Newest Acquisition: U-boat Engine Telegraph

How did a World War I-era German U-boat end up at the bottom of Lake Michigan? The answer is revealed in the newest addition to the Naval War College Museum collection.

The German submarine campaign of 1914-1918 nearly succeeded in bringing Great Britain to its knees. The terms of the Armistice required Germany to surrender its most technologically advanced weapons, including all of its U-boats. Though the British argued for a future ban on submarine warfare at the peace conference negotiations, they allowed other navies to study German submarine technology in exchange for a promise to destroy the U-boats once examinations were complete.

It was under these circumstances that six U-boats crossed the Atlantic in April 1919 under control of the U.S. Navy. U-117, U-140, UB-148, U-111, UC-97, and UB-88 made their way to the East Coast where they underwent repairs in preparation for a victory tour. This was due mainly to the efforts of Captain Thomas Hart who chaired the postwar U-Boat Plans Committee. As the United States shifted its focus to the Pacific Ocean and potential conflict with Japan, the Committee called for the construction of long-range submarines capable of sustained independent operations. Hart convinced the U.S. government to take the six U-boats for use in the Victory Loan campaign, a postwar operation that utilized captured enemy equipment to sell bonds for paying off government war debt. Hart also hoped to improve future U.S. submarines through careful study of the U-boats' inner workings. Indeed, they outperformed American designs in several key aspects. Lieutenant Commander Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., the officer placed in charge of UC-97, remarked that, “We had much to learn from these enemy boats. Their design was better than ours and they could dive much faster than we could.”

(click to enlarge)
UC-97 was a coastal submarine designed primarily to lay mines. A small U-boat even by World War I standard, it measured just 185 feet long and had a crew of 32. The advertising for the Victory Loan campaign claimed that UC-97 sank seven ships resulting in the loss of 50 lives, but in fact it entered service just months before the war ended and never went on patrol. Still, the allure of an enemy war machine was enough to draw crowds wherever the sub stopped. From May through August, it made its way down the St. Lawrence Seaway and in to the Great Lakes before ending its tour in Chicago. “A New Jersey sea serpent couldn't have caused much more excitement than did the German submarine UC-97 along the North Shore today,” reported the Chicago Daily News.

UC-97 receiving visitors in Racine, Wisconsin
(click to enlarge)
Once the fund-raising portion of its mission was concluded, work crews stripped the boat of any equipment that could prove useful to the Navy. UC-97’s radio equipment got shipped to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and the Washington Navy Yard. The Bureau of Construction and Repair received its engines, periscopes, pumps, and motors while the Naval Observatory took the navigational equipment. The engine telegraph was removed by workers from the Chicago Shipbuilding Company and presented to the plant manager as a retirement gift. Today, it has found its way back to the U.S. Navy.

Engine telegraph from UC-97
Naval War College Museum Collection
In keeping with the terms of the Armistice, UC-97 was towed out into Lake Michigan and sunk for target practice on June 7, 1921 by USS Wilmette (IX-29). Lost for decades, the wreck site was located in 1992 by a privately-owned salvage company.

Rob Doane
Naval War College Museum


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