Thursday, April 14, 2005


The U-85 (lost 63 years ago)


BY Bill Geroux
February 13, 2005

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The U-85 in port in Occupied France.
(Photo Courtesy of The Old Coast Guard Station Museum)

At six minutes past midnight the radar operator on the destroyer Jesse Roper reported a blip on the screen: "We're going to have something close to shore." No one on the Roper's blacked-out bridge thought it was a U-boat.

The Roper was zigzagging through the shallow ocean off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, only 14 miles from Oregon Inlet. It was April 14, 1942, and these waters were the most dangerous on earth. U-boats had torpedoed seven tankers off the Outer Banks in the past six nights. Dozens of merchant seamen had died.

But the Roper had not seen a U-boat in five weeks of patrols. The entire U.S. Navy had not sunk a U-boat. The Navy did not yet have enough ships. The Roper, a World War I-era four-stack destroyer rescued from mothballs, was floating proof of the great holes in America's homeland security.

The Roper was old and tended to leak, but was well equipped to destroy submarines. It could steam 34 knots, twice as fast as a U-boat, and its narrow decks bristled with machine guns, 3-inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes and depth charges. The Roper had new radar that saw farther than the Germans knew.

But first the Roper would have to find a U-boat, and so far it had found only their victims.

"Have sighted lots of wrecked ships, life rafts and empty lifeboats," Roper sailor Robert Gillon wrote in his diary. "Early this morning passed through large patch of burned paint where another tanker or supply ship sunk last night. Paint about three inches deep on water. Lord only knows what this night will bring."

Sending lone destroyers to hunt U-boats in thousands of square miles of ocean had proved so futile in World War I that President Woodrow Wilson compared it to "hunting the hornets all over the farm." And these hornets hunted back.

The Roper had replaced the destroyer Jacob Jones, which was torpedoed by a U-boat off Cape May, N.J., with only 11 survivors. Some of the men were killed by the Jacob Jones' own depth charges, exploding as the destroyer sank. Most of the Roper's men had lost friends on the Jacob Jones.

The Roper's officers had been cautioned not to let their ship be next.

The Roper had charged at a dozen suspicious-looking radar blips, only to find fishing boats and Coast Guard cutters. That was why, in the early minutes of April 14, the new blip did not excite the men on the bridge.

But a sonar contact the next moment did.

The destroyer's sonar beamed waves through the water in search of submerged objects, which sent back echoes through the earphones of the sonar operator. He reported the swish of propellers turning very fast. No fishing boat or Coast Guard cutter raced around like that.

The sound came from the same place as the radar blip -- about 2 miles off to starboard, in the shallow water between the destroyer and the invisible shore of the Outer Banks.

The Roper's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton W. Howe, had just gone to sleep, leaving 22-year-old Ensign Kenneth Tebo in command. Tebo woke the captain and asked for permission to investigate. Howe sensed another false alarm but gave the OK. Half-asleep and still in his uniform, Howe headed back to the bridge.

The blip moved away and Tebo turned the Roper to pursue -- not directly behind but slightly off to starboard, as a precaution against torpedoes. Howe sounded general quarters, calling the Roper's 110 men to battle stations.

Howe ordered the Roper's powerful 24-inch searchlight readied to be switched on at his command. He was going to make certain he did not attack the Coast Guard.

The night was moonless, lighted only by the stars and the periodic flash of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. The ocean was dead calm and phosphorescent -- teeming with plankton that glowed when stirred into motion.

As the Roper closed on the blip, the phosphorescence revealed a wake. Then it revealed the streak of a thin object racing across the top of the water at the Roper.

Tebo saw a torpedo whiz close by the port side. Howe thought it might be a dolphin. It cut across the destroyer's wake and vanished. Men near the stern saw it and shouted.

. . .

A hatch from the U-85 on display at the Cape Hatteras
Lighthouse museum, Buxton, North Carolina.

Howe ordered the searchlight switched on. The beam fell immediately upon a gray submarine on the water's surface. The sub was turning away from the destroyer, in a tighter radius than the Roper could turn. The Roper's cook thought it looked too small for a U-boat. But a young machinist's mate, Ed Burkhardt, thought it "looked as big as the Empire State Building."

Some of the U-boat crew already were running for the submarine's 88 mm deck cannon, which was powerful enough to sink large ships. It could sink destroyers, whose lack of armor earned them the nickname of "tin cans."

The Roper's torpedo officer screamed for the destroyer to back up, to give him an angle to fire. One of the Roper's guns jammed, then another. "The captain gave the word to fire anything, and we were all scared," Gillon wrote in his diary.

Up on the galley deckhouse amidships, a tough chief boatswain's mate named Jack Wright saw a cook struggling with a jammed machine gun. Wright took over, cleared the gun, took aim and opened fire.

He swept the U-boat's deck with 50-caliber rounds, chasing the Germans back from the cannon. The machine gun sounded like a string of giant firecrackers. Every few rounds were tracers. Some of the Germans jumped or were shot into the ocean. Others climbed out of the conning tower and jumped overboard shouting in German. Others kept trying to reach the deck cannon.

"The machine gun was going back and forth, fore and aft," recalled Rhodes Chamberlin, a radioman on the Roper. "The Germans would run behind the conning tower; when the machine gun would go aft, they'd run out forward. It was only 10 steps to their gun. They didn't have far to go.

"This seemed to go on for several minutes."

. . .

The U-boat's tighter turning radius kept the Roper from closing quickly. The 3-inch gun near the Roper's stern was finally ready to fire. The bridge called down the range, the loader shoved in a 3-foot-long projectile, the trainer aimed the gun, and gun captain Harry Heyman pulled the lanyard. The crack of the heavy gun drew every eye.

The first shell splashed into the water just short of the sub. The second was even closer. Men from the "black gang" in the engine room cheered. The third shell struck the U-boat near the base of the conning tower with a bright flash and a clang that one sailor compared to "a huge bell."

The shell hit exactly where gunners are taught to aim, at a vulnerable point in the sub's pressure hull where a hole would be a mortal wound.

The U-boat slowed and nosed down. Howe and Tebo thought it was being scuttled. Chamberlin thought it was backing up. Tebo did not want to ram it and risk sinking the old Roper. The destroyer slowed. The U-boat vanished beneath the surface seconds before the Roper reached the spot.

Howe ordered the searchlight extinguished. The destroyer passed so close to the Germans in the water that Chamberlin heard them splashing and saw some of their faces.

"Bitte!" they cried. "Please! Save me, comrades! Gott save us!" Tebo and Howe said they also heard cries of "Heil Hitler!"

Word came down from the bridge to release the two life rafts. Chamberlin pulled a rope to free one, but the rope snagged. He took a knife to it, but by then the Roper was passing the Germans. Word came from the bridge to hold the life rafts for now.

Chamberlin saw about a dozen men in the water. Another sailor recalled a group of Germans holding hands in a line. Still another saw Germans forming a survival circle. Tebo recalled seeing about 25 men. Howe estimated 35 to 40. A German U-boat crew typically numbered 44.

The Roper circled and raced back toward the spot where the sub had disappeared. The sonar man reported an object on the bottom, barely moving. Most likely it was the U-boat. But was it sunk, or damaged, or playing dead? Howe also worried a second U-boat was nearby. The Navy believed they sometimes worked in pairs off Cape Hatteras.

The Roper was alone in the middle of the night, facing an enemy that struck without warning and left men to die. Howe was not going to let his ship become the next Jacob Jones.

He ordered depth charges readied to drop.

The Roper's depth charges were metal canisters 18 inches in diameter and about twice as long. They were nicknamed "ash cans." Each contained 300 pounds of TNT, rigged to explode at a depth of 50 feet. They could be rolled off racks on the stern and fired to both sides from devices called K-guns and Y-guns.

A depth charge exploding within 10 yards of a submarine could cripple it. Even from 35 yards the concussion produced a "water hammer" effect that could pummel the sub's hull and jar everyone inside. Depth charges were a submariner's nightmare.

Howe ordered a pattern of 11 "ash cans" dropped in stages to bracket the sonar target. The Germans still called out from the water. In the Roper's logbook, Tebo wrote that the nearest of the swimming men were 200 yards away when the depth charges were dropped. Others remembered the Germans being closer.

The depth charges sank at an average rate of 6 feet per second. The Roper steamed full speed ahead to avoid the shock. In its wake, 1½ tons of TNT exploded underwater in a series of muffled roars, shaking the Roper shook from stern to bow. Plumes of water flew up. Robert Gillon and gunner's mater Jake DeWitt saw some of the Germans blown into the air.

The Roper crew braced for the possibility of another U-boat attack. The Roper searched for more sonar targets. It sent a coded message to Norfolk that it had hit a sub with its guns and possibly sunk it. Howe wrote in his report that the Roper passed close to the Germans twice more that night but did not dare to stop and expose his ship to attack by a second sub.

No one ordered the life rafts released.

. . .

It was dawn before the tension lifted enough for the sailors to buzz over the encounter. Some did not know about the near-miss torpedo or about the guns jamming from bad ammunition and overexcitment.

"We all thought at that moment, 'We've sunk a U-boat, the first U-boat,'" Chamberlin recalled. "Mostly we talked about how glad we were it wasn't us instead of them."

An Army plane from Langley Field in Hampton spotted an oil slick and dropped smoke flares. The Roper followed the smoke and found a cluster of floating bodies.

Howe sent out a lifeboat with the ship's doctor in charge. The doctor found only dead men. The condition of the bodies made it clear they died of internal injuries from the depth charge concussions. Most had broken backs. The lifeboat crew began hauling them in.

Howe appeared on deck and a few of the men approached him. "We asked the skipper why we were picking up dead bodies, why we hadn't stopped and rescued the men the night before when they were still alive," Dewitt recalled. "We weren't challenging, we just wanted to know why we'd done it that way. He said if we had stopped to rescue them, we wouldn't be here, because we would have been sitting ducks. He said U-boats operated in packs."

Tebo, who had relayed the captain's order to drop depth charges, felt surprise and regret. "I should have known what would happen to those men, but I didn't," he recalled recently.

Neither he nor anyone else on the Roper expressed the view that the depth charges should not have been dropped.

"I don't think the captain had any choice," Chamberlin said. "The situation wasn't in any of the books. We didn't hate the Germans. Maybe a few of our crew did, but I think the majority felt it was a damn shame we had killed the survivors."

The lifeboat returned with 20 bodies, and the doctor said there were more. Tebo was sent out in command of a second lifeboat.

The Germans were young men in gray and green clothing. Some wore beards. Many wore breathing apparatus, suggesting they had exited the U-boat underwater. Two of the bodies were in such condition that Tebo decided retrieving them would be disrespectful. He checked them for documents and let them slip back into the ocean.

Tebo found nine more bodies. The Roper hauled them out of the lifeboat by piling them unceremoniously on a lower deck. Immediately, souvenir hunters descended on the dead.

"Our crew is like a pack of hungry animals in its desire for souvenirs," wrote John S. Van Gilder, a civilian who happened to be aboard the Roper that day. Chamberlin said only a few sailors took part. Howe quickly stopped it. He was furious. He lectured the crew, ordered the bodies covered with a tarp and posted a guard over them.

Later, a young sailor showed Chamberlin a pilfered ring with a lock of hair hidden behind the gemstone. Another man recalled a shipmate smuggling home a pair of German boots, which ended up on display in a tavern in Flint, Mich.

The Roper was ordered to Lynnhaven Roads, an anchorage off Virginia Beach, where it transferred the bodies to the Navy tug Scioto. Immediately, souvenir hunters from the Scioto descended on the bodies. The Roper crew shouted. The tug captain posted his own guard over the dead and then turned the Scioto back toward Naval Operating Base, Norfolk.

. . .

The 29 Germans from the U-boat were the first "enemy dead" to reach American soil since the War of 1812, when a British officer killed in a naval engagement was buried with honors on the coast of Maine.

But the U.S. government did not want to explain the U-boat crew to a nervous American public. It did not want to explain anything about America's weak coastal defenses.

First, it needed time to search the U-boat for possible secrets. An elite Navy dive team from Washington already was on the way to the Outer Banks.

So the government mobilized to hide America's first victory of the U-boat war.

Naval Intelligence officers came aboard the Roper at Lynnhaven Roads and told its officers to keep the sinking quiet. The officers passed the word to the crew. They had no one to tell anyway because the Roper was ordered directly back out on U-boat patrol.

The U.S. Quartermaster General's Office contacted the nearest military cemetery to the sinking, Hampton National Cemetery, to deliver an urgent order: 29 graves were needed within 24 hours for a U-boat crew, and the burial was to be a military secret.

Further, the graves were to be dug in the cemetery's new and largely vacant annex in Phoebus, a small town of retirees and fishermen on the fringe of the Army's Fort Monroe. The fort dispatched 52 prisoners, probably from its stockade, to help dig the graves.

The army of gravediggers drew a crowd in Phoebus. Neighbors gathered behind a chest-high brick wall separating the cemetery from homes. The closest grave was only 25 feet from the wall. The secret quickly leaked out.

"Everybody knew the graves were for a German U-boat crew," recalled Keith Brown, who was 13 at the time and lived a block from the cemetery. He and his buddies watched the digging, along with his grandfather and two uncles. The cemetery superintendent told the boys they could watch as long as they stayed behind the wall and did not climb on it.

The tug Scioto arrived at the naval base at 6:30 p.m. The bodies were carried on stretchers into a hangar and laid out in rows on the floor, where FBI and Naval Intelligence agents found documents on them.

The documents showed the sub was the U-85, under the command of Oberleutnant Sur Zee Eberhard Greger. It had sunk three ships in four war cruises, including a Norwegian freighter four nights before.

One young German seaman, Erich Degenkolb, had kept a diarycurrent to the day before the sinking. He wrote about girls back home and terrible bouts of seasickness -- "Oh Neptune!" His last entry was, "American searchlights and beacons visible at night."

The bodies remained in the hangar all night. The Navy still had not positively identified one man.

. . .

The next day, Tuesday, April 15, the gravediggers finished preparing the sites. At one point, the authorities tried to confuse the locals by announcing the graves were for merchant seamen, victims of U-boats.

The Navy had trouble finding 29 caskets. Finally it bought them from a Veterans Administration office in Hampton, for $33 apiece. Each body was placed inside a casket and each casket inside a packing box. The Navy loaded the boxes onto trucks, which set out in a small convoy for Phoebus.

The convoy arrived at the cemetery gates at dusk. An honor guard of 20 Army soldiers carried the bodies to the grave sites. The sun set at 7:39 p.m. The night was unseasonably warm, still around 70 degrees. About 75 people gathered in their shirt sleeves, including most of Brown's family and their neighbors. Everyone fell into a respectful silence when the dead arrived.

Laborers used ropes to lower the caskets, still in their packing boxes, into the graves. At 8 p.m., a Catholic chaplain stepped forward with a short prayer, followed by a Protestant chaplain. A firing party of 24 sailors fired three volleys into the dark. A Navy bugler blew taps.

"You could see tears on some faces," Brown recalled. "It made us feel closer to the Germans, even though we were at war with them. It made us feel a little easier, too, thinking that hopefully our boys would get the same treatment."

The convoy departed and the crowd dispersed. Several people called local newspaper reporters, whom the Navy rebuffed with no-comments.

The diggers filled in the graves and left them unmarked. The Navy promised to send a chart showing which men lay where. The ground closed over the Germans, less than 43 hours since the blip appeared on the Roper's radar screen.


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