Tracking U-Boats from the Skies Above North Chatham

Jan 29, 2018

A dirigible makes a hard landing at the Chatham Naval Air Station.
Credit Chatham Historical Society

In May, 1915, a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania, killing almost 1,200 people and causing great alarm throughout the U-S shipping industry, where vessels were suddenly vulnerable up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The government responded by setting up a series of air stations along the east coast to defend against the growing threat. One of these facilities was built on a flat, 20-acre site in North Chatham.

Construction began in August, 1917, just four months after the U-S entered World War I. The facility housed 2 dirigibles and 12 seaplanes, which were primitive, double-winged, single-engine pontoon aircraft which needed constant maintenance. “You can imagine 1917 – that’s not that many years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk,” said Steve Burlingame of the Chatham Historical Society.

"Float planes" hunted for U-boats off the coast of Chatham during WWI. They were notoriously difficult to maintain, and could only fly in favorable weather conditions.
Credit Chatham Historical Society

The planes went on U-boat hunting missions with a pilot, as assistant pilot, and a spotter who was in charge of dropping bombs on any U-boats that were sighted. Among the few items on board were a couple of homing pigeons. “The only way they could get a message if there was an issue was to put a small piece of paper with a message in a little tube that was on the right leg of the homing pigeon,” Burlingame said.

Air Station crews came close to taking out U-boats on several occasions, but the missions were plagued with mishaps. “On one occasion, the mechanism to drop the bomb failed,” said Burlingame. After making several more passes, the crew managed to manually release the bomb. “It landed very, very close to the hull of the submarine. Unfortunately, it didn’t explode.” There were 17 of these “duds” reported during the brief lifespan of the station.

They knew that this was a spot that they had to stay away from.

After World War I ended in 1918, the U-boat threat quickly subsided and the Chatham Naval Air Station suddenly found itself without a mission. It was officially de-commissioned in May, 1920. The planes and blimps were removed, and the only thing that remained (at least for a few years) was a training center for the homing pigeons.

While the Chatham Naval Air Station may not have succeeded in actually destroying U-boats, it did serve as a deterrent during a crucial period. “They knew that this was a spot that they had to stay away from,” said Burlingame.

This plaque in North Chatham marks the approximate location of the Chatham Naval Air Station.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Today, the only visible reminder of the station is a commemorative plaque at a town landing in North Chatham, near where the facility once stood.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Chatham Naval Air Station’s construction.