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Almost Forgotten Hero: Herbert Paul Lentz

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 17 2011 09:15:36 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:05:23 AM CDT

There are a lot of old buildings in Allentown but one on the southeast side of South 7th near Union Street, a rambling sort of dark red brick structure, bears a particular honor.

From the 1920s to the 1990s it was the site of Herbert Paul Lentz American Legion Post 29, one of the oldest Legion posts in the country. And in 1922 no less than General John "Black Jack" Pershing, the overall commander of the U.S. Army in World War I, came there to honor the memory of its namesake.

Although once known to every local school child, the name Herbert Paul Lentz, the first Lehigh County man killed in World War I, probably does not ring an instant bell. But if Lentz is a forgotten hero of what was once called "the war to end all wars," his deeds, as remembered by those who saw them, especially deserve remembrance this year when the last veteran of World War I has passed on and Lehigh County approaches its bicentennial.

The Irish Sea was a dangerous place in December, 1917. That fourth year of World War I it was alive with ships. Convoys of supplies, many from Bethlehem Steel, the largest single supplier of arms and ammunition to the Allies during the Great War, slipped in and out of ports in Britain and France. And it was the duty of German U-boat commanders to use all the skills their submarine crews could muster to send those ships to the bottom.

Having only officially entered the conflict in April, 1917, the U.S. was a newcomer. And among the ships in her fleet was the swift destroyer U.S.S. Jacob Jones. With its crew of 122, the Jones, named for an early 19th century naval hero, was designed as a skilled submarine hunter. Loaded with a cargo of deadly depth charges, it was protection against U-boats.

Among the Jones's crew were at least two Pennsylvania boys, Herbert Moyer of White Haven and Herbert Paul Lentz of Allentown. And as things happen they had become friends. Lentz was born in the rural town of Friedens in 1899. His father, Arkeless E. Lentz was a butcher. His mother was Elizabeth. Lentz also had a younger brother, Gordon.

As with many ordinary people who step in and out of history, little is known on the public record about Lentz or his family. Like many folks at the time they may have come into Allentown seeking work and a better life in the booming industrial community of the day.

In 1916-1917, according to the Allentown city directory, the Lentz family was living at 125 South Jefferson Street in Allentown. Perhaps it was from here that young Herbert Paul Lentz decided he wanted to go to defend his country in the U.S. Navy. One thing about Lentz that is clear, somewhere in his childhood he became a powerful swimmer.

How Herbert Paul Lentz ended up on the U.S.S. Jacob Jones is unknown. But on December 6, 1917 at roughly 4:20 p.m., he was on board when the destroyer was returning from the French port of Brest to Queenstown, now Cobh, Ireland.

Unknown to anyone on the Jones, it was about to come within the sights of the periscope of the German submarine U-53. Its commander was Hans Rose, an excellent submarine officer and a gentleman. In 1916, before the U.S. entered the war, he had sailed into the fashionable port of Newport, Rhode Island, and invited folks to come aboard. Rose, in the spirit of perfect neutrality, asked a reporter who showed up if he would mind mailing a letter he had for the German ambassador in Washington. The reporter agreed, popping it into a nearby letter box. With that, Rose sailed out beyond the three mile limit where he sank three arms-carrying American merchant ships, but only after their crews were off the ships in lifeboats.

The Jones was about 3,000 yards away from the U-53 that December afternoon but Rose decided to take a chance. The submarine's torpedo, in what some sources call the longest successful torpedo shot ever attempted, found its mark. The U.S.S. Jacob Jones shuddered briefly and split in two. With her bow raised high in the air, she sank in the space of seven minutes.

It was Herbert Moyer who told the rest of the story to local newspaper in a 1943 interview. Lentz was in a life raft when he spotted Moyer floating in the water. All around them depth charges from their own ship were going off. "Those charges exploded, killing many of our men in the water," recalled Moyer.

With no thought of his own safety Lentz slipped into the water swimming furiously in Moyer's direction. He grabbed his friend and swam with him to the raft and got him on board. Refusing to return to the raft Lentz went in search of more sailors. "He became very excited," Moyer recalled. After pulling another man to safety, Lentz dove in again and pulled a third to the raft. Then, while swimming toward a fourth sailor, Lentz disappeared behind a wave. "We didn't see him again," recalled Moyer.

The surviving crew members, bobbing in rafts, were not out of danger. But at that moment the U-53 surfaced. Hans Rose emerged. After questioning the Jones surviving officers about the ship, he radioed the Allied naval base at Queenstown with the Jacob Jones location.

Rose survived the war, dying in Essen, Germany in 1969. Six of the Jones's crew would die of exposure before they were rescued the next day by the British destroyer, HMS Camellia.

In March 1919, when the war was over and the American Legion was forming in Paris, Colonel Henry A. Reninger of Allentown was among those present. That June, he became co-founder of the Herbert Paul Lentz American Legion Post 29. It is something to think about now that the last "doughboys" of the Great War are no more.