A log entry of the gunboat USS Wilmette on 7 June 1921 recorded the sinking of the last remaining World War I German U-boat, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.1 That the demise of the submarine should occur some three years after the armistice and in Lake Michigan is a story known today by only a few maritime associations and naval history buffs who continue to search the lake for the sunken vessel.
The UC-97, a minelaying submarine, was launched in Hamburg, Germany, on 17 March 1918. She was not commissioned in the German Imperial Navy since she was not ready for sea prior to the signing of the armistice on 11 November. The boat subsequently was interned at Harwich, England, a destroyer and submarine base on the English Channel.
Since Germany had been the major submarine builder in the world during the war, the victorious Allied nations were anxious to get their hands on the surrendered boats to study their construction and equipment technology. In addition, the United States had another less-salient need that moved a reluctant Congress to support the acquisition of some of the German boats. The United States had financed its war effort through the sale of Treasury Department Liberty Bonds and since a sizable debt remained after the war, innovative ideas were needed to promote the sale of new bonds. The exhibition of surrendered German U-boats in U. S. coastal and inland ports appeared to hold much promise, and in early 1919 six U-boats were allotted to the United States.
In addition to the UC-97, the U-117, U-140, U-164, U-111, and UB-88 were selected for delivery to the U. S. Government. (UC-type U-boats were small minelayers and UB-type U-boats were coastal, non-oceangoing vessels.) Two of the submarines, the U-117 and U-140, had operated in U. S. coastal waters during the war. Along with four other boats (U-151, U-152, U-155, and U-156), they sank 91 vessels (45 of U. S. registry), totaling 167,000 gross tons.
Twelve officers and 120 enlisted men were sent to England to bring the boats across the Atlantic in March 1919. Given the name Ex-German Submarine Expeditionary Force, four of the boats, including the UC-97, departed Harwich, England, in early April, escorted by the submarine tender USS Bushnell. The U-140 had sailed earlier in tow of a collier, while the U-111 sailed unescorted from the west coast of England. After brief stops in the Azores and Bermuda, the expeditionary force arrived in New York to be greeted by a throng of tourists, reporters, and Navy and civilian technicians.
Later, each boat was given her itinerary for the Victory Bond campaign. The UC-97, now under the command of Lieutenant Commander Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., who later gained fame as Commander Submarines Pacific Fleet during World War II, was assigned to the Great Lakes region. Cities and towns were listed in the order they were to be visited, and the crew of the UC-97 was to notify the various mayors of the boat’s arrival time so that local war bond committees could arrange publicity.
In order to reach the inland lakes, the UC-97 had to negotiate the St. Lawrence canal system. Commander Lockwood caused a stir at Kingston, the canal’s westernmost point by refusing to fly the Union Jack at the fore. His explanation to his Canadian hosts was simply that “no U. S. man-of-war flies any foreign flag except when she is firing a salute to that nation or to one of its high officials— Unless she has been surrendered,” said Commander Lockwood, gesturing aft to where the U. S. colors flew above the German flag.
Upon reaching the Great Lakes, the U-boat began a series of port calls at Lake Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan. Wear on the engines finally cut short the tour, and Commander Lockwood brought the boat to the Navy pier in Chicago by late August. A few of the crew who were “duration-of-the-war” men were paid off. The remainder were ordered to Lockwood’s new command, the R-25 (submarine number 102), under construction in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the UC-97 was turned over to the commandant of the Ninth Naval District.
The boat later was moved and tied up at the foot of Monroe Street on Chicago’s lakefront at Grant Park and opened to tourists. Six-inch pieces of cable taken from the boat were given to visitors as souvenirs.
The UC-97 remained on display for the next few years until a clause in the armistice treaty was recalled and all German combat vessels held by Allied forces were ordered to be “destroyed before July 1, 1921. ... ”2 Franklin D. Roosevelt, then acting Secretary of the Navy, directed Captain Edward A. Evers of the Wilmette and Captain Daniel W. Wurtsbaugh, the commandant at Great Lakes, to arrange for the destruction of the boat.
During the first week of June 1921, all ships of the Great Lakes flotilla put to sea for maneuvers. Some 200 Midwest reservists stood by to take part in the historic sinking. The USS Hawk sailed from Milwaukee to tow the UC-97 out into Lake Michigan, where she would be a target for Naval Reserve gunners on board the Wilmette. Before the U-boat was taken under tow by the Hawk, all her armament, propulsion, and navigational gear were removed.
At 0817 on 7 June, the Wilmette weighed anchor in Lake Michigan. The weather was clear and the sea state calm. About two hours later, after picking up the Hawk with the UC-97 in tow, the Wilmette stopped dead in the water some 20 miles offshore. At 1145 the gunboat commenced firing her 4-inch battery at the now-abandoned U-boat. Gunner’s Mate J. O. Sabin of Muscatine, Iowa, fired the first shot. The man whose “hit” sent the sub to her final resting place some 200 feet below was Gunner’s Mate A. H. Anderson, who fired the first U. S. torpedo at a German submarine during the war.3
The gun crews on the Wilmette were given a purse of $100 by the civilians watching the sinking. One of the civilians on board the Wilmette during the incident was a nine-year-old boy, Willard K. Jaques of Lake Forest, Illinois, the son of a Chicago businessman invited on board by Captain Evers. Jaques later wrote:
“After my father accepted the invitation to be a guest on the Wilmette ... he encountered Captain Evers at the Chicago Athletic Club one noon and asked him could he possibly bring son Willard along. Evers was aghast at the idea and with a few choice expletives said, ‘Will, you ought to know a minor isn’t allowed aboard a naval ship operating under combat conditions!’ Then out of the corner of his mouth he mumbled, ‘but if he happens to be on the ship, we can’t throw him overboard.'4
“By the time we sighted the Coast Guard cutter Hawk with UC-97 in tow, I remember my excitement was sky high what with little sleep the night before. My father and I took position on the Wilmette's fore deck…30 feet from the port [4-inch] guns. We’d stuffed our ears with all the cotton they’d given us and stood on a coil of large rope to cushion the guns’ concussion. My father stood behind me and with each shot would lift me by the elbows. The heat was intense [because] we were so close to the firing.”
It took 18 rounds and 15 minutes to send the U-boat to the bottom. This was the first time that a U. S. naval gun had fired an explosive shell on any of the Great Lakes since Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British on Lake Erie in September 1813.
In the years after the historic sinking of the UC-97, few remembered the incident. When naval historian David A. flyers, Jr., of Waukegan, Illinois, began to research the boat in 1960, few people believed that a U-boat had ever visited Chicago. Myers persevered, however, and after researching the logs of the Wilmette and other ships, was able to approximate the site of the sinking.
During the 1970s, private salvage vessels and naval air and surface reserve units cooperated with the Combined Great Lakes Navy Association and the Great Lakes Naval and Maritime Museum in trying to pinpoint the location of the wreck. Stories had surfaced that the U-boat might have mercury in her ballast tanks worth more than $1 million. The Germans used mercury as ballast in their submarines until the middle of World War II, when it suddenly was in short supply in Germany. The promise of a sunken bonanza eventually was discounted by experts, so public interest in the U-boat faded once again.5
To date, the UC-97 lies hidden in the depths of Lake Michigan, although members of the Great Lakes Naval and Maritime Museum are certain that they have a fix on the wreckage based on sonar and magnetometer readings. However, even if a positive identification is made and the boat is deemed salvageable, no funds are available to raise and restore her.
But the adventure will continue. Groups in the Chicago area are planning to conduct future fund-raising campaigns to bring the UC-97 to the surface. Since the only other known survivor of the German World War I submarine force, the U-1, recently was damaged in a fire at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the possible raising of the UC-97 has taken on new meaning.6
In 1954, the German U-515, captured on the high seas by Rear Admiral Dan Gallery’s hunter-killer group in 1944, became a permanent exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. If the UC-97 eventually is raised.11 Would certainly be an interesting quirk of history to have two notable underseas craft simultaneously on display in, of all places, the heart of the United States.
1. Log of the USS Wilmette, dated 7 June 1921. The National Archives, Washington, D.C.
2. “U. S. Shells Sink German U-Boat in Lake Michigan,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 June 1921. sec photo caption.
4. Personal correspondence from Willard K. Jaqucs on 6 June 1986 and Jaques's firsthand account of the sinking distributed 22 September 1985.
5. Phillip J. O’Connor, “German sub may hold $1-million bonanza,” Chicago Sun Times, 16 April 1978. Naval historian and Chicago real estate developer Michael Epstein, who owned a one-man submarine in the 1960s. first determined that valuable mercury might be on board the UC-97.
6. Personal correspondence from Professor Dr. Jurgen Rohwer, director of the Bibliothck fur Zeitgeschichte (Library of Modem History, specializing in military history). Stuttgart, West Germany, dated 13 May 1986.