Sunday, February 13, 2005


Details on sinking, burial slow to emerge


BY Bill Geroux
February 13, 2005

HAMPTON - The Navy waited more than three months, until July 22, 1942, to announce publicly that 29 men from a sunken German U-boat had been buried "with full military honors" in the Hampton National Cemetery.

The Navy released a photograph of an Army honor guard carrying one of the Germans' caskets to a grave. The Navy disclosed only that the unidentified U-boat had been sunk "some time ago on Atlantic patrol."

The graves went unmarked until autumn, when the cemetery quietly erected headstones, just like the stones marking the graves of fallen Americans. But the Germans' stones gave only their names, as accurately as Naval Intelligence agents had been able to decipher them.

In February 1943, the Navy revealed that the Roper had sunk a U-boat and that the destroyer's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton Howe, had been awarded the Navy Cross. (Howe retired in 1956 as a rear admiral.) Newspapers noted that Howe's destroyer previously had rescued Jesse Roper Mohorovicic, the "lifeboat baby."

Still, the Navy disclosed no details of the sinking, nor did it connect the Roper to the burial of the Germans. The Navy had misled the public into thinking lots of U-boats had been sunk.

Virtually all the facts of the sinking and burial remained secret for more than 20 years. In 1963, Virginia historian Parke Rouse Jr. reconstructed much of the story from newly declassified documents. Rouse had first heard the story as a young newspaper reporter in April 1942, when the Navy had rebuffed him with a no-comment.

The elite Navy divers who secretly explored the wreck of the U-85 in 1942 found no vital secrets. They concluded the sub had been expertly scuttled and lay too deep at 96 feet to salvage.

Decades later, private divers with superior equipment would empty the deteriorating U-85 of artifacts -- including a typewriterlike, four-rotor Enigma decoding machine, which might have helped Allied cryptologists greatly in the spring of 1942.

The U-85's Enigma machine has been donated with the support of the German government to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, N.C., which is treating it chemically to get it in condition for public display. Hatch covers from the U-85 are on display at the Old Coast Guard Station museum in Virginia Beach and the museum on the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

The Roper finished World War II in the Pacific, where a kamikaze damaged it so badly in 1945 that it was later sold for scrap. The Navy donated the Roper's anchor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where it still stands in front of MIT's Pratt School of Naval Architecture.

History books offer mixed views of the fight between the Roper and the U-85. Many credit Howe and the destroyer with sinking the first U-boat in U.S. waters -- America's first real counterblow to the lethal German U-boat offensive.

But some writers have critiqued the battle. "The destroyer's excessive caution was canceled by the U-boat's overconfidence," wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in "The Battle of the Atlantic."

Clay Blair, in his book "Hitler's U-boat War," asserted that the Roper "had the opportunity to capture U-boat prisoners for intelligence and propaganda purposes, and there was a good possibility that in such shallow waters Navy divers could enter the U-85 and recover a four-rotor Enigma . . . and other secret materials. But the excited Americans apparently did not give these matters any consideration."

This debate is not confined to the history books. Ten years ago, several former Roper crewmen, including Rhodes Chamberlin, defended the ship's actions in a lively exchange of letters with a Hampton freelance writer, Ann Davis.

She argued that Howe deserved censure and not the Navy Cross for dropping the depth charges that killed the Germans. They argued Howe had no choice under the circumstances and should not be second-guessed.

Retired Navy Capt. Kenneth Tebo, the officer of the deck at the time of the sinking, lives in Northern Virginia. He can still see the Roper passing close to the men in the water before the depth-charge run.

"I saw them . . . " he said in a recent interview, but could not finish. After a moment he said, "War is rough, let's face it." Tebo said Howe had no choice but to drop the depth charges.

Last winter, the cemetery erected 29 new headstones for the Germans, after six years of urging by Dr. Hansjuergen Fresenius, a cousin of the U-85's captain, Eberhard Greger. Fresenius, a retired physician in Germany, pointed out to the cemetery that the old stones contained misspellings and other errors.

Fresenius has called the depth charge killings "murder." (See accompanying story.) But he called the new headstones another step toward reconciliation.

The new stones bear the Germans' full names in dark type that stands out in the veterans cemetery. Seven of the stones, however, show the wrong date of death.

One stone bears the name of a German who apparently died on a different U-boat, Davis said. The true occupant of that grave is most likely another, unidentified member of the U-85 crew, she said.

Every year at the Hampton cemetery, a local German-American group conducts a small memorial ceremony for the U-boat crew and German POWs who died in Tidewater prison camps.

It is one of a string of small, international ceremonies annually along the coast of Virginia and North Carolina for the casualties of the U-boat war.


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