Nobody wants to be the last to die for a cause—especially an evil one.
When I was in Iraq, and later in Afghanistan, I would occasionally ponder a question that is likely eternal among combatants: “Who will be the last to die in this war?” I was too narrow in my thinking, as I considered only Americans and only the U.S. Army.
I was reminded of that a few weeks before writing this column by the discovery of an American warship sunk by a U-boat near the end of World War II—the patrol boat Eagle-56. Found in 2018 and confirmed by the U.S. Navy in July 2019, Eagle last appeared on the surface on April 23, 1945, just a few miles off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. At 12:14 p.m. on that clear and cold day, it blew up amidships and almost instantly sank. All but 13 of its 62-man crew died in the attack. Initially ascribed to a boiler explosion, it took years of patient research for a historian to track down the truth.
This time, I thought to wonder about the enemy. The U-boat’s fate was easier to determine. U-853 did not reach the end of the war either—ironic for a boat the crew had confidently nicknamed “Der Seiltaenzer” (“The Tightrope Walker”). U-853 was the last German submarine sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic. It went down in about 125 feet of water, roughly four-and-a-half miles east of Block Island, Rhode Island, near the mouth of Narragansett Bay. Indeed, it is today one of the more popular wrecks upon which scuba divers descend along the East Coast. I know the place well, as I have sailed those waters and passed directly over the wreck.
Almost immediately after Eagle’s sinking, a warship practicing antisubmarine drills in the area thought it had found a U-boat and attacked. It failed—in part because along that part of the coast you can get to deep water fairly quickly. We will never know exactly what route U-853 took from the mid-coast of Maine down to Rhode Island waters, but it was almost certainly a slow, creeping voyage. Once U-853 slipped past that first ship it probably headed south-southeast to even deeper water. Swinging wide around the shoals at the southern “elbow” of Cape Cod, its new “snorkel” allowing the crew to run the engines at night and recharge the batteries for the next daylight period, the U-boat likely averaged around 4 to 7 nautical miles per hour.
All that is sure is that on the afternoon of May 5, 1945, U-853 was submerged near the entrance of Narragansett Bay. That is where, sometime between 5 and 5:30 p.m. (accounts differ), the unfortunate collier ship SS Black Point ran afoul of the U-boat, sealing both their fates. Very shortly after one of the U-boat’s torpedoes downed Black Point, killing 12, a U.S. Coast Guard frigate and two destroyer escorts swarmed the sub in shallow waters. Above them were at least two U.S. Navy antisubmarine blimps. The end was obvious, and U-853 and the remains of its crew lie on the seabed as silent testimony.
Here is where the tragedy rests: None of the men who went down that day, on either side, should have died.
The day before the attack, Grand Admiral Karl H. Dönitz, Nazi Germany’s leader after Hitler’s suicide, broadcast an order to all U-boats at sea: “Cease fire at once. Stop all hostile action against Allied shipping.”
History is imprecise. It must be, especially in war, when so many witnesses to events die. We cannot know if U-853 took its crew of 55 to the depths because the message never reached the sub, or because its allegedly glory-hound commander ignored the order.
It sucks to be one of the last to die for any cause. To die for an evil one, or just one man’s ego, raises the loss to another level.
—Robert Bateman, a former Airborne Infantry Ranger and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, has taught military history at West Point and at George Mason and Georgetown universities.
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of World War II.