Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Last Submarine

6 May, 1945

Helmut Frommsdorf was not having a good day. He had been in command in his Type IXC/40 U-boat, the U-583, for 7 months. He had been on patrol for 72 days, having left Norway on 23 February 1945. He had only 2 ships to his credit and sinking the last one, the SS Black Point, had called the wolves down on his head. He was being depth charged by four ships, the USS Ericsson (DD-440), the USS Amick (DE-168), the USS Atherton (DE-169) and the US Coast Guard’s USS Moberly (PF-63) In addition to these four ships, two blimps, the K-16 and K-58 out of Lakehurst, NJ assisted the ships and were the eyes in the sky marking oil slicks and other suspicious spots. Caught in shallow water near Point Judith, RI, he was depth charged for 16 hours. The depth charging continued until debris, including Helmut’s cap, was recovered on the surface. His submarine was to be the last one sunk off the US coast. There were no survivors.

Helmut was a 24 year old Oberleutnant Sur Zee (senior lieutenant) on his first real combat patrol of his first real command. His previous submarine patrols were short, lasting less than a week and there had been only 2 of them prior to taking U-853 across the Atlantic. When he left on patrol in February 1945, he must have known that the war was not going well for Germany and he must have known that U boat losses had become very high in the past two years. But he may have maintained an attitude of hopeful optimism and the idea that the U boats could turn the tide of the war. In short, he was a newly minted junior officer on his first command who probably wanted to make a name for himself and didn’t have the world experience to see the reality of the times. It will never be known if he ever received Karl Donitz’s orders on 5 May 1945 for all U-boats to cease combat operations and Return to Base or if he ignored it. The fact that the crew’s nickname for their boat, “The Tightrope Walker”, may give a clue as to the personality of Captain Fromsdorf.

The US Navy ships involved had just returned from Atlantic escort duty from Oran, Algeria and were headed home to Boston. I imagine that everyone was looking forward to liberty. They must have known that the war with Germany had ended the day before and spirits were probably high. In fact, Cdr. Francis McCune, captain of the USS Ericsson had issued a challenge to the other captains to race him to the Cape Cod Canal. While in the canal, they got word about the sinking and were ordered to turn around and go hunting. I can only imagine the captain’s state of mind when one minute he was looking forward to seeing his wife for dinner and the next, ordered to put his ship in harms way against a known submarine threat that had shown no indication of surrender.

The hunt was on. On one side was a cohesive team familiar with operating together and had the latest in sub hunting technology and anti-submarine weapons. On the other was a single submarine captained by an inexperienced officer in shallow water. Captain Fromsdorf’s strategy was to sit on the bottom and try to hide rather than make a high speed run for deep water. It turned out to be his undoing. A submarine could no longer play possum in 130 feet of water. He was found and pounded. Lewis Iselin, Captain of the USS Atherton later said, “There was no doubt that by this time we knew we had it but it seemed everyone wanted to get into the act. I don't think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war."

Dad was a plank owner on the Ericsson. Plank owners are the guys who are on the commissioning crew. The Navy called him back into active duty when the war started, made him a Chief Machinists Mate and put him on the Ericsson. I asked him once about this battle. He told me that his post was in the engine room and that they knew nothing about what was going on topside. He knew they were dropping depth charges but they were too busy answering engine orders.

The U-853 is now a popular dive spot, but at a depth of 130 feet, is one best left to experienced divers.

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