Monday, September 05, 2005


Divers Tell Tale Of Mystery Sub


September 02, 2005

U-869's crew assembles on deck.

Only 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey, in 230 feet of dark, frigid water, lays the twisted hulk of World War II U-boat — a German submarine that once prowled the American coastline.

Decades after the war, a team of daring divers found the wreck. They didn’t do it in the safety of a mini-sub like the one that found the Titanic.

As 60 Minutes II correspondent Mika Brzezinski learns, they risked their lives to swim down to it with just the air tanks on their backs.

They discovered a mystery at the bottom of the sea: the wreck was in a place where wartime naval records said no German sub had sailed or sank.

Solving that mystery proved deadly for three of the divers who lost their lives exploring the wreck.

But two other divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, just wouldn’t quit. They call themselves deep-wreck divers — extreme adventurers who dive to depths even the most experienced scuba diver would fear to go.

"I identify myself as wreck-diver," Kohler says. "The majority of our friends are wreck-divers, and they understand us. There are people outside that circle, like you, who look at us and think we’re insane."

We met Chatterton and Kohler — the one with the beard — where their story began: on a dock in the small town of Brielle on the New Jersey shore.

The small fraternity of divers who like to risk their lives in their spare time gather here. It’s no place for average scuba divers.

"You know, putting a tank on their back, jumping into 30 feet of water, that’s a hobby," says Chatterton. "What we do is much more of a lifestyle." Writer Robert Kurson told the story of these underwater explorers — and how their obsession led them to solve a 60-year-old mystery — in the best-seller “Shadow Divers.”

To get a first-hand look at the world of those shadow divers, Brzezinski asked Chatterton and Kohler to take her out to sea, back to the place where they spent six years searching for answers.

Chatterton and a few other divers left this same crowded harbor one September morning back in 1991. They were checking out a tip from a fisherman who had found some kind of wreck on his sonar, 60 miles out to sea.

The men didn't know what they were going to find out there. It could have been nothing.

"Oh, sure," says Chatterton. "So our plan was I was gonna go down and take a look." Chatterton took a camera 230 feet down into the dark waters, where the shapes were eerie and unfamiliar.

"That’s when I saw the angled hatch. I went over. I looked into the hatch. I shined my light down and I could see the unmistakable shape of a torpedo. At that moment, I knew this is a submarine," he says.

Not just any submarine, but a World War II German U-boat. But which U-boat? And what was it doing off the Jersey shore?

German war footage shows a forgotten chapter of WWII: the story of German U-boats hunting — and sending to the bottom — dozens of merchant ships up and down the American coast.

American warships sank many of those U-boats. All of them were accounted for. None were missing off New Jersey.

"You know, this is my backyard. I know the local history," Chatterton said. "We know what wrecks are out there, and this thing wasn’t on the radar."

Chatterton and Kohler are local boys.

Kohler makes his living running a glass company in Trenton, N.J. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, where his father introduced him to diving. Chatterton discovered diving after serving as a combat medic in Vietnam. He says the adventure drew him to the sport. While the men call diving an adventure, others would call it danger.

"Well, there certainly is a significant amount of danger relative to my diving activities. But, you know, you have to manage that. And that’s what we do," says Chatterton.

Chatterton's video from the wreck shows just how dangerous. Pipes, wires and pieces of steel hung at crazy angles, ready to snare divers and their bulky gear.

Inside this undersea booby trap, Chatterton, Kohler and the rest of the dive team looked for something that would identify which U-boat it was. They thought it would be easy.

"Every single guy, without exception, that rolled over the side to dive the wreck thought that he was gonna be the guy to solve the mystery," says Chatterton.

They brought up dishes from the ship’s galley and the captain’s chronometer, which was used for navigation.

"In my hand, I’m holding a tangible piece of history," says Kohler.

And a fragile piece of milky glass that was part of the ship’s telegraph, which relayed commands to the engine room.

Wreckage of World War II German submarine U-869.
(Photo: CBS)

But on dive after dive, nothing they found had any kind of markings identifying the U-boat. The divers nicknamed the wreck the "U-Who."

German sailors called U-boats “iron coffins,” because three out of every four were lost at sea with all hands.

"When you go inside this U-boat, the viciousness of WWII is really right there, apparent," says Kohler. "It’s apparent the in the grotesque destruction inside the submarine. It’s apparent in the fact that there are these human remains and skulls, literally at times peeking right at you, peeking through you. And these people, at least to me, wanted me to find out who they were."

Finding out for Brzezinski and crew meant taking a small boat three hours — and 60 miles — out into the Atlantic, to where the wreck sat on the bottom.

Amateurs cannot dive 230 feet, so cameraman D.J. Roller, who specializes in deep-water photography, joined Chatterton and Kohler on the dive. Divers wear about 250 pounds of gear: fish out of water on the boat, but right at home in the sea.

It took the divers only about 5 minutes to follow the anchor line into the dark waters that hid the wreck. Down there, the pressure is nine times what it is at the surface.

The wreckage is strewn all over and the sub’s hull is torn — signs of the powerful explosion that sank the U-boat six decades ago.

That’s what leads Chatterton and Kohler to believe that the U-boat was sunk when one of its own torpedoes — packing 700 pounds of high-explosives — malfunctioned.

Things had changed since their first dives down there. The tides had ripped away parts of the sub's outer skin and pulled out objects like cooking pans, which Kohler found in the ship’s galley.

"There is no environment more intimidating than being inside a shipwreck in deep water by yourself," says Chatterton.

Steve Feldman was part of the team on the earliest dives. He apparently lost consciousness while exploring the "U-Who" and drowned.

"There is a significant amount of risk," says Chatterton. "And if you really want some kind of safe, wholesome family activity, this is definitely not it."

On their return to the wreck, Chatterton and Kohler could spend only about 25 minutes exploring on the bottom. It took more than twice as long to return to the surface, because they had to stop often to decompress.

The proof that was needed. (Photo: CBS)

"Decompressing" doesn't mean relaxing after a tough day. For deep-wreck divers, it’s a life-and-death process.

"One of your options is not coming directly to the surface," says Chatterton. "Chances are very good that you’re going to develop decompression sickness. You could be seriously hurt. You could be permanently injured. And you even could be killed."

Divers call decompression sickness the bends. That’s what happened to Chris Rouse and his son, Chrissy, who joined the dive team in October 1992.

At the bottom, they got disoriented, used up their air, panicked and went straight to the surface. Both father and son died from the bends.

"These were our friends," says Chatterton. "We knew them; we knew their families and that kind of thing."

"There were people that never got back on a dive boat, and a few that quit diving," says Kohler. "I mean, again, that’s something that once you see that, you can’t get rid of it. I can’t. But, you know, I personally could not give up on this U-boat."

"If I died on a wreck, the last thing that I would expect would be for my friends, my peers, to walk away from diving," says Chatterton. "I would expect them to continue on."

Which is just what these wreck-divers did — even though the mystery consumed their lives and broke up their marriages. Many of their fellow divers thought the risks were just too great to carry on.

Kohler and Chatterton narrowed their search to one bit of unexplored territory: the sub’s motor room, which was blocked by a large piece of fallen steel.

So Chatterton came up with a desperate — and dangerous — plan to reach it through a tiny opening. He planned to do something incredibly risky: squeeze through the opening by taking off his air tank.

"Sliding the tank ahead of me, I could get in there. Once I’m in the compartment, I believe that the compartment was largely intact. I could then put the tank back onto my back and retrieve the artifacts that we believed were gonna identify the submarine," he says.

It sounds simple enough, but according to Kohler, Chatterton "had a very finite, limited source of breathing gas. And he had no back-up, whatsoever."

It was a very close call for Chatterton. Tangled in debris, he almost ran out of air. He was able to get out, carrying a wooden box. What was inside wasn’t important, but one of the small tags on the front was the jackpot.

"These tags have the U-boat number here — U-869," says Kohler. It was that number that took the wreck-divers six years to find.

"This is the proof that we needed to conclusively prove that this U-boat was U-869," says Richie.

According to German war-time records, U-869 was ordered to the coast of Africa. But that little tag proved the sub never received those orders, and instead sailed to New Jersey — where she and her crew met their fate. The mystery at 230 feet was solved.

Both men have paid dearly for this mystery. Both nearly died, their marriages failed and three men were lost.

"There were two choices: follow it through to its conclusion or quit. So in many ways, yeah, you know bringing it to a conclusion was difficult," says Chatterton. "But quitting was just unacceptable."

"Never," Richie says.


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