In late October 1943, Task Group 21.14—the carrier Card (CVE-11) and the destroyers Borie (DD-215), Barry (DD-248), and Goff (DD-247)—received location reports of a U-boat fueling concentration. The task group commander, Captain Arnold J. Isbell—also the commanding officer of the Card—immediately ordered the group to proceed to the reported position.
The report was the result of a triangulation of bearings taken with high-frequency radio direction finders (nicknamed “huff duff’) carried on board ship and also positioned ashore on both sides of the Atlantic. The U-boats surfaced day and night and conversed with each other and Admiral Karl Donitz’s headquarters in Germany. We had learned on three previous Atlantic patrols that reports of U-boat concentrations were amazingly accurate. I learned after the war that the reason for the accuracy was the use of the direction finders and the breaking of the German code by the British after the capture of the U-110 in May 1941. Their complete coding machine, the Enigma, made the Germans’ cipher system unbreakable—or so they thought. Their code system more than likely would have remained secure, had it not been for this stroke of luck. During the war the Germans continued to believe that their codes were safe from enemy codebreakers. The capture of the U-110 and her cryptanalytical treasure was a secret for many years following the war.
We arrived in the area about midway between the Azores Islands and Iceland, and our aircraft started hunting. On the afternoon of 30 October, they spotted a U-boat, and one of our aviators launched an attack. But his bomb missed, and the U-boat dove. We knew that we were in a U-boat operating area.
On 31 October at about 1600, we heard the excited cry of another pilot: “Two bogies on the surface!” After the report, he descended to 500 feet and stayed behind the boats, U-91 and U-584, until more of the Card's aircraft could arrive. We then heard a sudden, “They’re shooting at me!” And indeed they were, both boats cruising about a mile apart were firing at him, but their attack was ineffective.
The U-91 wisely submerged and escaped just before the arrival of two more Avenger aircraft. As these planes closed in, they each dropped a Fido, one on each side of the U-584. The Fido was an acoustic, homing torpedo just introduced in the spring of 1943; it had proved very effective. In this case, it was deadly, as the U-584 went down in 2,000 fathoms of water a few minutes later.
Because of reports from the pilots, Captain Isbell thought that the escaping sub was a “milch [milk] cow,” a U-boat used to refuel and provision other U-boats. Sinking a milch cow would shorten the war patrols of other submarines—an obvious benefit. With this thought in mind we, the crew of the Borie, were ordered to search for her.
Lieutenant Commander Charles H. Hutchins, U.S. Naval Reserve, our commanding officer, informed us over the sound system that we had “volunteered” to search for the escaping U-boat. From my battle station just above the bridge I could hear the steady pinging of the sound gear as the outgoing sound pulses dissipated in the vastness of the distant water. At 2010 I suddenly heard the cry, “Radar contact, bearing 095°, range 6,500 yards!” Earl Potter had detected something on the surface. Of course no one could see anything that far away in the dark, but we all started to look anyway. With a hard turn to a heading of 095, the Borie crashed through the waves toward the enemy at 22 'A knots.
We maintained radar contact, and at 1,700 yards we opened up with star shells. The sky came alive with bright flares. In the meantime, the sonar kept up its monotonous pinging. Nothing was seen. I heard, “Radar contact lost!” Then almost at once we heard, “ping-boing, ping-boing, ping-boing,” the sound of returning echoes, followed instantly by the report, “Sound contact!” by our sound operator. Bob Manning. The sub had submerged, we lost radar contact, and on exactly the same bearing we obtained sound contact.
Slowing to 15 knots, we made a depth-charge run after losing underwater contact at 150 yards. We dropped the charges, along with a light marker float. Suddenly, one hell of an explosion rattled our ship and blew out fuses.
Very few of the crew were aware of what happened next. The underwater explosion had caused our sound gear to fail, thus losing our contact with the sub. Manning and Radio Technician Duke headed for the lower sound room, where they located the faulty fuses, replaced them, and headed back to their battle stations. The sound gear was up and operating once again.
Below us a steady hand entered notations in the log book of our undersea enemy:
2330—Surfaced, Course 240-D.
2330—Destroyer 270-D, bow left, location 80-D, approx. 3,000 meters.
2323—Destroyer shoots flares over boat, boat recognized.
2336—At 110 meter take 6 to 8 depth charges on starboard side, silent speed, stopped all auxiliary engines, no more propeller noise heard.
Within minutes we were heading for the light marker, and again I heard the return sound echo, along with Manning’s cry, “Sound contact!” followed by a range and bearing. We detected the odor of oil as we approached for the second attack, which we made.
As we turned to attack again, one report indicated that the sub could be seen on the surface, but no one on the flying bridge saw it. We made sound contact again, however, and ordered another depth-charge attack. We lost sound contact again.
Another entry in the U-boat’s log book described damage inflicted by our attack:
0000—Depth 170 meters destroyer propeller noises audible from port side, 10 close depth charges, taking water at bow-room, boat falls through to 210 meter. Only by blowing diving tank #3 able to hold boat. Run Away at North/West, ASDIC [sonar] detection, torpedo tube #2 floods and empties into boat through leaking torpedo tube door.
We searched three hours for evidence of destruction but found nothing. Captain Hutchins radioed back to the Card, “Scratch one pig boat.” We all thought that we had destroyed the milch cow. The U-91, however, was long gone. In fact, she was not a milch cow at all. We had been battling an attack submarine, the U-256, and she, too, was not sunk. After the war we found out that the U-256, under command of Oberleutnant Wilhelm Brauel, had managed to make it home to Germany in spite of suffering severe damage. This had been one of those strange twists of fate; because the U-91 had escaped, we had found and damaged the U-256. And because the U-91 had escaped, fate was about to deal us an even bigger hand.
Knowing that we were in an active U-boat area, we continued hunting and—bingo! “Radar contact, bearing 170, range 8,000 yards,” called Manning, who was also operating the radar gear. Captain Hutchins immediately ordered, “All ahead full, come left to course 170.” Our helmsman responded, “Left to 170, sir.”
The sea was moderate, it was about 0200, and the ship’s speed increased to 27 knots. Everyone in the crew felt the excitement building. At about 2,000 yards we lost radar contact, but again we heard the returning echoes.
We got the order to release depth charges. Because of a malfunction, all the depth charges in the two racks rolled into the ocean at once. The resulting explosions lifted our stern and caused the ship to surge forward. But the job was done. Nothing could survive that, right? Wrong.
Looking back toward the marker flare, I was the first to see it: The conning tower of the U-405. I cried out, not in true Navy fashion, “There it is—about 40 feet to the right of the flare.”
We made radar contact and with that we turned on our 24-inch searchlight. Using radar bearings, we were able to keep the U-405 (not one of the two “escaping” subs) illuminated for the entire one-hour battle that was to follow.
The conning tower appeared just off the port quarter, and we could see the image of a large, white polar bear. Only gun number four could bear on the target. As I remember it, we got the order to fire as we moved away to regain sound contact. When we turned and moved in at 25 knots, the range was more than 1,000 yards. As leading fire-controlman, my battle station was director pointer, and Jim Allegra was director. In director-controlled fire, the director aimed and fired all of the main battery in unison with the pointer (me) pressing the firing key. As all the guns came to bear, the order came: “Commence firing!”
I pressed the key, and three four-inch projectiles exploded as one in the vicinity of the U-405's main deck gun, obliterating it before its crew could man it. Depending on the range, the main battery gun fire control switched from director control to local control throughout the battle. As the main battery continued, the 20-mm. guns opened up with devastating power, made even more spectacular by the one in five tracer bullets that made it possible to follow all the streams from the machine guns.
Watching the results of the converging streams of 20- mm. bullets was both horrifying and fascinating. While the four-inch projectiles yielded terrific explosions, I really believe that the machine-gun fire sweeping across the deck is what finally doomed the U-boat.
Apparently, the U-405 could not submerge, as she tried to escape into the darkness, with men manning their machine guns. In the first few moments, our machine-gun fire wiped them off the platform. For some reason men started to come out of the forward hatch, about five at a time, and make an impossible dash of about 30 feet to get to their guns. No one ever made it, as they were knocked over the side, arms and legs flailing. They kept trying, however.
The speed and evasive tactics of the U-405 were impressive, as we tried to maintain a parallel course to keep all guns bearing on target. The sub’s turning circle was smaller than ours, and I learned later that she could do 17 'A knots on the surface. The U-405 made good use of both features.
When I was not busy, I watched the sub as she tried to point her torpedo tubes in our direction or perhaps just to escape, as she twisted and turned first in one direction, then the other. Captain Hutchins managed to keep the guns bearing most of the time in spite of our larger turning circle.
At one time, I was sure that we were going to collide, not ram. I don’t know if we attempted to ram this time, but I could see that we were on a collision, almost parallel course. I realized then the surface speed of the U-405. Just as we were about to collide, the U-boat appeared to turn on all her power, picking up enough speed to pass us. Looking down, I could see clearly the faces of the Germans still on the bridge.
We kept up a continuous fire with all guns that could bear, giving the U-405 a monstrous hammering. Many of her men were dead, and damage was extensive, especially to the conning tower. I wondered how long they could endure this savage beating.
At one time, a number of pistol rounds appeared to come from the conning tower, which was a recognition signal unknown to any of us. It seemed also that the U-405 either stopped or at least slowed, almost dead in the water. A man appeared on the bridge in the bright shining beam of our searchlight and started to wave his arms in a crossing movement. Fate again interceded. Shortly before this, a gun captain’s telephone lines had become entangled in the empty shell cases that were rolling all about the deck. Frustrated, he had tom off the phones and thrown them to the deck.
Seeing the man on the deck of the U-405 waving, Captain Hutchins commanded, “Cease fire!” But the galley deck house four-inch gun continued to fire. Hutchins then tried to shout directly across to the gun crew, and we on the firing bridge could hear plainly, “Cease fire! Cease fire!” Unfortunately, no gunners could hear above the noise on the galley deck house, and the big gun continued to boom out its deadly fire.
Watching this one man stand alone amidst all the destruction, with big guns firing, was awesome. It was not to last. Within a few moments his body stood there momentarily, arms extended over his head, then his head just disappeared. It was a sight that gave me nightmares for months. Had the tangled phone lines caused this man’s death? Had he been the bravest of the brave in volunteering to expose himself so that he could give a signal of surrender? We shall never know, for the U-405 picked up speed again and started evasive maneuvers.
The battle continued much as before, with the U-boat attempting to get away, or train a torpedo tube at us, or both. Meanwhile, we were trying to close range either to ram or to drop depth charges.
“Stand by for a ram!” Our gunnery officer. Lieutenant Walter Dietz, gave the order to me to relay to the rest of the gunnery division over the fire-control phone system. The last five minutes or so had been a frustrating but exciting period. Because the range had closed to almost point blank, we were unable to use the gun director. For a short time we were only spectators.
I watched at first as if it were a game, the beautiful arcing tracers of the 20-mm. guns and the smashing four- inch projectiles hitting the sub or careening off the rounded hull into the darkness as a dull wobbly glow. I saw the German sailors being knocked over the side as they tried to man their machine guns. As one went over, another would take his place.
“Stand by for a ram!” suddenly brought me back to reality, as I passed the word on to the men at their battle stations. Instant chatter on the system from all stations stopped at once, as I anticipated more urgent orders.
Looking over the wind screen—only about three feet high—I could see our bow crashing up and down, rapidly closing on the U-boat still in our searchlight beam. I started to think that if we hit her at this speed I was going to sail right over the screen and on down to the forecastle. I got behind the range finder and placed my hands on it in front of me. Then I thought, “Hell no, this way I’ll get my face smashed.” I moved in front and put my arms over the range finder behind my back and prepared for the crash.
As we got closer and closer, with as many of our guns firing as we could bear on the target, I watched and waited for the inevitable sudden stop.
From my vantage point I could see everything. I could see the number one gun crew (bow gun) and wondered what they were thinking, as they would be the closest to the sub when we collided, bow on, and the most likely to be fired on just before ramming. I could see the Germans in the bright light still trying to muster some kind of defense, scurrying about in and near the conning tower. No one could deny their great courage.
Closer and closer we came, and I watched the sub get larger and larger. I held my breath, waiting for the crash. Almost at the moment of impact, the U-405 made a sudden turn to the port side, trying to run parallel to our course and make us miss. The move was too late. We went at the U-boat at about a 30° angle. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and prayed. Sneaking a peek with one eye, I saw our bow about to crash into the U-boat and the fear in the eyes of one German as he tried to get out of the way. Holding tighter, I waited—nothing. I looked up and saw that we were astride the sub with our bow just forward of her conning tower. Just before impact a large wave had caused us to rise above and over the U-boat’s deck.
For a moment there was a stunned lull in everyone’s actions and thoughts. Then all hell broke loose on both sides. To our regret, the flying bridge had no small arms, so except for phone messages, we were only spectators. In fact, from our vantage point directly below the large searchlight and looking straight down on the conning tower encircled by the bright beam, it looked more like a Hollywood epic than an actual battle.
I could see the polar bear symbol clearly and also the machine guns they had been trying to keep manned. One quadruple mount and four single mounts all were firing sporadically.
Ed Johnson started in with his 20-mm. mount, depressing it so that first he had to shoot away the wind screen before firing into the men on the deck of the U-boat. Although the action report of the battle says otherwise, my recollection was that no four-inch gun could be depressed far enough to bear, so all firing came from the 20-mm. guns and small arms. Upon hearing the ram order, Dick Wenz had broken open the steel small arms locker and passed the weapons out to the men on deck. The story in some newspapers that he broke open the locker with his bare hands was a bit exaggerated. He did, however, break it open with a fire ax.
I saw Johnson open up and watched the first shots explode through the wind screen. I saw Walter Kurz throw a four-inch shell case into the group of men standing in the conning tower. From below on the bridge, I saw a flash from a Very pistol and watched a bright ball of fire arc across into a man’s chest. He went down and rolled over with his chest still burning.
Dietz called to me from the bridge. “We will not board, we will not board!” I then got a call from the fire controlman at the fire-control switchboard, which was isolated by dogged down hatches.
“What the hell is going on up there?” He didn’t even know that we had rammed the U-boat.
I saw one German reach out with his hand as if he wanted help to board the Borie. No one offered to help. Small wonder, as they were still firing their machine guns.
Two gallant crews were engaged in fierce battle using every kind of weapon at their disposal.
There was no sign of fear or disorder anywhere in the Borie.
Everyone went about his duty with the utmost confidence. I felt great pride in being a member of the crew. I was to be even more proud by the time the entire action was over.
We on the flying bridge did not know it yet, but the Borie had sustained serious underwater damage to both engine rooms. In fact, the forward engine room was already flooded by the time we separated.
The U-boat made a mad dash into the night, with us firing whatever guns we could bring to bear. We saw a four-inch shell explode in the sub’s starboard diesel exhaust, but it did not seem to slow the boat, as she took advantage of her smaller turning circle and opened her range to about 500 yards. We fired one torpedo but missed because of one of her fast, tight turns.
The U-405 continued circling in a turn that our ship could not match. The Borie's, movements were also hampered by the flooded engine room. We did, however, manage to maintain our murderous shelling, having killed between 20 and 30 of the sub’s crew as they tried to man their deck guns.
Unable to close our range because of the U-boat’s circling maneuvers, Captain Hutchins used a clever ruse. He ordered the searchlight turned off. Of course, the U-boat immediately tried to escape into the dark. We tracked her by radar until she reached a position to our advantage. With our entire starboard battery bearing on the fleeing boat, Captain Hutchins ordered, “On searchlight. Commence firing!” The U-405 once again came under heavy, damaging gunfire.
We started to close to ram again, but before we hit, the U-405 turned into our starboard quarter. Seeing an advantage, Hutchins swung our ship hard to port, using both rudder and engines. This move brought us to a parallel course with the U-boat and within range of our depth- charge projectors. Three charges were fired, one over and two short, a perfect straddle. All three exploded at 30 feet. We not only heard the explosions; since we were dead in the water, they almost knocked us over. What we felt was nothing compared to what it must have been like in the U-boat. The boat appeared to lift out of the water and almost stopped, thus ending what appeared to be an attempt to ram us. But to our surprise, the Germans came on again, heading directly into our still heavy gunfire. They just would not give up.
Again they turned toward our stern and apparently tried to get away. But their speed just was not good enough. They were on our starboard side, heading away aft of us. To close on them again, we started to circle around to our port side, so at first the range opened up. At about 700 yards Hutchins ordered, “Stand by to fire torpedoes!” At just about firing time, a full salvo of the main battery let go with the usual jolt throughout the ship, causing the engine room hatch to jump open. The open hatch stopped the tracking of the tube just before we heard the whoosh of the fish leaving its tube. All of us on the bridge could see the shallow torpedo charge through the water on its deadly mission, and we watched in fascination as another tableau emerged. This time fate was on the side of the U-405. The torpedo slithered by her bow, missing by about ten feet.
In the meantime, we were still firing all guns. Shortly after the torpedo miss, we again hit the sub’s starboard diesel exhaust, which finally brought her to a standstill. Out of the conning tower came a shower of Very stars, splashing the night with white, red, and green lights indicating that the Germans were at last ready to surrender. This time we all heeded Captain Hutchins’s order to cease fire, and the night was silent after more than an hour of mayhem.
One or two U-boat crewmen appeared and started to throw yellow, two-man, rubber life rafts into the water. They were tied together and gave the appearance of a string of very large hot dogs. The U-405 was settling fast by the stem. What was left of the crew, about 20, managed to get off and over to their the rafts just before she went down. An underwater explosion rumbled soon after.