Saturday, January 6, 2007

Shadow Divers

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson (2004) provides a thrilling account of the effort of numerous deep sea divers to solve a mystery about a recently discovered German WWII submarine off the coast of New Jersey. While the book discusses the dangers, competition, and excitement involved in deep sea diving, the real focus is on researching facts about German submarines and their orders, both of which allowed the divers to determine which submarine they discovered. The story provides excellent insight into the last mission of the submarine as well as the crew and overall challenge and dangers of being a member of a sub crew during the last years of WWII.

John Chatterton and Richie Kohler were the two lead divers and researchers who finally determined the U-boat's true identity. They first found the sub in 1991 in 230 feet of water sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey (roughly the Breille area). Since I live not too far from that area, I was particularly interested in the story about their effort to identify the U-boat. Diving at that dangerous depth required only elite divers to participate in the effort, and a few lost their lives in the hunt to find the sub's identity.

The U-boat was a real mystery with no historian nor government official able to provide an answer or even a logical conclusion. No German submarines were ever reported sunk within 150 miles of this location, and German records contain no accounts of U-boats being lost in New Jersey waters. Kohler said it all: "I gotta say, this is a mystery like you read in a book. A German U-boat comes to our doorstep in New Jersey. It explodes and sinks with maybe sixty guys onboard, and no one--no government or navy or professor or historian--has a clue that it's even here." (p. 185)

Chatterton and Kohler were, in reality, WWII archaeologists, investigating an artifact and trying to determine its existence. They consulted shipwreck chronicles, U-boat histories, WWII naval records, the National Archives, visited a captured U-boat on display in Chicago, and went to Germany to interview experts and veterans. Identifying the U-boat was not the main goal, but providing closure for the drowned sailors and possibly their ancestors was most important. Additionally, the finding of the sunken sub raised the question of how it sank. There were records of encounters with subs off New Jersey and possibly one of those led to the sinking of the sub.

My rating: Excellent (*****). A well-written book. Just fascinating with suspense and intrigue.

Some interesting facts provided by the author include:

  • Between 1939 and 1945, Germany assembled a force of 1,176 U-boats. 757 were either sunk, captured, or damaged beyond repair in home ports or bases. That left 859 U-boats that left base for the frontline. 648 of those were sunk or captured while operating at sea, leaving a loss rate of more than 75 percent. (pp. 54-55) "In October 1940, at the peak of what German submariners called the 'Happy Time," U-boats sank sixty-six ships while losing only one of their own. ... Five months later, just a few U-boats had sunk nearly six hundred ships in American waters at a cost of just six of their own, the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy." (p. 235) "By the war's end, more than thirty thousand U-boat men out of a force of about fifty-five thousand had been killed--a death rate of almost 55 percent. No branch of a modern nation's armed forces had ever sustained such casualties and kept fighting." (p. 234)
  • A U-boat veteran suggested they "Search the boots. If you can find boots on the wreck, look inside them. ... they all wrote their names inside their boots so no one else would wear them. They hated when other guys wore their boots. And they put their watches and jewelry in their boots, too, and some of that stuff also had their names." (pp. 142-143)
  • "According to Chatterton's research, torpedo-tube hatches--the circular doors that swung closed after a torpedo had been loaded into its firing chamber--contained on their faces a tag bearing the U-boat's number. ...With any luck, the tags would reveal the wreck's identity." (p. 198) The tags were supposed to be made of resilient brass, but an elderly U-boat veteran in South Carolina told them that brass had become scarce and tags had been made of leftover materials that could not survive long in the marine environment. (p. 207)
  • "U-boat men splashed cologne on themselves to battle the body odor inevitable on the hundred-day patrols in broiling boats in which showers were unavailable." (p. 167)
  • A man who was based out of Lakehurst, NJ, claimed to have sunk a U-boat with a depth charge from a blimp in 1942. Blimps had been a formidable force in keeping U-boats submerged and in escorting ships along the eastern seaboard. At one point, during WWII, more than fifteen hundred pilots had manned blimps carrying sophisticated antisubmarine technology. A case of a blimp fighting with surfaced U-boat existed, with the blimp shot out of the air and the sub being damaged. (p. 150)
  • The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) claimed it sank two U-boats but never received credit for them. The CAP were a group of civilian pilots organized in 1941 by NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to fly small privately owned airplanes to help defend coastal shipping. They hunted U-boats with a pair of minibombs jur-rigged under the plane's wings. Over the course of the war, the CAP had detected more than 150 subs and had dropped depth charges on several of them. The CAP believed the US Navy did not want to credit civilians with sinking any U-boats so they never received credit. The Navy believed it would have terrified the public to think that average civilians were needed to fight the U-boats and that the U-boats were coming so close to our shores. (pp. 151-152)
  • "As the divers studied further, they recognized that the current assessment by German naval historian Axel Niestle--that U-879 had been sunk off Cape Hatteras--was correct. But the lesson was stark and by now familiar: written history was fallible. Sloppy and erroneous assessments had been rushed into the official record, only to be presumed accurate by historians, who then published elegant reference works echoing the mistakes. ... Along the way, each marveled at how easy it was to get an incomplete picture of the world if one relied solely on experts, and how important it would be to further rely on oneself." (p. 229)
  • "Time and again during their research, they had been astonished to discover that historians had been mistaken, books fallible, experts wrong." (p. 287)
  • "Scientists joined the war effort from U.S. laboratories and universities. One of their most potent weapons was radar. Even in total darkness or a violent storm, radar-equipped airplanes and ships could detect a surfaced submarine at great distances. ...they suddenly found themselves pounced upon by Allied aircraft that seemed to appear in the sky as if by magic." (p. 236)
  • "An Allied ship that suspected there was submerged U-boat in its vicinity could use sonar--the broadcast of sound waves--to sniff it out. Once sonar echoed off the submarine's metallic form, a U-boat was tagged for death" (p. 236).

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