It was late fall and a cold northeast wind rustled the water as we headed out of the Mystic River to a spot on the chart marked, “unexploded depth charges 1945.” Onboard the charter boat Thunderfish, Captain Bill Palmer and two other divers were planning to explore the wreck of the U-853, the German U-boat sunk in the last hours of World War II. The gray sky seemed appropriate as we would be visiting a war grave.
We were totally unprepared in 1942 when German U-boats came to the east coast of America. The U-boats prowled up and down our coasts torpedoing ships at will, the U-boat crews referred to this part of the war as the happy times. In the first 8 months of 1942, U-boats sank nearly 400 Allied ships along the US Atlantic coast with the loss of over 5000 merchant seamen and sailors. The battle against the U-boats was called the Battle of the Atlantic and it was the largest naval battle ever fought.
By 1943 the tide of battle changed and U-boats became the hunted, rather than the hunter. Of the 40,000 sailors who served on U-boats over 28,000 were killed, one of the highest causality rates of any service in any war. In a last-ditch effort to help Germany in the waning days of the war, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz sent 6 U-boats from the coast of Nazi-occupied Norway to the east coast of America. The U-853 was one of them and when she sailed, she had a new commander, 23-year-old Ober Lieutenant Helmut Fromsdorf.
The U-853 was a Type IXC/40 submarine built in 1942 by AG Weser of Bremen and was commissioned on June 25, 1943. Her first captain was Kapitanleutnant Helmut Sommer. The U-853 was 251 feet, 10 inches long, 1144 tons displacement and had a top speed of 18.3 knots. She had a cruising range of 11,000 miles at 12 knots and carried 14 torpedoes. She carried a crew of 55 men and officers and was equipped with a snorkel so her batteries could be charged without it having to surface.
After crossing the Atlantic the U-853 arrived off the coast of Maine. On April 23, 1945 the U-boat spotted the USS Eagle Boat 56, an aging patrol boat from the First World War towing targets. The U-853 attacked and the torpedo struck the Eagle Boat amidships, breaking her in two. Of the crew of 62 sailors, only 13 survived. The destroyer Selfridge rushed to the scene and depth charged a strong sonar contact. Some survivors of the Eagle Boat 56 claimed to have seen a submarine on the surface trying to launch a rubber raft. The Navy classified the loss as a boiler explosion until 2001 when historical evidence convinced them to reclassify the sinking as a combat loss due to enemy action. Eagle 56 was the second to last U.S. Navy warship to be sunk by Nazi Germany during World War Two.
The U-853 continued her patrol down the east coast until on May 5, 1945, two days before Germany signed the surrender; she attacked and sank the steamer Black Point. The attack happened only seven miles off the coast of Rhode Island. The Black Point was the last US-flagged merchant ship lost in World War II. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the ship as the Yugoslav freighter, SS Kamen, radioed the alarm.
Captain Prior, master of the Black Point described what happened. “I took out my cigarette, and was going to light it, but whether I ever did or not I could not tell you. Maybe I swallowed the damn thing because that’s when it hit the fan, and hell, everything, the clock came off the bulkhead, the barometer fell off, the windows shattered, and the doors blew open in the pilothouse. Immediately, you could smell crudité. It blew the whole stern off. The boys were sliding down onto the raft, and I was not too far behind them.” Twelve men went down with the Black Point and 34 were rescued.
In less than an hour, US warships reached the area. The destroyer escort USS Atherton, because of her superior sonar team was given the lead, followed by the Coast Guard frigate Mobury. The DE Ericsson arrived an hour later. At 8:14 p.m., Atherton picked up a sonar contact and determined that the contact was moving slowly at a heading of 90 degrees. At 8:29 p.m., Atherton dropped 13 depth charges set on magnetic. Atherton then made a second attack using hedgehogs. After the second attack contact was lost. Contact was re-established at 11:33 p.m. The U-853 had moved some 4000 yards from the original attack evidently trying to reach deeper water. At 11:37 Atherton made another hedgehog attack and this time oil and debris erupted from the sea.
There was little that could be done aboard U-853; she was in shallow water with nowhere to hide. All three destroyers then joined in the attack. There were even two dirigibles from Lakehurst, New Jersey, attacking the crippled U-853. At 10:45 a.m. the attacks stopped when the captain’s hat floated to the surface. The Battle of Point Judith was over and Fromsdorf with his crew were dead.
Hardhat divers from the USS Penguin, a Navy salvage ship, equipped for submarine rescue arrived on the scene. The divers tried to search the U-853 but the bodies of the crew blocked the escape hatch. There were also tons of unexploded ordinances littering the site and it was deemed too dangerous to continue dive operations. The divers wanted to find the logbook but it was never found.
The mystery of why Fromsdorf attacked the aging coaler when he must have known the war was over has never been solved. The attack was against the orders of Admiral Donitz. He issued that order on May 4 and it read, “All U-boats, attention all U-boats, cease-fire at once. Stop all hostile action against Allied shipping. Donitz.” Did Fromsdorf get the order to cease-fire? There is now evidence to suggest that the U-853’s radio was operational. It was also reported that he surfaced after the attack, just like he reportedly had after sinking the Eagle Boat 56? Why did the U-853 surface after each of these attacks? Why attack in such shallow water, only 130 feet, because a submarine is easy to see from the air at that depth. Donitz had ordered U-boats to make attacks in depths of at least 200 feet. That was the second-order Fromsdorf ignored.
Two hours after leaving the Mystic River we arrived at the site of the wreck. The coast was a dark line in the mist as the divers climbed into their gear. Last-minute checks complete, one by one they disappeared into the water, only a trail of bubbles marked their descent. Palmer described to me the first time he’d seen the U-boat in 1965, after a long search. “Going down the anchor line felt like I was going back in time to 1945. When I got down there and saw it I was so excited I swam from one end to the other. It was a U-boat, I just couldn’t believe it! The sub looked huge in the darkness.”
After about an hour, one by one, the divers reappeared on the surface like shiny black seals. Palmer climbed aboard in his heavy gear and after taking off his mask wiped the water off his face, “Wow, that was great. But it’s also great to feel the warmth of the day after a long cold dive. What’s baffled me though, all the years that I’ve been diving on the U-853, is why she torpedoed the Black Point just a few hours before World War II ended. She was in shallow water a few miles from a destroyer base. Also, if, as reported, she surfaced after the attack why did she stay around instead of running? She could make 18 knots on the surface and could have been over twenty miles out to sea by the time the US Ships got there. It just doesn’t make sense. Hans Gerber, a crewman from the U-505, told me he thinks Fromsdorf was young and ambitious and put his crew at great risk for his own personal gain. He had a sore throat which meant he wanted to be awarded an Iron Cross. If I was Fromsdorf, I would have put into Block Island and bought a round of drinks at the bar to celebrate the end of the war. Instead, he killed all those men, for what reason? The former captain, Helmut Sommer, said to Fromsdorf before his last war patrol, ‘They are all good boys. Make sure you bring them home.’ And here they sit, to this day, off the coast of Block Island in 130 feet of water, still waiting to go home.”