Chowan resident fired first shot sub in WWI
By Paul Vincent
Museum of the Albemarle
Sunday, September 2, 2018
“I have to recommend that…Goodwin, gunners mate first class, United States Navy, be advanced to the rating of Chief Gunners Mate, to date from April 19, 1917, the day that this vessel successfully repelled the attack of a German submarine.” ‒ Lt. Bruce Ware, 7 May 1917
On April 19, 1917, just two weeks after Congress declared war on Germany, the United States achieved a symbolic victory. Early that Tuesday morning, aboard the armed merchantman SS Mongolia, Gunner’s Mate First Class James A. Goodwin lead the country’s first successful, war-time attack on a German U-boat. Goodwin, a Chowan County native, is credited with having fired the first shot against Germany upon America’s entry into the First World War.
Born in Edenton and later settling in Portsmouth, Va., James Goodwin served with both the National Guard and the Merchant Marine Service before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in June of 1909. Already a seasoned sailor at the outbreak of the war, his military service included tours of duty in both Mexico, during the occupation of Vera Cruz, in 1914, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1915. Goodwin served aboard the USS San Francisco and the USS Tennessee, respectively, during those engagements. He would serve aboard several more ships such as the USS Vermont, USS Colorado, and USS Memphis before being stationed aboard the Mongolia in March of 1917.
Following on the heels of the April 19 skirmish, news of Goodwin’s morale-boosting feat quickly spread, even landing him a feature in The New York Times. The May 20 article, entitled “Gunner’s Story of First Shot Against Germany,” details, in his own words, both the resolute skill and incredible luck he and his crew had in heavily damaging the enemy submarine.
Goodwin’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Ware, even wrote Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, recommending his advancement to Chief Gunner’s Mate, praising, “his extremely wonderful work that the (Mongolia) is afloat today.” Moreover, Goodwin was later awarded the distinguished Navy Cross for his actions in the attack.
Chief Gunner’s Mate Goodwin continued his naval service through the remainder of the war, successfully attacking, and sinking, another German submarine aboard the USS Macdonough in March of 1918. He reenlisted in the years after the war and further served the U.S. Navy during World War II, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Junior Grade officer after 35 years of honorable service.
Upon his passing in April of 1969, James Alfred Goodwin was recognized for his many outstanding accolades: a decorated veteran of both world wars, a Masonic Brother, and a devout Baptist. His most notable act, as having fired that famed first shot, remains an indelible military achievement to this day. However, as far as Goodwin was concerned, as he recounted in the New York Times article, his, “only claim to distinction…(was) that he was born a ‘Tar Heel’.”