The Battle of Point Judith
On the evening of May 4, 1945, the officers and crew of the salvage and submarine rescue vessel USS Penguin ASR-12 were celebrating the apparent end of WWII in the Atlantic theater. Buoyed by the April 30 suicide of Adolf Hitler and the appointment of Admiral Karl Doenitz as Fuehrer, the Groton, CT. based vessel would be called into action in just two days. That same morning of May 4, Doenitz knowing full well the end was near for Germany issued the following order:'' All U-boats. Attention all U-boats. Cease fire at once. Stop all hostile action against allied shipping. Doenitz”
|Night orders for the USS Penguin. Courtesy of Bill Palmer.|
While the Penguin’s crew were enjoying themselves, S.S. Black Point, a 396-foot-long collier, was on her way from Virginia to Boston with a cargo of 7,595 tons of coal for the Boston Edison power plant. She was built in 1918 and originally named USS Fairmont by the U.S. Navy after being acquired for convoy duty to France to aid the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI. She was armed with a six-inch gun and one six pounder for use by her five-man US Navy Armed Guard crew. After the war ended, she was sold to a private shipping company and renamed the Nebraskan and sold again in 1927 to C.H. Sprague of Boston and named S.S Black Point. Mariners being a superstitious lot believe that changing a ship’s name invited bad luck, in this case superstition became reality.
On that same fateful night of May 4, Donitz issued his cease hostilities order to go into effect the next morning at 0800 Berlin time, the German submarine U-853 was lurking off the coast of R.I. seeking prey. She was under the command of Oberleutnant Zur See Helmut Fromsdorf who was replacing Helmut Sommer who was badly injured on a previous patrol when 853 was strafed by American aircraft from USS Croatan while on the surface. After escaping from that almost certain destruction U-853' crew began to refer to her as “der Seiltanzer” or the Tightrope Walker while her American pursuers referred to her as Moby Dick due to her elusive nature. Sommers’ injuries prevented him from joining 853 on what proved to be her last patrol but despite his many wounds he had some words of advice for Fromsdorf before the latter left Germany for her last patrol. According to Sommer’s wife in a 1974 letter, he told Fromsdorf that “the end of the war was near and he hoped so much that all the fine fellows of the crew could survive” and repeatedly urged him not to act frivolously.
On the afternoon of May 5, as the Black Point left the safety of Long Island Sound, she ran into a thick fog bank near New Haven, CT. It reduced visibility so much that Captain Charles Prior had to drop the anchor and wait for the fog to lift. Once underway again Prior tried to make good speed to Boston but U-853 permanently stopped her voyage. In the words of Captain Prior: “We had just passed to the left of the R-2 buoy, about one mile behind. I could see Point Judith light station clear as a bell, hell we were just a couple miles offshore and a little east of the Light. It’s 5:40 in the afternoon and I just stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the bridge wing, reached in my pocket for a cigarette, put it in my mouth and that’s when it hit the fan. The clock was blown off the wall and the barometer off the bulkhead. The wheelhouse door was blown open and I don’t remember if I lit the cigarette or swallowed it. I could smell gunpowder in the air and the stern of my ship was completely blown off.” Killed in this torpedo attack by U-853 was a member of Black Point’s armed guard crew in the stern and eleven of her Merchant Marine crew.
Four-Armed Guard crew survived the attack as did the remaining Merchant Marine crew including Captain Prior, all of whom were rescued by several nearby vessels which responded to the SOS tapped out by radioman Ray Tharl. The Yugoslavian freighter Kamen witnessed the attack and sent out an SOS and rescued the majority of Black Point’s crew, the remainder were picked up by crash boats and brought into Point Judith and Newport. The exploding torpedo was heard by Boatswain's mate Joe Burbine at Coast Guard station Point Judith who immediately notified Naval District HQ in Boston which relayed the message to Eastern Sea Frontier in New York City. They in turn dispatched the only ASW group in the vicinity, Task Group TG 60.7 which had left NYC earlier that day after escorting a convoy across the Atlantic. TG 60.7 consisted of Ericsson DD-440, Amick DE-168, Atherton DE-169 and Moberly PF-63, all were on their way to Boston for overhaul. All had extensive ASW experience and upon receiving orders to the sinking area proceeded there quickly. Fromsdorf could not have picked a worse time or place to sink an American vessel, especially in such shallow water, approximately 100 feet. Captain Sommers, 853’s previous skipper, told his wife Klara Marie that “He never had attacked a ship in such a situation. U-853 was lost from the beginning with such little water under her keel and so near the coast”.
As TG 60.7 sped to the scene U-853 attempted to slip away to the safety of deep water but that was many miles offshore. By 19:30 the first three American ships reached the scene and Atherton picked up a sonar contact at 20:14, it proved to be U-853 located in less than three hours after her fatal mistake.
In what seems like an only in Hollywood scenario, as the Atherton was helping to locate and destroy a German submarine just below her, a far more peaceful and compassionate operation was underway in her sickbay. German POW Private first-class Franz Krones was undergoing an emergency appendectomy performed by Lt. Maurice Vitsky, a USN surgeon of Jewish descent. Krones had been transferred to Atherton in Gibraltar on 20 April for the trip back to the U.S. During the Atlantic crossing, Dr. Vitsky and Pharmacists Mate 3rd class Thomas J. Ciaccio cared for Krones who was suffering from acute appendicitis. Krones survived the operation and the war and died on May 5, 2008, sixty-three years to the day that Fromsdorf fired that fateful torpedo.
|U-853 propellors on display near the Naval War College Museum.|
What ensued was a cat and mouse game for hours as depth charges and hedgehogs were fired at the Tightrope Walker that was using all her experience to affect a miracle escape. This time there would be no escape from the dragnet laid down by an ever-expanding group of USN vessels intent on exacting revenge for the loss of Black Point and 12 of her crew. The surface ships were joined on scene early on May 6 by two Navy dirigibles K-16 and K-58 from Lakehurst, N.J. They dropped sonobuoys and helped spot oil leaking from U-853. After numerous items from 853 had come to the surface including Fromsdorf’s captain’s hat, the death of 853 was certain, and the attack was ended at about 10:45 on May 6. Moby Dick met her sad fate and all her crew perished due to the foolish and unnecessary attack which had no strategic value. Captain Islelin of the Atherton said that a few hours prior to that point “there was no doubt that by this time we knew we had it, but it seemed everyone wanted to get in on the act. I don’t think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war.” 853 ended her life like a bull trapped in a ring with scores of ships each wanting to get at least one spear in her.
As 853 was getting torn apart that morning, at 05:00 Clary Edwards, a Navy diver from the USS Penguin crew, was rudely woken from a sound sleep by two Shore Patrol members at his New London CT. home. They told him to get dressed and report to his boat. In Clary’s words: “I was standing in the doorway with nothing on but my shorts and these two guys are telling me to get dressed because there’s a U-boat cornered off Block Island. Well, I thought these guys are nuts. The war is over, but they did a little “convincing” and I got dressed and they drove me to my boat, the salvage vessel Penguin.``
After the Penguin arrived over the U-853 on May 7, her crew set out a four-point mooring to prepare dive operations. In Clary Edwards words: “our mission was two-fold, not only were we going to look for the sub’s logbook and papers, we were going to try and rescue the crew should there be anyone alive, which was doubtful but we readied the rescue chamber anyway.” Gunner Edwin J.R. Bockelman, the smallest diver on the Penguin, volunteered to attempt entry into the sub through the main hatch. When he opened the hatch cover, his way was blocked by the bodies of crew who had perished attempting to escape the relentless pounding of depth charges and hedgehogs. Bockelman managed to recover the body of twenty-two-year-old Herbert Hoffman; his remains were later given a military burial at sea. For his heroic volunteer dive, Gunner Bockelman was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
Clary Edwards was slated to be the next diver and while suited up on the dive platform about to be lowered to the 853 the operation was stopped. He was told that all diving would stop due to the presence of unexploded depth charges. To this day nautical charts of the area carry this warning: “Danger unexploded depth charges May 1945.” For most, this will be the only sentence they ever read of the entire affair.
|U-853 items which floated to the surface after depth-charge attack. Fromsdorf's cap pictured was given to the CO of the USS Atherton.|
Officially the US Navy never dove the U-853 again but as with most wrecks, especially in such shallow water close to shore rumors began to swirl before the last air bubbles escaped her hull. These rumors centered around supposed treasure stored in shell casings and mercury carried as ballast. With the introduction of SCUBA gear in the late 1940’s and its compact size, penetrating the U-853 became a reality for fortune hunters lured by dreams of hidden riches. The first attempt in 1953 as far is known resulted in only the recovery of the U-853 propellers, now on exhibit adjacent to the Naval War College Museum. The next major project resulted in the recovery of a crew member’s body which was buried with full military honors in Newport on 24 October 1960.
Today both U-853 and S.S. Black Point are popular dive spots and offer those willing to make the effort an incredibly humbling and educational experience bringing WWII to life right at our doorstep. The rusted tombs beg the question of why Fromsdorf was willing to risk his boat and crew for one last kill. Since her log was never recovered, that question will forever go answered, but too many young lives were snuffed out in what many feel was an act of wanton hubris in search of glory. Fromsdorf must have known that the Third Reich was in its death throes and that sinking the Black Point could in no way resuscitate it.
|Upper starboard torpedo hatch on U-853. The female name, Hannelore, is still visible, she never got to see her sweetheart again. Image courtesy of Bill Campbell.|
I wonder if Fromsdorf would have hesitated just long enough for common sense to overcome such suicidal egotism if he had known that Franz Krones’ life had just been saved by a Jewish American surgeon just one hundred feet above him? On the other hand, I have asked five or six German naval officers if they felt he would have ignored the cease hostilities order had he received it and their response was unanimous: “absolutely not”. Given this consistency perhaps the message never was received but that does not excuse the suicidal nature of the attack on Black Point. Fromsdorf knew his location was close to shore and the shallow depth of water which made escape highly unlikely, even for der Seiltanzer.
|Interior shot of the U-853. Image courtesy of Bill Campbell.|
Slowly but surely the Atlantic Ocean will reclaim the ships and sailors from this battle and countless others lost in conflicts and storms. I have been fortunate to dive on both wrecks; future generations will not have that privilege; they will have to rely on museums and documents to tell this story. Those making this dive are reminded that this is a war grave and as such nothing should be removed or disturbed out of respect for the fifty five souls who perished. U-boats are often referred to as iron coffins, in this case the moniker sadly applies as she sits under 120 feet of cold water on eternal patrol.
Naval War College Museum