10 Firsts in America’s Involvement in World War I

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5. First Time Germany Attacks the Atlantic Commerce

When the First World War started the British Royal Navy ruled the waves, keeping the Imperial German Navy boxed up in German-controlled ports. Utilizing U-boats, the Germans hoped to reduce the British numerical advantage. On September 5, 1914, Imperial German U-boat SM U-21 became the first to sink a ship, HMS Pathfinder, by a locomotive torpedo. Armed naval ships remained difficult targets so the Germans switched to the lightly armed civilian ships that were supporting the Allied war effort. On October 20, 1914, SS Glitra became the first British merchant vessel sunkafter it was boarded and scuttled by the crew of Imperial German sub SM U-17. As the war dragged on the Germans thought they could strangle Allied commerce by a concentrated U-boat campaign.

The SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich was a German passenger liner that, in the summer of 1914 on the outbreak of war, was operating in China. She was converted into an Imperial German Raider and spent months plying the seas, attacking allied shipping. Off Brazil on January 27, 1915, it encountered the American four-masted steel sail ship, the William P. Frye. The Germans boarded the ship and ordered the US crew to throw its cargo overboard. When they took too long the Germans took the crew prisoner and sank the ship the next day. It was the first American ship lost in the war. At the time America was a neutral state and demanded $228,059.54 in damages ($ 5.4 million in 2017).

The first American death to German commerce raids occurred almost exactly two months later.  On March 28, 1915, SM U-28 fired at the British steamship RMS Falaba. The ship sank quickly, killing 104 people. Among those dead was one American passenger, Leon Chester Thrasher, a 31-year-old mining engineer from Massachusetts. His death caused outrage back in the states that would only be made worse when Imperial German U-boat SM U-20 sank the HMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 souls. Out of the 139 US citizens on board, 128 lost their lives.

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