About a century ago, millions of Americans fought in one of the most deadly and horrific conflicts the world has ever seen. At the time, it was called the Great War, but today few people remember what happened and why.
Fewer still pause to reflect on and honor the heroes who willingly put their lives on the line to defend our country and its allies. And perhaps the most obscure aspect of the war is the role of the U.S. Navy.
In the summer of 1917, the U.S. oil steamer Campana engaged in a life-and-death chase with a German submarine designated U-61. Like many commercial vessels at the time, Campana carried a Navy gun crew whose job it was to defend the ship from the U-boats infesting the shipping lanes.
At dawn on August 6, the ship was en route from La Pallice, France, to Huelva, Spain, when artillery shells suddenly whistled overhead, barely missing the ship.Chief Gunners Mate James Delaney and his crew raced to the two 5-inch guns bolted to the stern of the ship. With their adrenaline surging, their eyes scanned the water, searching for the submarine that they knew lay somewhere nearby.
The story of the ensuing battle is told for the first time in my new bestselling book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. Recently released, the book follows eight American heroes who accomplished extraordinary feats in the war’s most important battles. As a result of their amazing bravery, these eight men were selected to serve as Body Bearers at the ceremony where the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery.
One of those Body Bearers was James Delaney, a heavily tattooed long-time mariner from Boston who was 32-years-old at the time of the attack on Campana. A true salty man of the sea, the five-foot-eleven 160-pound chief gunners mate commanded the 13-man Naval crew assigned to the Standard Oil vessel. It was his job to protect the souls aboard from the German submarine intent on sending Campana to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Delaney’s nemesis was Kapitänleutnant Victor Dieckmann, a 29-year-old German naval officer who had already sunk 43 Allied ships, bringing him within striking distance of the coveted “Ace” status reserved for captains that had destroyed 50 vessels. He opened fire by launching one of his six precious torpedoes. Accounting for the distance, speed and course of the Allied ship, the captain manually calculated the proper aim for the warhead and how long it would take for the torpedo to reach its target. Seconds ticked away on the stopwatch clutched by the helmsman while the German crew held its breath, waiting for the explosion that would indicate the torpedo had reached its target.
But that explosion never came. Instead, the torpedo ran for about 1,800 yards before striking the ocean floor.
Alerted to the presence of the sub by the impact, the American vessel turned at an angle in an attempt to evade any additional torpedoes.
But rather than waste any more of his small supply of torpedoes, Dieckmann opted to surface and open fire with his 105-mm deck gun.
After the first salvo missed, the captain of the Campana ordered his vessel to its maximum speed — about 10 knots — and maintained a zigzag course to make targeting more difficult. But he knew his vessel was sorely outmatched by the sub, which had a maximum speed of 14.7 knots and, more importantly, a longer-range deck gun.
Delaney wasn’t about to give up without a fight, however. “Commence rapid fire,” he ordered.
Small plumes of ivory, frothy water rose close to the sub — near misses from Delaney’s guns. The U-boat kept its distance, staying more than six miles from Campana, the maximum range of the steamer’s guns.
The Germans could manage about one shot every 40 seconds, and Delaney’s men responded, firing 110 rounds in little more than an hour. Shells from the sub were repeatedly bursting overhead. The concussive blasts took a huge toll on the Navy gun crew, whose “eyes were badly swollen and whose ears were running blood.”
Suddenly, the Americans got an unexpected piece of good luck. One of U-61’s engines stopped running, diminishing the sub’s speed advantage slightly. But even on one engine, U-61 was faster than Campana. Taking a calculated risk, Dieckmann ordered his crew to stop hanging back as they had been and draw in closer to the steamer. The gambit worked, and the Germans scored the first hit of the battle.
The U-boat captain then ordered his men to reduce speed and repair the faulty engine. Soon they had it back online and resumed the chase, again staying just outside the range of Delaney’s guns.
The Americans sent round after round toward the sub, but all fell short. Meanwhile, the Germans’ aim was improving. About two hours after the battle began, the submarine had landed four hits on the steamer, including one that started a fire.
By 9:40 a.m., Delaney was down to just 10 remaining shells of the 190 originally on board. It had become clear that the Americans had no hope of doing damage to the U-boat, and it was only a matter of time before the Germans finished them off.
To avoid loss of life, Delaney gave the order to abandon ship. The Navy sailors and the ship crew loaded onto lifeboats and lowered themselves into the water.
Meanwhile, U-61 continued firing at the steamer. Dieckmann thought Campana might be a “Q ship.” Named after Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, where the British constructed the vessels, Q ships were decoys that appeared at first to be relatively unprotected commercial vessels, but when an enemy sub neared, the Q ship would reveal hidden guns and blast away, often destroying the U-boat.
When it became obvious that Campana was no decoy, Dieckmann turned his attention to the lifeboats. He ordered his sub to close at full speed, nearly ramming the tiny rowboats. He pulled to a sudden stop, and his crew trained the huge deck gun on the armed guard.
In perfect English, the Kapitänleutnant ordered the ship’s captain and gun commander to come aboard the sub.
For Delaney, the end of the submarine battle was only the beginning of the long ordeal that awaited him as one of the first American prisoners taken during World War I. He was now Victor Dieckmann’s captive. His harrowing journey, an American version of Das Boot during World War I with all the perils it entailed, will be the topic of another article.
Like so many Americans who fought bravely in the Great War, Delaney’s story of courage in the face of overwhelming odds has been all but forgotten. But on the hundredth anniversary of the conflict, it is more fitting than ever that we remember and honor their sacrifices.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books. The Unknowns is his newest, and it is featured in Barnes & Noble stores nationwide for Father’s Day. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian