The Sinking of the San Diego

German U-boat blamed for mining the only major U.S. warship lost in World War I

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As the armored cruiser San Diego slowly capsized within sight of Long Island, Capt. Harley Christy jumped from the tilting bridge, descended a ladder to the deck, slid down a rope and then walked over the rolling hull as if he were a lumberjack on a

floating log, stopped for a moment to salute his vessel, then dropped eight feet into the Atlantic.

In keeping with tradition, the captain was the last man to leave the 504-foot ship. As a lifeboat picked up Christy, the more than 1,200 crew members in boats, on rafts or in the water cheered their skipper. And as the San Diego sank stern first into the flat sea, the men sang ``The Star Spangled Banner'' and ``My Country 'Tis of Thee.''

The San Diego was the only major U.S. warship lost in World War I. And its sinking on July 19, 1918, only 8 miles south of Fire Island, showed how brazen and effective German U-boats could be.

Most of the historical evidence indicates that a mine laid by the German U-156 took the lives of six crewmen and sent the San Diego to the muddy bottom 110 feet below.

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, the Germans developed larger submarines capable of crossing the Atlantic. In 1918, a foreign navy began attacking American shipping along the U.S. coastline for the first time since the War of 1812. During the six-month campaign, six U-boats destroyed 91 vessels between Newfoundland and North Carolina.

On its cruise to North America, the U-156 sank 36 vessels. Ironically, on the way home the submarine was sunk by an American mine in the North Sea.

The San Diego, the U-156's biggest victim, was commissioned in 1907 as the California. Renamed the San Diego in 1914, it became a convoy escort during the war. On July 18, 1918, it left Portsmouth, N.H., for New York.

The next day dawned warm and hazy with the cruiser steaming along the South Shore in state-of-battle readiness. At about 10 a.m., a lookout spotted a small object moving on the surface. Thinking it might be a submarine periscope, the gun crews fired several rounds until the target disappeared. It was the first time the San Diego's guns had been fired at a suspected enemy.

The ship was cutting through the calm sea at more than 15 mph when it was rocked by an explosion, and a column of water erupted along the port side. The San Diego immediately listed 10 degrees. It was 11:05 a.m.

The explosion blew a hole in the hull at the port engine room, killing two seamen instantly. Another crewman oiling the port propeller shaft was never seen again.

Christy rang for full speed on the undamaged starboard engine and turned toward shore, hoping to beach the ship. But the rush of water into the hole flooded the remaining engine and left the San Diego without power, preventing an SOS. Although the U-156 was already off the New England coast, crew members again thought they saw a periscope and began firing at it.

C.E. Sims, an 18-year-old seaman who became an engineer in Islip, wrote maritime historian Henry Keatts years later that he heard the explosion while he was on the bridge. ``I looked aft and saw a huge column of smoke about a hundred feet high. There was no panic. There was an officer who stood on the ladder with his hand on his holster. I remember he said `If anyone jumps before abandon ship is given, I'll shoot him.'''

When the captain gave the order, the crew struggled to launch the lifeboats manually. As the ship heeled, the smokestacks broke loose, one of them fatally crushing a sailor in the water. Another crew member died when a life raft fell on his head. A sixth sailor drowned after becoming trapped inside the crow's nest.

Christy dispatched a small boat to shore to contact the Navy. Two hours later, it sailed through the surf at Point O'Woods. Rescue vessels were soon on their way to help survivors and search for the sub. The ships dropped depth charges on a target that turned out to be the San Diego.

In 1957, the government sold the hulk to a New York salvage company for $1,221. But in 1961, before work began, environmentalists, divers and fishermen formed a group to save the wreck. The Navy agreed to cancel the contract.

The San Diego became Long Island's premier dive site, attracting thousands of divers a year and taking the lives of six who became disoriented inside the silty hull. Artifacts from the ship can be seen at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in Manhattan and the Maritime Industry Museum at the State University Maritime College in the Bronx.

The Navy has been trying to discourage divers from taking artifacts from the ship in recent years, saying the San Diego is still government property and a war grave. Earlier this year the wreck was put on the National Register of Historic Places in a further effort to preserve what's left.

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