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This Day in History: Attack on USS President Lincoln

On this day in 1918, an American destroyer drops depth charges on a German submarine. But a United States sailor was aboard that vessel! The Americans had no choice. That German submarine had torpedoed USS President Lincoln just one day earlier.

USS President Lincoln had been on a return trip home from Europe. She’d just unloaded troops and cargo in France and was now taking about 700 people back to the States. Some of her passengers were sick soldiers, including two who were almost completely paralyzed.

Painting of USS President Lincoln sinking, by Fred Dana Marsh (1920)

The trip home started uneventfully enough. President Lincoln was given a destroyer escort for the beginning of the trip, but that escort pulled away late on May 30. No one then knew that a German submarine was lurking nearby. She would follow President Lincoln for hours, finally launching three torpedoes at the American ship at about 9:00 a.m. on May 31.

President Lincoln’s commander, Percy W. Foote, was later credited for the efficient evacuation that followed. Lifeboats were quickly lowered into the water, even as the ship’s gunners stayed at their posts, taking every opportunity to fire at the departing German submarine. (Each shot fired by a gunner earned a rousing cheer from the sailors already in lifeboats!) The captain and gunners stayed with the ship until the very end, leaving with mere minutes to spare.

The disciplined evacuation was a stunning success. President Lincoln sank in less than 30 minutes, but nearly everyone aboard had been saved—even the two paralyzed soldiers. The losses were limited to seven men who had been killed during the torpedoes’ initial impact, plus one boatload trapped in currents created by the sinking ship.

Unfortunately, the Germans came back about one hour after President Lincoln sank. The Germans were looking for a hostage: They wanted the captain of the ship.

The American sailors were sure that Foote would be summarily executed, and they worked to hide his identity. One after another, the sailors told the Germans that their captain had gone down with the ship. But the Germans were intent on taking someone. They pulled Navy Lt. Edouard Victor Michel Izac into their submarine.

Finally, the Germans left. The American survivors got to work, lashing their lifeboats together. Darkness fell, but help had not yet arrived. “We could do nothing more than wait and hope that the destroyers would find us before our scant supply of bread and water became exhausted,” Foote later wrote. “Lighted lanterns were suspended from oars hoisted in the boats and ‘coston flares’ were burned every few minutes.”

It was enough. At about 11:00 p.m., a light was spotted. It was USS Warrington. As the destroyer identified itself, the men erupted into applause, their loud cheers breaking the stillness of the dark night.

Foote was obviously happy they’d been rescued, but he was far prouder of something else. His men, he would write, had lived up to the “tradition of our navy” as well as to the ship’s motto: “Loyalty, Efficiency, and Cheerfulness.” Not one sailor, Foote recounted, had uttered a “word of complaint, sorrow, or regret” throughout the ordeal.

But what had happened to Lt. Izac, taken aboard the German submarine? Hint: He would receive a Medal of Honor for what came next. But that, of course, is a story for another day.

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