The Capture of U-505 Lives On
In May 1944 a U.S. Navy hunter-killer task force sailed from Norfolk, Virginia across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands to conduct anti-submarine patrols. For weeks the group searched with no luck; the German subs were elusive. Their goal was to find Nazi subs, but not to sink them, but rather, to capture one.
Then two days before the D-Day landings, the historic, but little-known task force (Task Force 22.3), running low on fuel, decided to turn and head towards Casablanca after another unsuccessful patrol. Ten minutes later, the USS Chatelain (DE-149) made sonar contact on an object 800 yards on the starboard bow.
The Chatelain closed in quickly on the target, in fact, it closed too quickly and it could not attack the target because depth-charges would not be able to sink fast enough to hit the sub. Instead, the destroyer attacked using “hedgehogs” which were battery-operated charges that explode on contact and are thrown ahead of the ship. After one pass, the Chatelain turned around and made another pass over the sub for a second attack.
As the Chatelain engaged, Wildcat planes launched from the USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60), the task force’s flag ship, spotted the submerged sub from the air and fired into the water to mark the sub’s position for the attacking ships. The Chatelain adjusted her attack and set shallow depth charges around the U-boat’s location. After several detonations, an oil slick surfaced less than seven minutes after the sub had first been engaged.
“You struck oil! Sub is surfacing!” a pilot said over the radio.
When the sub surfaced, the USS Jenks and Pillsbury, along with the Wildcats in the air, all commenced firing upon the sub. The U-boat’s captain, Oberleutnant zur see (Lieutenant) Harald Lange, believing his boat was sinking, ordered his crew to abandon ship and to scuttle the vessel. He was also wounded in the American attack.
The German crew was in such a rush to abandon ship, that they only partially scuttled the boat and left the engines running at about seven knots. With a damaged rudder, the German U-boat circled. After a few minutes, the USS Pillsbury ordered the task force to cease fire and they called away the Pillsbury’s boarding party, an order that had not been given in the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812.
On June 4, 1944, Task Force 22.3 captured the German Type IXC submarine U-505 about 150 miles off the coast of Africa. It was the first time since the 19th Century that the Navy had captured a foreign warship.
The Navy task group was commanded by Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, on the Guadalcanal, and was comprised of the escort carrier and five destroyer escorts: Pillsbury (DE-133), Pope (DE-134), Flaherty (DE-135), Chatelain (DE-149), and Jenks (DE-665).
The U-505 crew was pulled from boats and boarded the Chatelain and Jenks. As the U-505 crew was being picked up, the sub was boarded by a boarding party of sailors from the Pillsbury which was led by Lieutenant Junior Grade Albert L. David. The boarding party closed scuttling valves and disarmed scuttling charges. David was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He and the boarding party came aboard the U-505 and worked feverishly, not knowing when the U-boat would explode and what enemy resistance they would face. They did this as the U-boat flooded with water. Torpedoman's Mate Third Class Arthur Knispel and Radioman Second Class Stanley Wdowiak, each received the Navy Cross. The entire task force was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Once the U-boat was made seaworthy and secured after three days of incessant work, Nazi submarine U-505 was taken into tow and the sub was transported to Bermuda, a journey that took approximately two weeks.
Fifty-eight Nazi prisoners were captured and they were held in secret as prisoners of war in Louisiana. They were presumed dead at sea by their families in Germany. Only one German crewman was killed during the American attack and three were wounded (the commanding officer, the executive officer and an enlisted sailor).
The significance of capturing U-505 was enormous. The boat had massive intelligence value. Aboard the sub were Nazi classified documents, code books, an Enigma cipher machine, and communications equipment. If the Germans believed that their sub had been captured and not lost at sea, the codebreaking efforts of the U.S. military would have been negated. The Navy kept the capture a secret and prevented the Nazi crew from writing loved ones.
The seized codes not only enabled hunter-killer groups to find and engage other Nazi subs, but they also helped naval convoy commanders to route shipping away from known U-boat waters.
By 1945, the Navy had gleaned as much engineering and intelligence information as it could from U-505, and the boat was slated to become a target for torpedo target practice. The task force commander’s brother, Father John Gallery, learned of the boat’s planned fate and called the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) to see if they would be interested in exhibiting the sub since the museum was a center for industrial education. The Gallery brothers, natives of Chicago, had been looking for a place to house the sub.
Chicagoans raised $250,000 to tow the boat and prepare a site for it at MSI. In 1954 the U.S. government donated the sub to MSI and it was made a war memorial and a permanent exhibit after being towed more than 3,000 miles through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes.
Today, U-505 resides at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The boat has been restored and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It is one of only two Type IXC U-boats still in existence. Although it has been restored, some of the battle damage remains and visitors to the MSI can easily see the large holes left by the American guns and aircraft. Visitors can also peak inside the sub and see its inside.
Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books. Color photos by Steve Alvarez. Black and white photos courtesy U.S. Navy history office.