The first German submarine operations
on U.S. waters took place not in World War II, but during
World War I. With responsibility to guard the coast, the
U.S. Coast Guard had several encounters with these early
U-boat attacks, including those of U-156. Armed with 18
torpedoes, four deck guns and a supply of underwater mines,
U-156 began its campaign against East Coast shipping in June
During this cruise, the crew sank nearly 35 vessels
including the armored cruiser USS San Diego, which was sunk
by one of its mines on July 19 with the loss of six lives.
The Coast Guard and its aviators played a vital role in
the World War I war effort. In 1916, Congress authorized the
Coast Guard to develop an aviation branch, including
aircraft, air stations and pilots. Coast Guard officers
began to train at the Navy’s Pensacola Naval Flight School.
Lt. Philip Bentley Eaton (left) was one of these officers.
Eaton’s early passion had focused on engineering and
technology. He matriculated from the prestigious Webb
Academy of Naval Architecture. After graduating from Webb in
1907, Eaton received an appointment as a cadet engineer in
the Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction, graduating
with the class of 1908.
Over the next six years, he saw
service aboard cutters stationed in Baltimore, New York,
Milwaukee, New London, Conn., San Juan, and Port Townsend,
Wash. In 1915, Eaton was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter
Bear and served there for two years before departing in 1917
for flight training at Pensacola.
April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany and the
Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to
the U.S. Navy. After earning his wings as a naval aviator in
October, the Navy assigned Eaton as executive officer of
Naval Air Station Montauk (Long Island), New York, and eight
months later received command of Naval Air Station Chatham
on Cape Cod. Chatham supported two dirigibles and seven
seaplanes with a complement of 245 officers and men. After
two weeks on the job, Eaton received a field promotion,
rising from second lieutenant to captain of engineers, the
equivalent of the Navy’s rank of lieutenant commander.
Late in the morning on Sunday, July 21, U-156 emerged
from the hazy waters of Cape Cod to prey on American coastal
shipping. The U-boat crew located the towboat Perth Amboy
and four wooden barges lined up in a towline. Rather than
waste precious torpedoes on the slow-moving Perth Amboy and
its consorts, U-156’s commander ordered his crew to shell
the vessel and its barges with deck guns. Some of the long
shots landed on Nauset Beach, the first foreign cannon fire
to hit U.S. shores since the War of 1812 and the only enemy
shells to hit American soil during World War I.
Though he served as commanding officer
of Chatham, Eaton still flew regular patrol flights. Two
days before the U-156 attack, one of the air station’s
dirigibles had broken its anchor mechanism and drifted away
from the station. By the morning of the 21st, the
lighter-than-air craft had still not been found, so Eaton
took off early in one of the station’s R-9 floatplanes to
search for it. Other aircraft from the base also flew search
patterns for the missing dirigible.
One of Chatham’s Curtiss R-9 float planes on the beach.
This may have been the aircraft flown by Eaton to attack
German submarine U-156. (Courtesy of the San Diego Air &
When he returned
from his patrol later that morning, Eaton was informed of
the U-boat attack in progress. The acting commanding officer
had actually heard the sound of the U-boat firing on the
barges and dispatched one of the base’s HS-1 seaplanes with
a payload of two Mark IV bombs. The HS-1 dropped its payload
close enough to sink the U-156, but the bombs’ fuses failed
to detonate on impact. They were duds and many later
believed the fuse mechanisms may have been tampered with by
After he landed, Eaton took on a
payload of one Mark IV bomb underneath his R-9. Within 10
minutes of landing, he returned to the air flying a beeline
to the surfaced U-boat. The skies were hazy and smoke rose
from the burning vessels obscuring Eaton’s biplane from the
sub’s lookouts. In addition, the distraction from the HS-1
circling overhead and Eaton’s low-level approach took the
U-boat’s gunners by surprise.
The sub’s gun crews
finally saw Eaton closing and began firing on him. Eaton
dodged the enemy fire and bore down on the target while the
Germans scrambled for the hatches to prepare to dive.
Witnessing the attack from his cockpit, the pilot of the
HS-1 later reported, “Right through the smoke of the wreck,
over the lifeboats and all, here came Capt. Eaton’s plane,
flying straight for the submarine, and flying low. He saw
[the U-boat’s] high-angle gun flashing, too, but he came
Eaton made his approach unscathed and
dropped his bomb at an altitude of 500 feet. The bomb struck
the water near the U-boat, but it proved a dud just like the
ones dropped by the HS-1. Eaton later stated, “Had the bomb
functioned, the submarine would have literally been
One of Chatham Air Station’s HS-1 flying boats
dropping its payload of two wing-mounted bombs. (Photograph
courtesy of the National Archives)
Eaton made a second pass over the sub still
running on the surface, but with nothing left to drop, he
reached for a wrench located in the cockpit and threw it at
the enemy vessel. Witnessing this desperate effort, the
U-boat commander realized he had little to fear from the
air. With the Perth Amboy in flames and the barges
destroyed, the U-boat submerged and departed the scene of
North America’s first air-sea battle.
This first fight between U.S. naval aviation and the German
menace in U.S. waters proved significant in several ways.
Even thought the bombs were duds, Eaton’s aim proved
accurate and the presence of Eaton’s aircraft likely
hastened U-156’s departure from the scene. While the four
barges were lost, the tug was recovered and no American
lives were lost on any of the vessels.
wartime aviation assignments would be his last. After the
war, he returned to sea duty and marine engineering
assignments at a time when maritime technology completed the
transition from wood and sails to steam and steel. Another
of Eaton’s career highlights occurred in 1942 when he
rescued survivors from the fiery wreck of a B & O Railroad
passenger train earning him the service’s Navy & Marine
Rear Adm. Philip Bentley Eaton and wife's headstone
located at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.
(Courtesy of David McInturff)
After a 30 career, Phillip Eaton retired as a rear
admiral in 1946 and was laid to rest in Arlington National
Cemetery in 1958. He was one of thousands of Coast Guard
aviators who have made their mark as members of the
service’s long blue line.
By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
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