Decades-Long Search Leads to Discovery of U-Boat Off Nantucket
The salvage team had spent two days far off Nantucket Island aboard the 45-foot dive boat Tenacious, pinging the depths with sonar. Night was coming.
Suddenly the sonar picked up something, perhaps a rounded metal snout. A second pass revealed a fuller image—a World War II–vintage Unterseeboot, upright and intact on the ocean floor 300 feet down. When Garry Kozak turned to the six colleagues hovering at his shoulder, they burst into cheers before he could say a word. The joy on the sonar operator’s face announced that the team had found its quarry: German submarine U-550, which sank 68 years ago after a ferocious encounter with U.S. naval forces and had eluded divers and adventurers ever since.
The team’s divers went down for a firsthand look. “We removed any ambiguity,” said Joe Mazraani, who was among those making that descent. “We touched it.”
A New Jersey lawyer and veteran shipwreck diver, Mazraani organized the Nantucket expedition and provided the Tenacious. He was bent on satisfying a curiosity that began when he first heard the U-550 story.
In spring 1944, the U-boat, a Type IXC/40 on its first combat patrol, was prowling off the northeast coast of the United States. The perfect target appeared: Pan Pennsylvania, an American-flagged tanker carrying 140,000 barrels of aviation fuel to Britain, was lagging behind the other ships in its convoy. Just after 8 a.m. on the foggy morning of April 16, 1944, the submarine fired a single torpedo that struck the fuel tanker on its port side. The detonation cost 25 of the Pan Pennsylvania’s crew their lives.
Escort ships quickly moved in to rescue survivors, giving U-550 captain Klaus Hänert no choice but to slip his warship beneath the sinking tanker in hopes of avoiding detection. “We waited for your ship to leave,” U-550’s engineering officer later told interrogators, according to a U.S. Coast Guard account of the incident. “Soon we could hear nothing, so we thought the escort vessels had gone,” he said. “But as soon as we started to move—bang!”
Quickly pinpointing the attacker on sonar, the Coast Guard–manned escort ship USS Joyce dropped 13 depth charges. The charges bracketed the sub; the resulting explosions pushed the U-550 to the surface, where another escort, the U.S. Navy destroyer Gandy, rammed the U-boat. Scrambling topside, Hänert’s men tried to bring their ship’s deck guns to bear but American gunfire cut down the submariners.
Surviving sub crewmen set charges to scuttle the U-boat and began abandoning ship. The Americans took 13 prisoners, one of whom died of wounds inflicted in the battle. U-550 went to the bottom with 43 men aboard.
In the early 1990s, divers started looking for the wreck. Mazraani and team formed up and began their search around five years ago. They studied material at the National Archives and elsewhere, but clues were scant. No one had a precise record of where the open-ocean battle took place. “It’s not like they had GPS where you push a button and know where you are on the globe,” Mazraani said. “They noted the general area of the battle. There was a heavy fog. They couldn’t see the stars to get a fix.”
To locate U-550 the team made two sorties on the same 100-square-mile patch of Atlantic. A July 2011 troll with Tenacious towing a side sonar rig turned up nothing. In mid-July 2012, the team returned, again patrolling the 10,000-square-mile grid strip by strip, until Kozak saw his sonar screen light up.
Mazraani, who is in contact with survivors of combatants on both sides, is sharing images and information with them. He plans to visit Germany to meet the two surviving U-550 crewmen, ages 87 and 91.
Mazraani plans to take divers to the wreck of U-550 under the aegis of his dive business. He refuses to be specific about the wrecked sub’s location, saying only that it is about 70 miles southeast of Nantucket. “There are a lot of people out there who will not respect the site,” he said. “But I can’t stop anyone else from finding it. The ocean doesn’t belong to me.”
Smithsonian Highlights Specimens Collected by Corpsman
Marines thought he was crazy—a Navy corpsman who spent his off hours stalking rare birds in secured areas with a double-barreled .410 that resembled a Wild West six-shooter with a folding stock. He would shoot and skin his feathered prey, then pack the remains in cigar boxes. The work of Pharmacist’s Mate Sammy Ray is now part of a Smithsonian exhibition in Washington, D.C., that celebrates the efforts of the soldiers, Marines, and sailors who collected biological specimens across the South Pacific and sent them back for analysis.
Ray was a natural pick to help the Smithsonian. As a teenager in the 1930s, he trained in taxidermy as part of a Works Progress Administration program, then studied ornithology at Louisiana State University. After the war broke out, he joined the navy, then was sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to work with the Marines. “As soon as I was assigned to the Marines, all my ornithological friends thought there was a good chance I would be sent to the South Pacific”—and have an opportunity to pursue rare birds, Ray said. So they put him in touch with the Smithsonian, which gave him the collector’s gun and supplies.
In battle zones from Peleliu to Okinawa, Ray doggedly collected rare avian specimens. He considers the Sanford’s sea eagle he found on Pavuvu in the Solomon Islands his greatest find, along with a ground-dwelling buttonquail he scooped up while running for cover on Okinawa.
In wartime correspondence with Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore, Ray explained that he could only hunt birds “when time and duty permit”—a phrase that became the title of the Natural History Museum exhibit featuring his finds among other Pacific War fieldwork, on display through May 2013.
Regulations banned troops from discharging weapons in secured areas, but Ray and his commanding officer, a bibulous Marine, made a deal. The corpsman could hunt birds as long as the colonel had a steady supply of spirits from the store locked in Ray’s sickbay. “The colonel was a great guy in combat,” recalls Ray, 92, who retired from Texas A&M Galveston as an expert on oysters. “But he did like his alcohol.”
Doll Prompts Search for Kamikaze’s Kin
The doll was meant to perish with the Japanese flier who carried it. Instead, the figurine, about 5 inches tall and clad in silk from a kimono, found its way to the parks and recreation department in Olathe, Kansas.
The kamikaze doll, one of a handful to survive the war, was previously in the collection of Olathe resident and veteran Bob Enright.
An unknown sailor aboard an American ship retrieved the doll from the wreckage of a Japanese aircraft that had plowed into the unknown vessel. Eventually the souvenir wound up in the hands of Enright, a World War II memorabilia buff, arriving in a velvet-lined plastic case, taped shut and bearing the typewritten note: “Taken from cockpit of Japanese Kamikaze plane, 1944.”
Early in the war, Japanese girls and women sent thousands of dolls, known as masukotto, or mascot dolls, to soldiers in Asia and the Pacific. Originally, the dolls were meant to remind men of home and what they were fighting for.
The dolls later acquired particular significance for Special Attack squadrons of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army. According to Brandeis University anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider, the dolls were to keep kamikazes “safe long enough to fulfill their missions and die honorably” and “to keep the pilots company during their terribly lonely final journeys.” Sometimes, Schattschneider reported in a 2005 paper for the Journal of Japanese Studies, the dollmakers— mothers, wives, sisters, lovers—wanted to feel as if they were with the men in their final moments.
Enright, who died in 2009, left the doll and other items to his friend Kevin Corbett, Olathe’s parks director. Corbett puzzled over what to do with the bequest. His father, a veteran of the Pacific Theater, surprised him by urging his son to track down the Japanese pilot’s family and return it.
Corbett, hampered by not knowing the name of the sailor who retrieved the doll or the ship on which he found it, was not able to connect the doll to a certain kamikaze. In July, he turned the figurine over to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, thinking curators there might have better luck. “I don’t think we have enough information yet to connect this doll with a specific pilot,” says Schattschneider, who has joined the search. “But in a few other cases we have gotten pretty close.”
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.