More Trouble Than It Was Worth? How the Navy Once Seized a Nazi U-Boat

By Unknown author - U.S. Navy photo 80-G-49172, Public Domain,
December 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanyKriegsmarineU.S. NavyU-boat

More Trouble Than It Was Worth? How the Navy Once Seized a Nazi U-Boat

This U.S. captain came home with a surprise catch that actually landed him in deep trouble with his superiors.

Oberleutnant Lange was assigned as U-505’s captain in December. U-boat command hoped that an older and steadier commander might help settle the crew after Captain Zschech’s suicide. Shortly after leaving port, the submarine picked up survivors from a German torpedo boat, T-25, and returned to France. Although this patrol was not nearly the fiasco of the previous cruise, it was still another aborted start. The crew was becoming highly frustrated with aborted war patrols, depth charges, and repair docks.

Captain Lange did not take U-505 to sea again until March 16, 1944. He patrolled the western coast of Africa for Allied shipping but never even spotted a single ship. “The hex is still with us,” a crewman complained. Actually, U-505’s failure to find Allied shipping had nothing to do with luck, bad or otherwise. Allied naval intelligence had been tracking the submarine through her radio transmissions and had diverted all shipping away from her.

At the end of May, Lange decided to return to Lorient—yet another unsuccessful patrol. The boat was low on fuel, the crew was frustrated and in low spirits, and nothing at all had been accomplished in nearly two and a half months. Lange did not know it, but Allied codebreakers were fully aware that he was returning to France and also had a good idea of the course he was taking. Intelligence passed this information along to Captain Gallery and his hunter-killer group. It was U-505 that Guadalcanal was picking up on the U-boat radio frequency.

Captain Lange had no idea that his boat was in danger until the morning of June 4, when the noise bearings of Gallery’s approaching destroyer escorts were picked up. He brought the submarine up to periscope depth and saw what he identified as three “destroyers,” along with another ship that might be an aircraft carrier. Although he ordered an immediate crash dive, the U-boat was convulsed by five explosions before it had the chance to reach a safe depth.

“Water broke in,” Lange reported. “Light and all electrical machinery went off and the rudders jammed.” The Chatelain’s depth charge salvo had found its target. “Not knowing the whole damage or why they continued bombing me,” Lange curiously noted in his report, as though he thought that shooting at his U-boat was bad sportsmanship, “I gave the order to bring the boat to the surface by [com]pressed air.”

As soon as the boat surfaced, Captain Lange was up on the bridge. He saw four U.S. Navy vessels around him, “shooting at my boat with calibre and anti-aircraft [.50-caliber machine gun and 40mm cannon.]” The nearest destroyer escort hit the conning tower, wounding Lange in his legs and also killing his chief officer. Lange ordered a turn to starboard, swinging away from the enemy and giving the American gunners less of a target to shoot at. He also ordered the boat scuttled.

At 1126 hours, 16 minutes after the first possible sound contact, Captain Gallery ordered the task group to cease fire. Immediately afterward, he sent an order over his flagship’s intercom that had not been heard on an American warship since the War of 1812: “Away all boarding parties!”

The first ship to react was the Pillsbury. Her boarding party, led by Lieutenant (j.g.) Albert David, climbed into the ship’s whaleboat and started off for the German submarine, which was still circling to starboard at five or six knots. The event reminded Captain Gallery of a scene from Moby Dick, with a boarding party chasing a U-boat instead of harpooners chasing a whale. It did not take very long for the crew to cut inside the submarine’s circle, overtake the boat, and jump on deck.

Now that they were actually on board the submarine, Lieutenant David and two other men had to take control of it. The only German they saw was dead, lying face down alongside the conning tower hatch. With David in the lead, the three men climbed through the hatch, went down the ladder, and jumped into the control room. No one was absolutely certain if any Germans were still on board or not. Luckily for the small boarding party, the compartment was deserted and silent. The only sounds came from the machinery that kept the U-boat moving in its slow circle.

Even if the Boat Sank, Saving the Enigma Machines Would Have Made Everything the Group had Done Well Worth the Effort.

It seemed as though the boat was about to sink. The submarine was about 10 degrees down by the stern and seemed to be settling deeper with each passing minute. So, the three men concentrated on saving the secret code books and the boat’s Enigma enciphering machines. They grabbed every secret document they could get their hands on and passed them up through the hatch and onto the bridge. Even if the boat sank, just saving the Enigma machines and the code books would have made everything the group had done so far well worth the effort.

Captain Gallery, however, was not satisfied with just the secret books and code machines. He wanted to save the submarine as well. Because Guadalcanal was no longer in danger from a torpedo attack, Gallery brought the carrier close enough to the U-boat to send a whaleboat with a 10-man boarding party to help David and his men. A wave sent Guadalcanal’s whaleboat crashing onto U-505’s forward deck, which thoroughly frightened the three men aboard the submarine. They had no idea that another boarding party had been sent.

The leader of the 10-man party was Commander Earl Trosino, an engineering officer and an expert on ships’ pipes and fittings. Before the war, Commander Trosino had been a chief engineer aboard Sun Oil (Sunoco) tankers. Although he had never been aboard a submarine, Trosino managed to solve a major problem within the first few minutes. An open seacock was allowing tons of water to pour into the U-boat, adding to the difficulty of keeping her afloat. Its cover was found nearby and was simply screwed back into place.

When Lieutenant David and his men began looking for booby traps, they found 13 demolition charges and disarmed them. Trosino made certain that all the valves were closed and did his best to keep the boat from sinking. He sent word to Captain Gallery that the U-boat would sink unless it was towed.

The captain of the Pillsbury attempted to come alongside the still-circling German submarine, pass a salvage pump over, and take the boat in tow. During the maneuver, one of the submarine’s diving planes punched a hole in the Pillsbury’s hull, flooding her engine room and forcing the ship to retire and repair the damage. After Pillsbury left the scene, Guadalcanal took over. Commander Trosino and his men attached their end of Guadalcanal’s cable to U-505’s bow, and the carrier began to pull.

On the evening of June 4, Captain Gallery set out for Dakar, the nearest friendly port, with U-505 in tow. He had to leave the damaged Pillsbury behind, with the Pope standing by. Captain Gallery had two problems to worry about. He was informed that the fuel situation was now critical. The task group could not have reached Casablanca even if Gallery wanted to. There was not enough fuel to make the trip.

The second problem was that U-505’s rudders were still turned to starboard. Commander Trosino reported that he had put the rudder amidships, but he had only succeeded in moving the boat’s electric rudder indicator. The indicator showed that the rudders were amidships, but they were actually still hard right. The only possible way of moving them was to use the boat’s manual steering mechanism, which was situated in the after torpedo room. Since the boat was already well down by the stern, adding the weight of a couple of men in that compartment would only make a bad situation worse. Also, Trosino reported that the aft torpedo room was flooded and that its hatch was booby-trapped.

Gallery said that he had been itching to get aboard the U-boat. The booby-trapped hatch gave him the excuse he needed. He was an ordnance school graduate and “knew as much about fuses and circuitry as anyone on board.” So, he designated himself officer in charge of booby traps and, along with Commander Trosino and four helpers, took a boat over to U-505 to investigate.

As he made his way into the submarine through the conning tower hatch, which was almost awash, Gallery began to have second thoughts about leaving Guadalcanal. The air stunk, the boat seemed on the verge of sinking by the stern, and the trip “through the control room, diesel engine room and after motor room seemed endless,” he recalled.

Finally, the party arrived at the hatch leading to the aft torpedo room. Trosino shone his light on an open fuse box and said, “There she is, Cap’n.” This was the booby trap. By the look of the box and all the wires coming out of it, it seemed to be a very cleverly devised demolition charge. To open the hatch to the torpedo room, the fuse box first had to be closed. Closing the lid might possibly close a circuit to an explosive device, which would destroy the U-boat and everyone in it.