War I” as well as several stories that appeared in Bangor newspapers at the time.
The 211-foot Lyman M. Law sailed from the Cape Jellison docks at Stockton harbor for Palermo, Italy, with a cargo of 60,000 bundles of box shooks — thin slices of pine used in boxes for shipping fruits and vegetables. The owner of the cargo was the T. J. Stewart Co. of Bangor, which had specialized in the shook trade for several decades. The ship was owned by a private syndicate based in Stockton Springs headed by George A. Cardine.
The Lyman M. Law had sailed on Jan. 6, about three weeks before the Germans declared unrestricted warfare.
Capt. Stephen W. McDonough of Winterport came from an old seafaring family. He is described as “brusque, outspoken and opinionated,” fairly typical of sailing vessel masters of the period, according to Carlisle’s book. His first mate, William Lowe, also was from Winterport.
McDonough’s photograph, run large in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Feb. 17, shows a confident, good-natured young fellow wearing a straw hat at a jaunty angle.
Nine of the members of the original 10-member crew were Penobscot Bay sailors who had been on many voyages along the coast. At a time when there was a scarcity of men and ships, these men were doubtlessly attracted into crossing the ocean by the promise of high wages.
Indeed, McDonough’s wife, “a former Bangor girl, Miss Mildred Condon,” was tracked down by a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial. McDonough said that her husband had been attracted to trans-Atlantic voyages by high profits and this had been his first voyage across to Europe, according to the story that appeared on Feb. 15.
SCHOONER LYMAN LAW SENT TO BOTTOM, read the front page headline in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 15, three days after the sinking near the southern tip of Sardinia. The captain of the sub, U-35, was none other than Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere, who established the record as the most accomplished U-boat ace during the war, sinking 539,000 tons of shipping, according to Carlisle’s book.
A German officer came aboard the Law and inspected its cargo. The Germans decided the shooks were lumber and therefore contraband.
The crew was put into two boats, one of them motorized, making a landing at Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. Besides McDonough and Lowe, the crewmembers included Second Mate Edward Nickerson of Bucksport, Engineer Leslie Sprague of Swans Island, Steward Charles Crocker of Bangor and seamen from Bucksport, Belfast and Bangor, according to the newspaper. The ship had only been about 250 miles from Palermo.
The event provided some colorful copy for the press. George F. Green, president of the Maritime Transportation Co., pointed out angrily that the men aboard the Lyman M. Law (with only one exception) were all “staunch New Englanders,” the descendants of Revolutionary War veterans. “Now if they are not entitled to protection who is?” he asked in a piece published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Feb. 15.
After he got to Rome, Capt. McDonough expressed his belief to American officials that the schooner had been seized not because it was carrying contraband, but because it was loaded with provisions needed by the crew of the U-boat.
There was a national debate about whether merchant ships should be armed. “If my ship had been armed with a five-pounder I could have destroyed the submarine as easily as buttering a piece of bread,” the captain said. The comment became part of a headline in The New York Times. The Bangor Daily News carried the story on Feb. 19.
An editorial in the Bangor Daily Commercial summed up the meaning of the situation for the average Bangorean. “The horror of the Teuton submarine campaign was brought right home to Bangor people … with the sinking of the American four-masted schooner Lyman M. Law … The destruction of the Law was entirely ruthless. The vessel had the American flag prominently displayed and had almost reached her destination with a cargo of no importance from a military point of view. It is a perfectly plain indication that the Teutons will pay absolutely no deference to the rights of neutral ships.”
Nearly two months would pass and with it the loss of more American ships and, in some cases, mariner’s lives before Wilson and the Congress would determine that the right set of circumstances had been met for a declaration of war. The sinking of the Lyman M. Law alone was deemed to be insufficient.
Looming just around the corner as well was the infamous Zimmerman Telegram in which Germany offered to ally itself with Mexico in a war against the United States that would regain for Mexico lost territory, including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. This would have been a subject of great interest to the Queen City’s national guardsmen who had recently returned from guarding the Texas border.
In the congressional debates that followed, the Lyman M. Law was mentioned occasionally and then forgotten. Today, it provides an interesting glimpse into the area’s economic history as well as the events leading up to America’s involvement in World War I.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com