Block Island’s U-boat

08Mar12

Midway between the low hump of Block Island and a rocky point called Judith, lie the remnants of the final skirmish of World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic.

Sixty-seven years ago, in early May 1945, the paths of an ambitious German submarine captain and the worn-out, rusty hulk of a coastal collier crossed. Now, both rest on the sandy bottom of the Atlantic, near the Rhode Island coast.

The submarine U-853 was commissioned into the German Imperial Navy in June 1943. She was a long-range type IXC submarine, 252 feet long and 23 feet in diameter, and carried a crew of 55 men.

The pressure hull of the U-Boat was shaped like a large, iron cigar. Saddle tanks for fuel and ballast lined her sides. All this was encased in a streamlined, steel envelope and topped by a wooden deck.

At 6-foot-10, Captain Helmut Fromsdorf was exceedingly tall for the U-Boat service. Inspired by men who had destroyed great tons of allied shipping, he volunteered immediately after graduating high school.

Fromsdorf took command of the U-853 Nov. 1, 1944. By that time, he may have been frustrated by his career in the Kriegsmarine. Instead of sending Allied ships to the sea floor, he’d spent the bulk of his naval career as second-in-command on mundane, weather-reporting missions. Finally, with his own boat, he’d have his chance.

The U-853 was assigned a patrol area from Halifax, Nova Scotia to New York.

In April, the submarine attacked and sank a US warship – Eagle Boat 56 – a dilapidated World War I era patrol craft killing 49 of the crew. The attack occurred off Cape Elizabeth Maine and several of the survivors claimed to have seen a submarine in the waters.

Fromsdorf had tasted blood and wanted more.

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Calvin Baumgartner was the 31-year-old second mate on the Black Point – a small coal-hauler making the run from Virginia to Boston. The ship was 369 feet long and had been built 27 years before, in Camden, NJ.

She was old and worn out. If not for the war’s insatiable demand for ships, she most likely would have been scrapped long before 1945.

It was late afternoon on May 5th. Baumgartner had just come off the 12-to-4 watch and was in his cabin on the port side of the ship as the Black Point chugged between the Rhode Island coast and Block Island. A large Yugoslavian tanker, the Kamen, was emerging from Narragansett Bay on its way to New York. It was the end of a clear, cool New England day. The sea was calm.

Fromsdorf’s boat was lurking in the shallows just off Block Island. At about 5:40, he fired at least one torpedo. Whether his target was the collier or tanker is unknown but the result is no mystery.

The torpedo slammed into the starboard side of the Black Point, blasting 40 feet off the stern, just above the keel. A dozen men who were in the after part of the ship disappeared forever.

The explosion threw Baumgartner to the floor. As he ran out of his cabin to the deck, water was already coming up over the ship.

“We were going down fast,” he says. “I got tangled up in the lines before someone cut the lines and I got free.”

Fromsdorf and his crew didn’t know it, but just a few miles away, behind the silhouette of Block Island, four American warships – submarine hunters – were heading north to the Boston Navy Yard.

The destroyer escort Atherton, destroyer Amick and frigate Moberly, the first ships on the scene, began searching for the submarine. They set up a line and began to methodically sift through the sea. Later, the destroyer Ericson arrived to command the hunt and attacks.

Fromsdorf must have been worried. He was being hunted by three sub hunters in just 120 feet of water. He was facing impossible odds. The submarine was attacked repeatedly with hedgehogs between 8:15 and 9:00 p.m., then the American ships lost track of the submarine in the churned-up water.

They continued hunting, crisscrossing the area for hours.

“Contact,” the Atherton’s sound-man chimed at 11:37 p.m., adding the distance and bearing.

Two dozen hedgehog, anti-submarine explosives, plunged into the dark water leaving a large ring of froth on the surface.

“All projectiles exploded. A short time after, large quantities of oil, pieces of broken wood, life jacket, mattress, oil, impregnated cork and air bubbles were seen in the area. The oil and air bubbles were coming up to the surface as from a spring,” reads the attack narrative written by the Atherton’s C.O.

The pressure hull had given way. The cold, green sea rushed in. Fromsdorf and his men were dead. Those not killed outright by the explosions, drowned.

****************

U-853 remained undisturbed under the cold, green Atlantic until 1953. In September of that year, Oswald Bonifay began searching for and located the boat. He hired commercial divers to penetrate and explore the ship. Bonifay ordered his divers and crew not do discuss their work or findings.

Rumors circulated about their objective – gold, cash, jewels, mercury, traveler’s checks – depending on who repeated what rumor on which day.

Despite 10 weeks of daily dives, Bonifay’s men were unable to locate any treasure. They did recover the twin propellers from the submarine which are displayed on the lawns of the Inn at Castle Hill in Newport.

In May 1959, he returned with one of his divers and began searching again. This hunt was equally unsuccessful. Bonifay later claimed the submarine was transporting mercury to Japan when she was sunk

A year later, on the 15th anniversary of her sinking, a group of divers lead by Barton Mason of Trumbull, CT began to explore the submarine. They were not concerned with secrecy and gave daily reports to the press, including detailed descriptions of the submarine.

The submarine lies upright facing the open sea with a large gash in her starboard side, he told reporters. At least a dozen unexploded depth charges littered the area around the sub and marine growth had begun to blur her hard steel lines.

Inside, Mason reported a group of four skeletons clustered in the control room with escape gear draped about them. Boxes of 20mm anti-aircraft ammunition remained neatly stacked near the conning tower ladder.

Mason told the New York Sunday News, “Everything is almost as it was – books, charts, and papers are held down on the captain’s desk by binoculars and sextants as if they had just been put down.”

Forward in the torpedo room, Mason saw pinups of German movie stars still hanging from the bulkheads, more bones, and “Sonja” painted on a torpedo tube hatch.

Mason dived the sub over 100 times bringing up scores of souvenirs, including the top portion of the attack periscope.

In June of 1960, Mason brought up a complete skeleton. In doing so, he touched off a controversy that ultimately involved the families of the sailors, the German government and religious leaders in Newport. After much wrangling, the unknown sailor was finally buried with full military honors in a Newport cemetery.

Mason had begun his dives looking for treasure but eventually realized there was none to be found. Still, he became so obsessed with the submarine he quit his job, moved to Newport and spent his life savings exploring the wreck. In the end, he found nothing of value and lost everything.

****************

Today, the submarine is in poor condition. The steel shell that encased the pressure hull and fuel tanks is gone, a victim of rust and marine growth. The ship bears little resemblance to the sleek shark she once was. A clutter of hydraulic lines and piping cover the top of the pressure hull. The conning town is draped by an anchor chain left by the Navy in 1945.

Inside, everything that could be removed by scavenging divers has been taken. Gauges, controls, labels, tags, hatches, and the ship’ radio have been cut and pried off the bulkheads. The floor of the boat is layered in sand and silt. Divers have methodically sifted thorough this material pulling out serving china, pistols, helmets, watches, an empty cognac bottle, and other personal gear.

At 120 feet, the submarine represents a challenge for even experienced scuba divers. Visibility at the bottom rarely exceeds eight feet and the fine silt inside the boat is easily disturbed, reducing visibility to near zero.

U-853 is a novelty for the divers who visit her. But once inside, they cannot help but think of the 55 men who brought her across the Atlantic to the New England coast – the men who stay, when the divers return to the surface off Block Island.

(This is an article I wrote for Block Island Magazine in about 1996. I made some revisions, edits and updates before posting it here.)

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5 Responses to “Block Island’s U-boat”

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