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America's U-boat

By Caitlin Newman 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: March 24, 2009 
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Thanks largely to his efforts, the U-505 now has a permanent home at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Recently renovated, it is the only German submarine in the United States, and one of only four World War II–era U-boats in the world on display. More than 23 million people have seen the U-505 since it first arrived in 1954. Today I've come to see the beached behemoth for myself.

The museum is in Jackson Park, adjacent to Lake Michigan, in an ornate 19th-century building that must have made a striking contrast to the sleek submarine during the boat's 50-year stint outside the museum's walls. Exposure to the harsh Chicago weather took its toll, and in 1997 the curators began to restore the boat and move it to an underground, climate-controlled space. My relief that U-505 is now protected from the elements isn't purely preservationist: a cold, rain-soaked wind is blowing from the lake, and I'm eager to escape it.

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The exhibit begins at a narrow, dramatically lit hallway, with no submarine in sight. Instead, plaques, murals, and film footage provide visitors with a comprehensive history of the war and the U-505's capture. This is all new; when the exhibit opened in the 1950s, most of its visitors had lived through the war. Now the conflict must be recreated for generations that are two and three times removed.

Lulled by the winding hallway, I turn a corner to find myself face-to-bow with 252 feet of imposing gray and white steel. The U-505 looks every inch the silent killer, and the lightning bolt–shaped victory rune painted on its conning tower does nothing to dispel that impression. I'm reminded of Winston Churchill's postwar admission that "the only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-boat peril." In the murky light, it's easy to imagine the boat submerged in wait, ready to strike a passing convoy.

This single stunning artifact is the centerpiece of an admirable collection of nearly 200 relics from the war. The space around the boat is crammed with them: a sampling of the U-505's 87 phonograph records (some were found in pieces—apparently not everyone onboard cared for opera), a can of bread dough that was discovered in the bilges in 1994, and the crew's personal effects. There's a T5 acoustic torpedo behind a pane of glass, its inner workings laid bare, and the boat's original aerial-navigation periscope.

One of its two Enigma machines is on display here too, along with codebooks whose covers are weighted with lead (the better to sink when thrown overboard). Visitors can sit in a recreated control room, or fill the ballast tanks of a model sub with air to adjust its buoyancy. And the U-505's conning tower, bunks, and galley have all been replicated outside the boat. You could spend hours in the exhibit without ever touring the U-505 itself.

But that would be a mistake. 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. The onboard tour is likely the only opportunity you'll ever have to see an authentic German U-boat the way it was intended to be seen: as state-of-the-art military technology. The gray paint on the hull is fresh and clean; the wood paneling in the officers' quarters gleams. Every gauge, every dial, every pipe (and there are a lot of them) is in its right place. Even the darkness reveals how meticulous the restoration was: in the electric motor room, with the lights out, the gauges, hatches, and ladders glow faintly. They're outlined in phosphorescent paint, the same kind the Germans used so that the crew could continue working even in an emergency.

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