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Halloween 1943: A no-holds-barred fight breaks out between crews of USS Borie (DD-215) and U-405, with weapons from torpedoes to tommy guns.

For most of the World War II Battle for the North Atlantic, sailors on outmoded U.S. Navy destroyers endured numbing boredom and frustration. But on Halloween 1943 the skipper and crew of USS Borie (DD-215) fought one of the most audacious and desperate sea battles ever.

By spring 1943 the tide in the Battle for the Atlantic, running so long in Germany’s favor, was finally turning. The toll on merchant shipping was still frightful, but the beleaguered Allies were at last able to deploy transformative new resources, tools, and tactics. With the invasion of Europe postponed, shipbuilding shifted from landing craft to indispensable destroyer escorts. Moreover, American and British hunter-killer groups centered on small “jeep” aircraft carriers were finally ready for duty. And, perhaps most significant for Allied strategy, U.S. Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Ernest J. King had cut through interservice clutter and lassitude to establish the Tenth Fleet. Although essentially a paper organization, the Tenth and its commander (nominally King himself but actually his assistant chief of staff, Rear Admiral Francis S. “Frog” Low) would have authority to order any U.S. forces in the Atlantic to take whatever immediate action deemed necessary to counter U-boat threats.

Simultaneously—Allied assessments to the contrary—the Germans were nearing a “crisis of crises.” Stepped-up American antisubmarine warfare in Eastern, Gulf, and Caribbean waters had already compelled German admiral Karl Dönitz to shift Type VII U-boats from the Americas to the open Atlantic. The medium-size Type VIIs, despite limited endurance and encroaching obsolescence, were the mainstay of Dönitz’s submarine feet and their crews its most experienced. If these boats could somehow shut down North Atlantic shipping, Britain might yet be starved out, denying the Allies a launching pad for the invasion of occupied France.

But things just got worse for the Germans. Accidents, delays, and losses (about a dozen U-boats in March 1943, for example) slowed the growth of the Atlantic submarine force, and with the Allies’ ever more sophisticated and effective countermeasures in resources, tactics, and technology (not just radar, but also “huff duff”—high-frequency direction finding—and decryption of German “Enigma” codes), the German Navy was actually facing disaster.

These big-picture circumstances changed the fortunes of even the smallest players—including aging destroyers like USS Borie (DD-215). Commissioned in 1920, Borie had served in America’s Atlantic, Asiatic, and Pacific Fleets before joining the Western Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prewar effort to monitor the Western Hemispheric movements of Europe’s belligerent powers. Serving initially on Inshore Patrol in Panama Bay, Borie eventually shifted to patrol and convoy escort in the Caribbean.

The work was tedious and unrewarding. Lacking radar to foil surface attacks, Borie and its crew were at a disadvantage and seldom got close to the action. In August 1942, however, Borie got a new lease on life—an extensive refit to equip it for oceangoing escort work. Borie’s distinctive “four-piper” stacks were trimmed and two of four triple torpedo mounts removed—replaced by six side-firing “K” guns (depth charge projectors) and two single-mount cannons. Most portholes were plated over and the bridge enclosed to afford splinter protection. Even the vestigial crow’s nest on Borie’s main mast gave way to the installation of the antenna for new surface-search radar.

That December Borie also received a new second in command: 30-year-old Lieutenant Charles H. Hutchins—“Hutch” to his friends. Born in Rhode Island, Hutchins had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1936 only to resign his commission two years later, move to Indiana, and begin a career in manufacturing. He rejoined as a Reserve lieutenant (junior grade) when war began, serving a year ashore before assignment to Borie. Sixth months later, on June 6, 1943, Hutchins “fleeted up” to take command of the ship.

Within the month, the young skipper got his first test at sea. On June 17, 1943, while of a convoy, lookouts reported an Borie patrolled the flanks object just 300 yards ahead. After four separate depth charge attacks, the lookouts spotted water boiling up to the surface. Was it evidence of an imploding sub or merely a “water slug”—a compressed-air blast fired as a deception by Borie’s savvy quarry? A final attack produced a slender but indeterminate oil slick. Leaving an army bomber overhead, Borie returned empty-handed to the convoy.

That disappointment was left in the shadows when, after a July period of upkeep and training in New York, Borie joined a task group commanded by Captain Arnold J. “Buster” Isbell aboard escort carrier USS Card (CVE-11). The Card group escorted convoys, but it also could be dispatched by Tenth Fleet for free-ranging hunter-killer missions. However, as Borie’s crew soon learned, their role was primarily defensive. Submarine hunting and killing had become an airborne business.

On the morning of August 7, a team of Card TBF Avengers and F4F Wildcats sank one of two surfaced U-boats only to have the Germans strike back later that day. U-664, skippered by 27-year-old Adolf Graef, a veteran of five patrols with three merchant sinkings, used his boat’s quad and twin 20mm guns to splash an Avenger and a Wildcat. The next night U-664 even slipped through Card’s destroyer screen (Borie and sister ships Barry [DD-248] and Goff [DD-247]) to fire three torpedoes at the vulnerable carrier. All three missed, sparing Card—and enabling its aviators to exact revenge. At noon on August 9 an Avenger-Wildcat team surprised U-664, which had surfaced to recharge batteries. Bomb and depth charge explosions caught U-664 at periscope depth and blew it back to the surface. The boat again tried to dive but popped right back up, and its crew jumped ship. Seven hours later Borie’s crew rescued 44 U-664 survivors, including Graef, in their first face-to-face encounter with the enemy.

The Card group’s next chance came in October when Tenth Fleet, acting on timely Enigma decrypts, deployed hunter-killer resources to foil Siegfried, a group of U-boats newly formed to attack mid-Atlantic  eastbound convoys. While cargo-laden ships were detoured south of Siegfried, Outbound North 207 (an Allied convoy composed of empty westbound vessels) became “bait.” Escort destroyers ringed ON 207, British escort carrier HMS Biter (D97) cruised in its very center, and British Escort Group B-2, with Tracker (D24) as its nucleus, patrolled nearby. Soon, two U.S. carrier groups, one centered on Block Island (CVE-21), the other on Card, joined the “great congregation” in the North Atlantic, ostensibly to hunt down Siegfried’s three provisioning U-boats—known as milchkühe, “milk cows.”

Late in the afternoon of October 31, the Card task group hit pay dirt: Avenger pilots sank one of two surfaced U-boats. Concerned that night was falling (and irked that the escaped U-boat might be a milk cow), Captain Isbell sent Borie due east in pursuit. Fighting choppy seas, Borie reached the scene about 2000 hours and shortly thereafter sonar operator Earl J. Potter got a contact, at a range of 6,500 yards. Closing to a mile, Hutchins swung the ship to starboard to unmask main battery guns. After Borie’s star shells lit up the scene, the sub dived. Radar contact was lost, but sound operator Bob Manning soon established sound contact.

Slowing to close in as the sub crawled northwest at four knots, Borie rolled depth charges and dropped a light marker. The underwater explosion that followed was enough to blow ship fuses and dislodge boiler brickwork. Ten minutes later, with power and sound contact restored and Borie nearing the telltale light marker, crewmen reported “the heavy odor of diesel fuel.”

Borie attacked again—and again withdrew. In the run-up to a third pass, there was a sighting: a sub surfacing—bow high, silhouetted by the marker light—then sliding down stern first. After further search produced no radar, sound, or visual contact, just a long water slick “profusely covered with diesel,” Hutchins was convinced he’d bagged a sub. His dispatch to Card, logged just after midnight on November 1: “Scratch one pig boat…. Am searching for more.”

(Hutchins was wrong. Although severely damaged, U-256 survived. Convinced of their success and collectively stoked with adrenaline, Borie’s crewmen were primed for the even bigger fight to follow.)

Within hours, Bob Manning, stationed now on surface radar, called out another contact, distance 8,000 yards, bearing 170 degrees. Hutchins ordered a turn left and then, with all boilers lit, “Flank speed!” Losing surface contact at 2,800 yards, Hutchins slowed Borie to 15 knots, enabling sound operator Lerten V. Kent to pick up a solid “ping,” 2,000 yards dead ahead. At 500 yards the contact suddenly slewed right and Borie followed. Five seconds later, answering the order for a deep pattern, Chief Torpedoman Frank G. Cronin released what was supposed to be a few charges. Instead, owing to a malfunction, two entire racks of the “ashcan” charges rolled and erupted with enough force to lift Borie’s stern and shove it forward. Moments later, as if on cue, a sub conning tower broke the surface. “There it is!” cried Bob Maher, Borie’s lead fire controlman, “about 40 feet to the right of the fare.” Hutchins ordered the ship’s big searchlight switched on; its beam swung to the port quarter and flooded the target. It was U-405, a Type VIIC sub—though all the Borie crewmen could identify at the time was a milky-gray conning tower emblazoned with the image of a large polar bear.

Borie needed sea room to maneuver and to fight. Out-matched in speed, size, and surface firepower, U-405 had the advantage of a tighter turning radius—which its skipper, 37-year-old Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann, used  to good effect. Hutchins ordered Borie to 25 knots. U-405 dropped astern, a gap that opened to 1,400 yards before Borie could turn and close. Meanwhile, though, Borie’s main and secondary batteries opened up. Gun teams on the bigger 4-inchers could fire 33-pound explosive projectiles at a rate of six to eight per minute. The 20mm machine guns (cannons really) could spit 450 canister-fed rounds per minute.

U-405 responded with its own 20mm guns. But just a few rounds struck Borie before its overwhelming return fire cut down Germans on deck sprinting for weapons. Then, once Borie gained broadside, its 4-inchers switched from local to central control. Fire controlman Jim Allegri aimed the three guns that could bear to port. Ten, responding to a “commence firing” order from gunnery officer William Dietz, Bob Maher pressed the firing key and three converging projectiles whooshed in salvo. The second or third of these salvos rocked U-405’s forecastle and, when smoke cleared, its big deck gun—yet to fire—was entirely gone.

Borie’s guns continued to bear, boom, and hammer. U-405, lit by searchlight and streaking tracers, seemed unable to dive. But the boat could still maneuver, and Hopmann again used U-405’s tighter turning circle in efforts to shake loose, or nail Borie with a stern torpedo shot. Maher, stationed atop the flying bridge, witnessed the cat-and-mouse game. Once, when the two vessels appeared about to collide, U-405 put on an evasive burst of speed and Maher got a close look at the Germans as they passed. Some wore sweaters and shorts, others just under wear. Several heads trailed long matted hair while others sported bandanas in green, yellow, and red.

At one point, after the sub finally got of a stern torpedo shot that went wide, Hutchins ordered hard left rudder, hoping to convince the German skipper that Borie would cross astern. It worked—U-405 immediately straightened out. When Hutchins countered with hard right rudder, the two vessels were running parallel, with Borie behind but catching up.

Then, all at once, the sub slowed. A man appeared on its bridge waving his arms. Hutchins commanded, “Cease fire!” But he was too late. In a hail of rounds, the man’s head disappeared—even as his body still stood and his arms still waved. The headless body toppled, U-405 picked up speed, and the deadly chase resumed.

“All right, Aikenhead,” Hutchins told his helmsman, “line her up.” Borie had pulled ahead of U-405, and it was time to move in. Aikenhead spun the wheel to port, aiming the bow to hit the sub’s starboard quarter. “All stations stand by for ram!” Hutchins shouted and phone talkers passed the word across the ship. Men braced for impact: Aikenhead grasped the wheel, Hutchins the screen on the port side pilot house wing; one level up, Dietz and Maher locked arms around the director range finder.

A hard collision was just moments away when U-405 turned hard left as sea swells simultaneously lifted Borie’s bow. Instead of the expected crash, there was a scissoring “soft landing,” which left Borie, engines stopped, riding U-405 bow above bow.

Momentary confusion quickly gave way to frenzy: “Fire! Fire! Open fire!” Hutchins found himself screaming, swinging one arm like a club. Main and secondary batteries had never let up, but now, with targets riding beneath them, it was difficult to aim. The barrels of the 4-inchers could be depressed just 15 degrees; only the aftermost gun could bear—and it could only reach the sub’s main deck aft of the conning tower. Meanwhile, gunners on 20mm cannons three and four—mounted on a raised platform aft amidships—had to fire right through the platform’s weather screen.

Deck guns were not the only weapons at hand; two tommy guns had been retrieved. Hutchins and Borie executive officer Lieutenant Philip Brown fired short bursts to pick of exposed Germans. Unable to find the key to the main deck small-arms locker, Chief Gunner’s Mate Richard Wenz broke through its doors and handed out pistols, rifles, riot shotguns, and tommy guns to all comers. Even unarmed men joined the fierce fight. Seaman Edward Malaney fired fares from a Very pistol. David Southwick, a first class fireman, threw his pocketknife, burying it in a German’s stomach, sending him toppling into the water. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Walter Kurz, the mount-two gun captain, heaved a 4-inch shell casing at a German on the sub’s main deck, who also tumbled overboard.

At the height of the one-sided fight, Hutchins repeatedly cautioned his crew not to board. As well as things were going topside—dozens of Germans were dead or adrift, while no Borie crewman had been seriously wounded—below decks was another matter. Heavy seas had twisted the two hulls. This had little effect on U-405’s strong steel-alloy shell, but Borie’s thin steel skin gave way. Water poured into both engine rooms through a portside seam, dislodging plate joints, crushing frames , and hopelessly flooding the forward room. Knowing the engine turbines could run submerged, Chief Engineer Lieutenant Morrison R. Brown, standing in water up to his neck along with Chief Machinist William Green and Lead Machinist Mario Pagnotta, ordered everyone out to concentrate on saving the aft engine space. (Machinist Irving Saum later risked his life returning to the forward room to secure a vital suction valve.)

After 10 minutes, when the seas finally uncoupled the two vessels, its own torpedoes, only to have high seas and the sub’s maneuvering foil the aim. The resumption of U-405 got under way. Borie fired one of U-405’s circling gave Borie no advantage and left it vulnerable to a stern torpedo shot. So Hutchins tried another gambit— switching of the searchlight and temporarily holding fire to convince the Germans the chase was over.

It worked. Radar showed U-405 straightening for a run to the northwest. Accelerating to 27 knots, Borie easily caught up—but this time on the sub’s port side. As soon as the two vessels were broadside, the spotlight flashed, guns boomed, and Hutchins prepared for another ram. This time though, as Borie closed in, it was Hopmann (or whoever remained in charge) who suddenly “bared his teeth”—turning the sub left attempting to barrel into Borie’s aft engine room.

In an impromptu flash of tactical genius, Hutchins reacted. First, using the destroyer’s rudders and faltering power plant, he swung Borie hard to port. Then, as Borie backed and skidded to a near stop: “Okay, Larry, give ’em the starboard battery.”

Larry—Depth Charge Officer Ensign Lawrence Quinn— flicked switches that sent three K-gun depth charges hurtling toward the sub. The charges bracketed U-405’s conning tower—one over, two short, both set to trigger at a depth of just 30 feet. The trio of blasts lifted the sub and deposited its bow very close—no wider than a “coat of paint,” some witnesses later claimed—to Borie’s starboard flank.

As Borie picked up speed to gain sea room, U-405 also got under way, this time astern. But it hadn’t long to live. Just minutes later, after continued gunfire and a second failed torpedo launch by Borie, U-405 finally stalled. Distress fares shot up from the sub’s bridge, and crewmen threw two-man rubber rafts strung together like yellow sausages into the water. Repeated, clearly audible pleas of “Kamarade!” finally silenced Borie’s guns. Afterward, about 20 Germans, the remnants of the crew, got into the rafts. U-405 settled fast by the stern, went under, and exploded.

After one hour and four minutes the battle was over—but not the ordeal. As Borie drifted toward the raft-borne survivors, a white fare blossomed far of. Ten, a warning from soundman Earl Potter: “Torpedoes bearing 220.”

It was all Hutchins needed to hear. “Hard to port heading 220, all available speed.”

The U-405’s rafts were then clustered of to port. Borie’s turn and acceleration knifed its bow straight through them. Bob Maher remembered seeing one young German, arms extended, eyes opened wide, mouth agape in soundless horror. Not one of U-405’s crew was ever found.

After dodging a lone torpedo 30 yards to port, Hutchins set a course north toward the task group. But the worst for his ship and crew still lay ahead

Borie was clear of the battle scene but not U-boat waters. Down to just one engine and knowing that another U-boat might be trailing them, Hutchins ordered zigzagging. Flood waters added both weight and draft, so Borie barely reached 10 knots. Dense fog descended. Seas climbed.

By dawn the fuel oil in Borie’s bunkers was badly contaminated. Condensers were crippled, so there was no

fresh feed water for the boilers. There was only enough gasoline to fuel an auxiliary generator powering radar and radio gear. Soon that was gone, too, leaving Borie blind, speechless, and groping north by dead reckoning alone. Hutchins ordered all hands to lighten ship. They jettisoned virtually all extraneous top gear; fired the remaining torpedoes; rolled the last depth charges; burned of torpedo mounts, K-guns, and gun director; deepsixed the 20mms and all but a few 4-inch rounds. Even the lifeboat went.

Seawater threatened all four boilers. Still determined to save his ship, Hutchins ordered two boilers secured. When the starboard turbine finally gave out, Borie went dead in the water. Acting on a hunch by Borie officer Lieutenant Bob Lord, word passed to collect all lighter fluid, kerosene, and spirits onboard. Within minutes, the brew brought enough life to the auxiliary generator to transmit emergency direction finding signals.

The task group, as beset by fog and high seas as Borie, had long since suspended fight operations. But Borie’s feeble signal supplied a bearing—and enough hope to send out two Avengers to scour the gloom. They  spotted Borie at 1130, just 14 miles from Card. The entire task force immediately turned and sped to the rescue. When the Card group hove into sight, aircraft launched to all quadrants to protect against subs. Destroyer Goff approached, stopping bow to bow with Borie, but heaving seas aborted plans to transfer fresh feed water and portable pumps. At 1630, with weather worsening, seas mounting, and Borie listing ominously to port and down by the stern, Hutchins finally ordered abandon ship.

Wind and waves made it impossible to deploy Borie’s starboard life rafts. Sailors, most donning inflatable or kapok life jackets, went over at the port rails. Water temperature hovered in the mid-40s. After darkness set in, raft-bound survivors, still clinging to their hopes, lost sight of their rescuers—and their rescuers of them. Some men were crushed and killed when destroyer Barry’s bow plowed through a cluster of rafts. All bravado then faded and desperation set in. Barry and Goff made repeated passes as rescue details manned the rails. Throughout the night, realizing now that survival hinged on individual initiative, many Borie men braved fateful jumps from raft to deck. Most landed in the strong grasp of waiting saviors— 23 crewmen were hauled onboard Barry, 106 onboard Goff.

Among the 129 exhausted, freezing, and grateful survivors were skipper Hutchins (afterward recipient of a Navy Cross); executive officer Philip Brown; boatswain Kurz; fire controlmen Allegri and Maher; fireman Southwick; gunnery officer Dietz; gunner Wenz; helmsman Aikenhead; machinists Green, Pagnotta (both to be Silver Star recipients), and Saum (a Navy Cross recipient); soundmen Kent, Potter, and Manning; seaman Malaney; torpedo chief Cronin; and torpedo officer Quinn. Among the 22 lost were engineering officer Morrison Brown (recipient of a posthumous Navy Cross) and officer Lord.

Though abandoned, Borie did not go easily. It took depth charges to finally send it down, stern first, at 0955, on November 2. In the next weeks, press coverage and plaudits were heaped on Borie and its valiant crew, culminating in a Presidential Unit Citation. While their fight with U-405 was not the last toe-to-toe brawl between the crews of a U-boat and a destroyer—six months later, in the Central Atlantic, the crew of U.S. Navy destroyer escort Buckley (DE-51) skippered by an officer even younger than Hutchins, fought hand to hand for 16 minutes with German sailors after ramming and sinking U-66—it was sweet vindication for all the tin-can men who had served so long and thanklessly in the epic Battle for the North Atlantic.


David Sears, historian and author, is a former U.S. Navy officer with extensive sea duty aboard a destroyer. His most recent books, on naval aviation, are Such Men as These (2011) and Pacific Air (2012).

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.