Sunday, June 04, 2006
The U-505 Captured, June 4, 1944
Today in 1944, Unterseeboot 505, a German Type 9C submarine, was captured by the US Navy. This marked the first time since 1815 that an American crew had captured an enemy at sea and was the only time during World War Two that the US Navy captured a submarine intact.
The U-505 was something of an unlucky ship. Since her commissioning in 1941, she had had several different captains, one of whom committed suicide while the ship was under depth charge attack in October, 1943. To make matters worse, by the middle of 1944, the “good old days” of the German U-boat fleet were over. American industrial might and the onset of new technologies had turned the Battle of the Atlantic against the once-feared subs, so much so that a crew leaving on patrol had as much chance of dying at sea as returning. But a well-trained crew and a U-boat in top mechanical form could still be a deadly combination. With this in mind, the Allies created task forces centered around escort carriers whose sole mission was to hunt down and destroy German subs.
One such force was Task Group 22.3 comprised of the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal and five destroyer escorts. The group had been steaming off the western coast of Africa, an area that naval intelligence indicated was a recent hotbed of U-boat activity. While Allied codebreakers had broken the German naval code and knew of general movement orders, the exact locations of U-boats was encrypted before being re-encrypted by the Enigma machines and were, thus, unreadable. The task group had found nothing after two weeks in the area and on the morning of June 4th, set a course for Casablanca.
As soon as the group changed course, one of the destroyer escorts detected a U-boat only 800 yards away. The Guadalcanal immediately changed course to give the smaller ships room to maneuver and the fight began. Soon, planes from the carrier spotted the sub and fired into the water to mark her position. Depth charges followed. An oil slick formed and five minutes later, U-505 broke the surface. Her diesel engines were the only things still working.
The escorts immediately opened fire on the sub, which was still running at seven knots and was turning towards a nearby destroyer. That destroyer, the Chatelain, fired a torpedo at the sub in defense, but missed. It became obvious that no one was steering the U-boat as she continued to turn in a tight circle. Crewmen from the sub were in the water and were picked up by the escorts while a launch was sent to the sub with a boarding party.
Lieutenant Albert David was the first man to climb aboard the pitching deck of the sub. He led his eight-man team down the conning tower hatch despite the fact that he did not know what awaited him below. Fortunately, the entire crew had abandoned ship. Furthermore, the had left so fast that they had not completed the actions necessary to completely scuttle the vessel. While she was slowly sinking by the stern and her rudder was jammed over hard, the American prize crew was able to close the valves and stop the sea from rushing in. Only one man was killed in the action, a German sailor who had run out on deck when the U-505 surfaced and had been hit by machine gun fire.
Flying a large American flag from the conning tower, U-505 was towed to Port Royal Bay, Bermuda, where she was kept in secrecy for the rest of the war. Her code books were valuable because they allowed the Allies to break the super-secret location codes that were used in addition to the regular naval Enigma codes. Since the German Admiralty thought the sub lost at sea and not captured, they never changed the codes.
Lt. Albert David received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in saving the submarine from sinking; two of the sailors in his boarding party received the Navy Cross. The 58 surviving crewman of the U-505 spent the rest of war as POWs in the United States.
After the war, the U-505 was slated for disposal by the Navy. However, the efforts of an Admiral, a Chicago businessman and the donations of the people of Chicago saved the vessel. In 1954, she was donated to the city, where she resides today as an exhibit in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.