“Stand by for a ram!” rang Lieutenant Charles Hutchins’ command throughout the USS Borie during the evening hours of October 31, 1943. Steaming at 22 knots past the Azores, the Borie closed in on the German U-405. What ensued was an unconventional 64-minute melee on the high seas.
“We young bucks, dumb and happy, were really excited,” crewman Bob Maher later wrote. “We were the hunters, not the hunted, and it was an exhilarating feeling for all of us.”
Since the previous day, the Clemson-class flush-deck destroyer, helmed by its 30-year-old skipper, had been stalking a German wolf pack after an attack report by aircraft from the escort carrier USS Card. The report noted that two U-boats had escaped a previous attack by the Americans.
The Borie happily went on the hunt.
After an hour searching through choppy seas, the Borie picked up the U-405 from the destroyer’s radar screen at 8,000 yards. Accelerating to 27 knots, the destroyer swiftly closed in on its prey. As the ship slowed and gained sound contact, it “delivered a depth-charge attack during which a malfunction caused the entire contents of both stern tracks to empty at once. Besides lifting the Borie’s stern out of the water, the explosive force drove U-405 to the surface,” writes Howard R. Simkin for the U.S. Naval Institute.
Turning the destroyer’s searchlight on the submarine, the U-405 was illuminated throughout the entire attack—casting the entire battle in an eerie, candescent glow.
Due to malfunctioning controls, the submarine could not submerge, leaving 37-year-old Korvettenkapitän Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann few options but to attempt to twist and maneuver out of the maelstrom. German sailors hastened to man their deck guns—however, almost no man survived the hailstorm that came courtesy of the destroyer’s 20mm and 4-inch/50-caliber guns.
“The roar and smell of battle was just unimaginable. But watching the results of the converging streams of 20 millimeter bullets was both horrifying and fascinating,” recalled Maher. “While the 4-inch projectiles made immense explosions, I really believe that the machine gun fire sweeping across the deck is what finally doomed U-405.”
As the swerving submarine attempted to flee, a determined Hutchins made the command to bear down and ram the U-405. In increasingly adverse weather, a wave helped to crash the Borie into the U-405’s deck at a 30-degree angle between the forecastle and the stern, according to the after-action report.
As the two vessels made contact, Borie’s crew frantically armed themselves with knives, Tommy guns, pistols, rifles, and shotguns to add to ship’s barrage.
“During this part of the action main battery guns #2 and #4, and 20MM machine guns #3, #4, and #6 kept up a continual fire, battering the conning tower, machine guns, and after end of sub to a flaming wreck,” the after-action report stated.
While locked together in a frenetic, close-quarters dance, Fireman First Class David Southwick hurled his sheath knife at a German sailor less than ten yards away. The knife embedded deeply into sailor’s stomach, killing him.
Others improvised. Displaying some American ingenuity, Boatswain’s Mate Walter Kruz managed to knock a German into the icy Atlantic after physically launching an empty 4-inch shell casing at him.
After 10 minutes of fighting, the vessels finally disengaged, with Hopmann—after a series of evasive maneuvers—managing to open the distance to approximately 400 yards of open water.
Despite receiving “severe underwater damage along [the] entire port side, including both engine rooms,” according to the AAR, “as [the] ships pounded together in sea, before separating,” the Borie continued to engage, with a salvo from one of its 4-inch guns making contact with the sub’s starboard diesel exhaust.
Below deck, in a desperate fight of their own, the engine crew furiously worked to keep both engine rooms operating during the pitched battle—”even to the point of operating the forward engine in neck-deep cold water,” writes Simkin.
Thanks to the engine crews, the Borie continued its pursuit. However, with the destroyer’s wide turning radius it struggled to keep contact as the sub maneuvered in tight circles.
Lieutenant Hutchins then intentionally doused the searchlight, hoping to reengage and pick up the U-405 by radar. He did.
As the sub began to turn starboard, the Borie prepared to ram once again, but right before contact the U-boat slowed “and turned into Bories’ starboard quarter. [The] Borie immediately turned hard left, backing full on port engine throwing stern toward sub, to bring it in range of projectors and fired starboard depth charge projector battery,” Hutchins wrote in the AAR.
The U-boat came to a stop a mere six feet from the Borie’s starboard side, but once again the sub managed to escape, albeit at a slower speed.
However, after 64-minutes of battle, the final death knell came in the form of a salvo from one of the ship’s four 4-inch guns, which once again struck the submarine’s starboard diesel exhaust.
Unable to maneuver, Hopmann and his crew finally surrendered. Fifteen defeated crewmen made their way onto yellow rubber rafts—35 Germans had previously been killed in what Maher described as “murderous shelling.”
Yet the Germans were not quite prepared to capitulate as personnel in the rafts continued to send up “Very’s stars,” or flares. Concerned American sailors watched as an answering white star appeared not far off in the distance.
The destroyer, according to the AAR, “immediately went ahead with all available speed coming hard left” as an enemy torpedo narrowly missed the ship’s port side.
“Unfortunately,” the report noted, “these evasive tactics forced the ship to run directly over [a] group of survivors. They were not seen again as Borie cleared [the] area, using radical zigzag gaining room to northwest.”
By the following morning the destroyer continued to limp along, operating on a single engine, with saltwater contaminating the ship’s fuel and water supply to its boilers. At 1630 Hutchins gave the final order to abandon ship, with American destroyers Goff and Barry standing by to pick up survivors.
Ultimately, the USS Borie was scuttled after Captain Albert J. Isbell of Task Group 21.14 ordered the vessel to be sunk with a combination of naval gunfire and aircraft-dropped depth charges.
Despite no crewmen being killed during the battle, tragically it was during the order to abandon ship that the Borie suffered casualties.
“This maneuver, this abandoning ship, resulted in the loss of 24 men and 3 officers,” Hutchins later relayed in a filmed interview. “The temperature of the water was 44 with very cold air, the seas were very high and, although the abandoning was very orderly, when the rafts got alongside the rescue ships the rolling and the pitching of those ships resulted in the loss of men.”
For their remarkable duel with the enemy, the Borie was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Hutchins, alongside Lieutenant Morrison Brown (posthumously) and Machinist’s Mate Second Class Randolph Saum, received the Navy Cross.
As for Maher? He wrote that upon arriving back in the United States “I got a new Chapstick because I lost mine when the ship went down.”