From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The bad news for USS Jacob Jones (DD 61) on Dec. 6, 1917, was it sailed directly into the path of a torpedo launched from 3,000 yards away by the German submarine U-53. It was the longest-range, successful torpedo shot recorded during World War I.
The good news for Jacob Jones was the skipper at the helm of U-53, one of the most successful U-boats during the war, was Lt. Cmdr. Hans Rose.
The German officer was well known and respected, but most importantly, blessed with a sense of fairness and humanity that didn’t end when Germany declared war against most of Europe and the United States during World War I. After torpedoing a ship, he would often wait until all the lifeboats were filled, and if given the opportunity, would toss them a tow line, keeping the survivors together, providing food and water if necessary, until a rescue vessel came on the scene.
It’s not like Lt. Cmdr. Rose didn’t do his job as CO of U-53; he’s listed as the fifth most successful U-boat commander from 1916-1918. The top four all had an additional year over Rose, from 1915-1918. U-53 was credited for sinking 88 ships for a total of 225,365 tons and damaged 10 more for 46,339 tons. USS Jacob Jones was the only warship sunk by the U-boat. The destroyer was also the first American warship sunk after the United States officially entered World War I in April 1917.
The sinking of Jacob Jones was not Rose’s first encounter with the U.S. Navy. A little more than a year earlier, Oct. 7, 1916, a submarine was spotted in the harbor of Newport, R.I. That in itself wasn’t shocking since American submarines were assigned to nearby New London, Conn. But this submarine was flying the Royal German ensign. At the time, the United States was trying to remain neutral in the war raging in Europe.
Surprisingly, the German submarine anchored off Goat Island. Rose took a skiff to shore, asking to pay his respects to the commander of the Newport Naval District, Rear Adm. Austin M. Knight, and the commander of the destroyer flotilla, Rear Adm. Albert Gleaves. Eventually, members of the crew came ashore and shared beer with their American counterparts. The Germans requested no fuel, food, water or medical care for any injured.
During the visit, Rose hosted several American naval officers and even some of their wives on his boat. He also delivered a message to the German ambassador. No one believed that was the real reason for Rose’s audacious visit to Newport, according to Our Navy in the War by Lawrence Perry, published in 1918 in New York by Charles Scribner’s Sons.
After leaving American waters, U-53 got down to business, sinking six ships near Nantucket Lightship on Oct. 8, four British and one each Dutch and Scandinavian, all enemies of Germany. Rose first determined if the ships were carrying contraband, i.e. supplies needed by his country, and then told the crew and passengers to disembark into lifeboats before sinking their ships. Two ships carrying soda and cereal were deemed not of value to Germany and allowed to continue.
Once naval officers got word of the attacks, Gleaves sent 17 destroyers to rescue those in the lifeboats. In one of those destroyers was Lt. David Worth Bagley, a brother-in-law to Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels. Bagley’s brother, Ensign Worth Bagley, had the distinction of being the first American and the only naval officer killed in the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Since Rose conducted his business in international waters, the destroyers could not retaliate against U-53. At one point, Rose asked a destroyer to move its position a bit so the sub could sink another ship without the destroyer getting hit. And the destroyer complied.
Despite Rose’s polite manner, American officials were not pleased. President Woodrow Wilson told the German ambassador that sinking neutral ships off the American coast was unacceptable. The German diplomats, however, were ecstatic, Perry’s book stated. “It should be easy to destroy more of the overseas commerce of the Allies, which is principally with America, near where it originates,” a member of the German embassy claimed.
Perry pointed out the German assessment that America would tolerate such raiding near her coasts was “astray….but rather it steeled us to a future that began to appear inevitable. And deep under the surface affairs began to move in the Navy Department. No doubt, too, the conviction began to grow upon the government that the policy of dealing fairly by Germany was not appreciated, and that when the exigencies of the war situation seemed to require it, our ships would be sent to the bottom as cheerfully as those of other neutrals such as Holland, Norway and Sweden…”
By March, U-53 was back in European waters, sinking the Cunard Liner RMS Folia on March 11, 1917, off the coast of Ireland. According to Perry’s book, Rose’s sense of humor was illustrated by his sending radiograms telling his enemy his position with a challenge: “Come and get me, I am waiting. Hans Rose.” Twice when destroyers took the bait, U-53 wasn’t there.
On Dec. 6, 1917, U-53 came across USS Jacob Jones and launched a torpedo from 3,000 yards away. The blast and the subsequent sinking of the ship took 64 crew members to their deaths. Of the 38 survivors, two were taken aboard U 53 due to their injuries. Rose, in his typical humanitarian gesture, reported the survivor’s drift location to the American base in Queenstown, Ireland. British sloop-of-war Camellia and British liner Catalina conducted rescue operations. By 8:30 a.m. the following morning, the last of the survivors were picked up by HMS Insolent. One of those survivors was the skipper of the destroyer, Lt. Cmdr. David W. Bagley who had a year earlier been one of the officers present when 17 destroyers were sent to rescue mariners whose ships had been destroyed by U-53.
But despite Rose’s gallant gesture, it was too late for at least one of the survivors, Lt. j.g. Stanton F. Kalk. The young naval officer, in his efforts to get survivors into lifeboats to equalize their weight on the rafts, died of exposure and exhaustion. For his selfless efforts, Kalk was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The destroyers Kalk (DD 170) and (DD 611) were named for the young naval officer.
Lt. Cmdr. Bagley also received the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts during the sinking of his destroyer. He would survive World War I and eventually achieve the rank of admiral.
Rose also survived the war, leaving U-53 in Aug. 1918 to work on the admiral’s staff. He retired from the German Imperial Navy in Nov. 1918 at the rank of captain. He died, at the age of 84, on Dec. 6, 1969, exactly 52 years after his U-53 sank USS Jacob Jones.