Life in 1917: Sinking of Housatonic brings World War I closer to home

Photo collage of Housatonic ship at dock and Camp Randall 100 images
Photo collage of Housatonic ship at dock and Camp Randall 100 images

A series exploring life in Madison and beyond during Camp Randall Stadium’s first year


“You are carrying foodstuffs to an enemy of my country, and though I am sorry, it is my duty to sink you.”

— German commander’s warning to Housatonic captain P.A. Ensor, February 1917


BY MARK MEDERSON | UWBadgers.com Contributor

Many students of history are aware of the sinking of the British ocean liner, the Lusitania, by a German submarine in 1915 and the role of that event in World War I. Condemnation over the event led to a German apology and a pledge to reduce submarine warfare.

But on January 31, 1917 the Germans decided to return to their unrestricted use of submarine warfare in the waters of the Atlantic, putting civilian cargo ships at risk of being targeted. Three days later the U.S. government ended their diplomatic relations with Germany. Within hours of this announcement a German submarine torpedoed the Housatonic, a private American cargo ship.  (Not to be confused with the USS Housatonic, which was famously torpedoed by a hand-cranked submarine in Charleston during the Civil War.)

No American sailors were killed or even injured when the lone torpedo struck the Housatonic because none were onboard. The New York Times had a thorough explanation of the sinking in a front-page story on February 6, 1917. The story quoted the Housatonic’s captain, P. A. Ensor of New York, who said he stopped his vessel after a German U-boat had fired two warning shots. Ensor boarded the submarine and spoke with the German commander. The commander explained to Ensor that, “You are carrying foodstuffs to an enemy of my country, and though I am sorry, it is my duty to sink you.”

Painting of the sinking of the Housatonic
Painting of the sinking of the Housatonic (Claus Bergen – source)

Ensor protested vehemently but the U-boat commander had made up his mind and told the American sailors on board the Housatonic to abandon ship. The sailors obliged and boarded their own lifeboats. The Times story said the now abandoned Housatonic was struck by a single torpedo on the starboard side at “12:30 o’clock,” two hours after the incident first began. The ship sank in 20 minutes.

Ensor convinced the German commander to tow him and his men toward land. When a British patrol boat was sighted, the U-boat fired a shot in the air to get the ship’s attention and cut the Americans loose from the tow. The German sub sped away before the patrol boat picked up the U.S. sailors.

Although no one was killed or injured in this incident, German subs sank numerous private cargo ships in this area, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries to British and American civilians. Near the end of March, German subs targeted and sank four additional American cargo vessels. Days later, President Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. On April 6, 1917, Wilson’ s request was granted.