Author: Jessica A. Bandel
Just as the sun cast its first ribbons of light through the morning sky of September 30, 1918, a German U-boat, U-152, materialized ghostlike in the path of the USS Ticonderoga. The crew of the Ticonderoga had already survived a U-boat encounter three days earlier on this trip back to the European continent, and they weren’t keen on testing fate twice. Commanding officer James J. Madison steered the ship straight for the submarine hoping to ram and sink it, but the vessel missed wide by ten fateful feet.
The U-152 fired directly into the bridge and gun platform, taking out the Ticonderoga’s radio, controls, and guns. Fire swept the decks as severely wounded men struggled about the ship in an effort to mitigate the deteriorating situation. For two hours, the Americans evaded capture as water poured into the hull. Madison’s wounds, sustained in the opening salvos of the fray, worsened. Before losing consciousness, he ordered his crew to abandon ship and left his two lieutenants, Frank L. Muller and Junius H. Fulcher, in charge.
Fulcher, a lieutenant (junior grade) from the small community of Frisco in Dare County, North Carolina, was already several years into an established career with the Lighthouse Service when he was called into the Naval Reserve Force in July 1918. Waiting for him back home in Norfolk, Virginia, were his wife Grace and their eight-month-old daughter Ruth. The forty-two-year-old officer was no doubt thinking of them when he helped the last of the wounded into the Ticonderoga’s lifeboats and then jumped overboard into the wide-open ocean thousands of miles from shore.
Soon after the ship had slipped out of sight, the U-152 popped up among the debris and began searching for salvageable provisions and the Americans’ senior officer. When they could not find Madison, the Germans settled for Lieutenants Fulcher and Muller.
For Fulcher, being taken prisoner of war probably saved his life. During the attack, he had been wounded in the knee, arm, and thigh. His thigh wound was particularly severe, flesh and muscle having been torn away and left hanging, exposing bone. Fulcher’s German captors gave him dry clothes and some brandy to dull the pain and immediately escorted him to their doctor for treatment.
Light interrogations followed, during which the Germans questioned Fulcher on everything from convoy speed to why the Americans joined the war. Despite his prisoner status, the North Carolina native seems to have been treated rather well, bunking and breaking bread with German officers.
The U-152 held its position in the shipping lanes between the European and American continents until October 11 when they received word from German command that they were to only target war ships from then on. Commercial vessels were no longer fair game. The submarine managed one more kill, a Norwegian ship on October 12, before it was ordered back to Kiel on the 20th. News of the armistice broke while they were en route.
After a long, chaotic layover in Kiel, the submarine set sail for Harwich, England, arriving at that place on November 24. The Germans gave Fulcher and Muller new shoes, clean clothes, and plenty of cheese, sausage, and bread. When the Americans politely protested, insisting the sailors take all the food for themselves, the Germans replied, “We have more than we need to take back to Germany.” Three cheers rang out from the German crew as the Americans departed.
Of the 237 men on board the Ticonderoga at its departure, only 24 survived the journey. The deceased, numbering 213, included both soldiers and sailors and proved to be the country’s greatest combat-related loss of life at sea during the war.
Fulcher returned to Norfolk and his work in the Light-House Service. He and Grace had one more child, a son named Junius Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the Navy during World War II. Of his POW experience, Fulcher had this to say: “The Germans treated me very well but I have come to the conclusion that if a man can stand 25 days imprisonment on a German u-boat he can stand anything.”
Want to learn a little more about the survivors of the Ticonderoga sinking? Check out Linda Hall-Little's wonderful blog post "A Sailor's Story: The Sinking of the Ticonderoga."