Have you read “Steel Boat, Iron Hearts”? I have not, but Bruce loved the true story of the U-505, a World War II submarine by Hans Goebeler, who crewed on every war patrol aboard this “unterseeisch”. Both the sub and the author were captured by the US Navy’s hunter-killer group in 1944. After the war Goebeler was repatriated, returned to Germany, and eventually wrote the vivid, honest book on life in the Kriegsmarine under Hitler. Meanwhile, the boat was towed 2,500 miles to Bermuda, where her codebooks, Enigma machine, and technology helped the US war effort.
She eventually was donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where she now resides underground next to Lake Michigan, in an impressive exhibit that tells her story. The U-505 is scary even with her 1941 technology; looking down at her prow along her 252’ long pine deck and six torpedo doors, you imagine her crashing down under the surface and sneaking up on some unsuspecting warship.
We had a blast in Chicago, taking advantage of her quixotic weather. After one perfect 80º day, the heat and humidity crept up and the clouds gathered the next. Are we experiencing a typical midwest pattern: several days of clear and sunny alternating with thundershowers? I’ve never seen so many dramatic thunder and lightning storms as I have in the middle of the country this summer—there’s one a week.
So with last evening’s walk cut short by drizzle, and with the U-505 fresh in our minds, naturally we put on Das Boot—the 1981 German film, a well-told Wolfgang Peterson story about the claustrophobic life on a WWII U-boat, half boredom and half terror. The captain knows British naval tactics are improving and he won’t have easy pickings any more. Long weeks breathing fetid air broken by exhilarating gulps of fresh air on the surface. Catching fitful naps in your sweaty clothes. One tiny, filthy head for 50 men. Quarters so cramped that supplies dangle overhead; officers eating dinner have to stand to let crew pass through the boat. Tempers flare, morale sags.
The rain begins to pelt down on our cramped little aluminum Airstream. When the enemy discovers the sub, half the men have to crash to the front of the boat for a fast, steep dive. “Haben Sie doch tatsachlich unser Periscope gesehen!” The water is closing in above us as they begin a deadly cat and mouse game, hunt and be hunted. Left full rudder, all ahead full! The pinging rings in our ears as lightning flashes through the skylights above our heads.
Deadly depth charges explode all around us; thunder pounds our fragile, shaking craft; lights flash and all goes dark. “Our patrol planes! Where are they? Answer that one Herr Göring!” We dive, deeper than she is designed to go, holding our breath. The heat is building, the tension unbearable, sweat is dripping from our faces and soaking our rough woolen clothes. The air closes in around us. We’re waiting to be crushed by the depths. Bolts begin to blow and water spews into the boat. We’re frantically closing valves, screaming for another wrench. Where are the tools?! As we watch the depth gauge circle from green to yellow to red, then past red, we settle on the bottom of the sea, death in our eyes. “To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland. Oh God, all just empty words.”
But do we give up? Our quick thinking and superhuman efforts manage to raise the wrecked boat off the bottom and restart our engines. The storm abates.
Our wizened, haggard faces tell the terrible story as we limp into the sub repair dock, only to be done in by allied air superiority.
Utterly exhausted from our tragic underwater ordeal, and this crazy Midwest weather, we crawl into our cramped bunk and sleep—just Bruce, Jürgen Prochnow and I.
- Steel Boats, Iron Hearts: http://www.amazon.com/Steel-Boat-Iron-Hearts-Crewmans/dp/1932714316
- U-505: http://www.msichicago.org/whats-here/exhibits/u-505/?utm_source=Museum+of+Science+and+Industry&utm_campaign=fd0a1f0b4b-MC_121410_Gift_of_Membership&utm_medium=email
- Original 1981 Das Boot theatrical poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Boot
- Jurgen Prochnow: http://www.craveonline.com/film/interviews/170971-wolfgang-petersen-on-das-boot