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America’s U-boat

By Caitlin Newman
3/24/2009 • World War II Time Travel

Seven years and $35 million were poured into the recent restoration, and you have to see the boat up close to truly appreciate its beauty.

When Jürgen Oesten, the famed U-boat captain, was asked postwar to reflect upon the career of the U-505, he answered with typical German laconism. “U-505,” he said. “Not what I would call a lucky boat.”

That was an understatement: at a time when unterseeboots were terrorizing the Allies, the U-505 was the cursed child of the Kriegsmarine. Launched in May 1941, its promising first year was cut short when the commander, Axel Löwe, came down with a career-ending case of appendicitis. Under Löwe’s replacement, Peter Zschech, the boat was plagued by mechanical problems.

The U-505 spent 10 months docked at the U-boat pen in Lorient, France, often venturing out to sea only to return a few days later with some glitch or another. Some suspected the submarine was being sabotaged by the Resistance—or by Zschech himself. Pranksters wrote poems mocking “the U-boat that sailed out every morning and was back every evening” and its commander. Though the U-505 was ready to patrol again in October 1943, Zschech was not: he committed suicide the next time the crew went to sea, in the middle of a depth charge attack.

The final blow to the U-505’s reputation came on June 4, 1944, when U.S. Navy Task Group 22.3 intercepted it off the coast of West Africa. Hammering the sub with hedgehog mortars and depth charges, the Americans forced it to the surface.

The U-505’s commander, Harald Lange, ordered his crew to leave the boat, and though they set scuttle charges and opened a sea strainer to flood the U-505 before abandoning it, a nine-man American boarding party managed to secure the sub and seize it. The task group took the Germans prisoner, and the U-505 endured a humiliating tow to Bermuda as the first enemy vessel captured by the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812. Perhaps it was that final ignominy that caused the U-505 to go down in the German collective memory as “the sorriest U-boat in the Atlantic force.”

But the moment the Americans seized the U-505 is exactly when the boat’s luck started to change. The man who masterminded the capture, Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, went after the German submarine with the intention of bringing it back to Allied territory intact. And after the navy had squeezed every German secret from the submarine, made the capture public, and announced its plans to scuttle it, Gallery embarked on an eight-year campaign to repair the damaged U-boat and bring it to his hometown, Chicago, Illinois.

Known for his perseverance and omnipresent sense of humor (“Keep your bowels open & your mouths shut,” reads a memo he wrote to his men after the boat’s capture), Gallery used his military connections and media savvy to raise some $200,000 to bring the boat to Chicago from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by way of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The journey culminated in a grand ceremony on June 26, 1954, when the U-505 was towed across Lake Michigan—with Gallery aboard.

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