Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Last U Boat - U 853

U 853 was the last U boat sank off the east coast. It's final resting place is near Point Judith, RI. The video below has some interesting footage and an interview with the captain of U 853's victim.

Dad was a CPO (Machinist Mate) on one of the destroyers (USS Ericsson) that hunted and killed the U 853. Here is more of the story.

On May 4, 1945, Admiral Doenitz sent a radio message to all the submarines at sea to cease hostilities. The U 853 either never got the message or ignored it because on May 5 at about 5:40 PM , she torpedoed and sank the 1918 vintage collier SS Black Point. Naval Armed Guard Lonnie Whitson Lloyd was killed and became the last USN sailor to die in the Atlantic War.

Meanwhile, a convoy escort task force (TF 60.7) consisting of the USS Ericsson (DD-440), USS Amick (DE-168), USS Atherton (DE-169) and the USS Moberly (PF-63) had finished their work and were on their way back to Boston. The task force commander on board the Ericsson had challenged his ships to a race back to port. He was in the lead and had already entered the Cape Cod Canal when he received orders to return and hunt a submarine. (I suspect he was looking forward to seeing his wife in Boston, hence the race challenge, and his anger at being delayed may have played a part in the destruction of U 853). As he was stuck in the canal, he turned over temporary command to the next senior officer, who ironically was a USCG officer on the Moberly, until he could arrive on scene. They were on site within 2 hours of the sinking and began submarine hunting operations. They were joined later by two blimps (K-16 and K-58) from Lakehurst, NJ.

It appears the U 853 never left the area and was trapped in waters only 130 feet deep. It was all over by noon on May 6, 1945 when the submarine was declared sunk with no survivors. The final indicator of success was the recovery of the captains hat from the floating debris.

This story always intrigued me and I wanted to learn more about the people involved.

The captain of the U 853 at the time of her sinking was Helmut Fromsdorf.

He was born on March 26, 1921 and became an office candidate in September of 1939. He was assigned to U 853 when it was commissioned on June, 1943. He was on board the 853 when she left on her first war patrol on April. 1944, probably the XO. Their mission was to monitor the weather in the North Sea but they were discovered by the USS Croatan (CVE 25) and barely survived a 10 day game of cat and mouse. The US sailors nicknamed their quarry "Moby Dick" because of her elusive character while the Germans called their submarine "The Tightrope Walker"because of their narrow escapes.

I suspect that part of the reason for the extended hunt was to prevent any submarines from getting to Normandy.

The hunt ended on June 17, 1944 when the U 853 was strafed with the loss of 2 dead and 12 wounded. (She must have been in dire straights at this point if she was on the surface and this many crew were topside). Fromsdorf took over command and brought the 853 back to Lorient, France. After this action, the captain (Helmut Sommer) and most of the crew were declared unfit for duty. If you ever had any doubts about the stress of submarine service, this fact should convince you.

During this period, the Allies had invaded France and were rapidly moving west through France. The U 853, with the flotilla commander on board, was the last to leave Lorient and she went to Kiel where she was fitted with a snorkel. She remained in Kiel until February, 1945 when she departed on her last patrol with Helmut Fromsdorf in command.

On April 25, 1945, the 853 sank the USS Eagle (PE-56) off the coast of Maine. She was a WW I era patrol boat and it was not until 2001 before it was realized that she was sunk by a torpedo from U 853. She was thought to be a victim of a boiler explosion.

On May 5, the 853 attacked the Black Point and subsequently met her fate.

The following ordnance was expended in sinking the U 853:

264 hedgehog projectiles
195 depth charges
6 rocket bombs

The captain of the Atherton, Lewis Iselin, said of the battle, "There was no doubt that by this time we knew had it but everyone wanted to get into the act. I don't think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war."

A diver inspection of the wreckage a few days after sinking indicated that only 2 hits were made on the hull. Such was the accuracy of WW II submarine warfare.

I suspect that the anger at being delayed from seeing loved ones and that they had to keep fighting, and risking their lives after they knew the war had ended contributed to the level of destruction of the U 853.

So, did Fromsdorf miss the message to surrender or was he a Nazi zealot that decided to go out fighting?

There were 64 U boats at sea at the time of the message. 56 surrendered, 3 were scuttled and 5 were sunk. Also, while I have not been able to find out details, I suspect that the surrender message was being sent repeatedly so it would have been difficult for any boat not to get it.

It's difficult to understand the mindset of Helmut Fromsdorf. He had taken a severe beating in June, 1944. He had to be aware of the numbers of submarines lost (243 in 1943 and 249 in 1944) and of the latest war news - the loss at the Battle of the Bulge, that fact that Russians were 50 miles from Berlin and that the Allies were across the Rhine. Yet he still attacked.

I can't help but think that Fromsdorf was a zealot and ignored the surrender message. He had been born and grew up under Nazi influence. Like most men in their 20s, he probably felt invincible and may have decided to strike one last blow, perhaps as pay back for the beating he took during his first patrol. Finally, Germany was not aware of the anti submarine technology possessed by the Allies. SONAR and magnetic detection made finding the U 853 very easy. Fromsdorf may have thought he could attack and then hide on the bottom but he was severely mistaken. He should have steamed out to sea.

Aftermath and Trivia

  • The propellers from U 853 were salvaged in 1953 and were on display at the Castle Hill Inn
  • The remains of an unknown German sailor were recovered and are now buried in Newport, RI
  • U 853 is considered a war grave but it is a popular dive site
  • Captain Fromsdorf's hat is on display at the Destroyer Escort Historical Foundation in Albany, NY
  • The USS Atherton is still in service as the BRP Rajah Humabon (PF-11) making her one of the oldest ships in the world.
  • Charles Prior, captain of the Black Point, became the president of the Portland Marine Society
  • Lewis Iselin, captain of the Atherton, became a well known sculptor
  • During the battle, the Atherton had a German POW on board. He was put on board in Gibraltar with a ruptured appendix and was treated by the ships Jewish doctor. In 2006, he attended a reunion of the ships crew.
I asked Dad about this battle once. He told me that he was in the engine room the entire time and had no idea was going on topside.

1 comment:

Old NFO said...

Interesting piece of history, and an interesting family connection to it! :-)