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The Battle of Point Judith
by
Ralph DiCarpio
©2003



The Lighthouse

There has been a lighthouse at Point Judith since the earliest days of the republic.1 By the time of the Civil War, two had already succumbed to the elements when the current brownstone and brick structure was built on a point of land about a mile from the Rhode Island coast proper. The light guards a strategic maritime crossroads: To the north is Narragansett Bay and the entrance to the myriad waterways leading north to Newport, Providence and the manufacturing centers thereabouts. To the south is Block Island Sound leading west through Long Island Sound to New York, south to the ports of the East Coast, and east to the old whaling villages along Buzzards Bay and the Cape and the Atlantic beyond.

Aside from marking the crossroads of the contiguous maritime routes, the light warns of the shoals and rocks lying to the west. Often shrouded in fog, Squid's Ledge imperils even the heartiest of ships and, despite the presence of the light, ships still foundered on the rocks and wrecked thereupon.

The lighthouse remains to this day. However, humans no longer care for the beacon as they had for the past one hundred forty-four years. As befits the modern age, the light is automated. Yet, despite the human loss, it still casts its warnings seaward and, in a ritual of a mobile society, it has become a popular tourist attraction.

Not far from the lighthouse is a small plaque dedicated to twelve merchant mariners who died just hours before the end of hostilities in May 1945. And on it's black surface is the story of the last battle of the Atlantic War.

Moby Dick

U-Boat hunting on the North Atlantic was a dangerous business. From the first attack by U-30 in the opening days of the war2 and throughout the ensuing six years, the adversaries had learned to be especially wary of one another and that the dynamics of the relationship between hunter and hunted were fluid. Even a small technological or tactical advantage paid enormous dividends. So they put their minds to the mission of finding the means of gaining that advantage and in their quest, they turned to science. There, each side found momentary solace until that advantage was nullified and the cycle began anew.

It was in the realm of communications where the greatest inventiveness emerged from the laboratories and for some time Germany and the Allies kept pace; but it was the Allies who eventually took the lead. By their efforts they rendered the seas virtually transparent and discovered U-Boats in ever-increasing numbers. The fruits of their labor were astonishing: LORAN3, an early Global Positioning System and MAD4, which detected U-Boats by their magnetic signatures; HF/DF, pronounced huff-duff 5 a mechanism for tracking U-Boats through their radio transmissions and ASV, the 10-cm microwave radar small enough to be carried aboard allied ASW aircraft.

And once the scientists delivered their inventions, then came the planners who devised the training, tactics, and organization that implemented these advances and packaged them in new tactical formations: the Anti-Submarine aircraft of the U.S. Navy and the RAF Coastal Command, and, at sea, the hunter-killer group, with the revolutionary escort aircraft carrier at its heart.6

Equally as important, the Allies established a command structure that coordinated all ASW activities. The British took the early lead when an Enigma machine, the cryptographic device by which the Germans encoded and decoded messages, was retrieved from the U-110 after it had attacked a convoy and had been attacked in turn by the convoy escorts.7 At Bletchley Park, outside London, a Submarine Tracking Room was established using the decrypted German Naval codes and other signal intelligence.

In the United States, various combinations and formations were tried and rejected. Finally, on 20 May 1943, there came into being the Tenth Fleet.8 To emphasize the importance placed on the effort, the fleet commander was none other than the Chief of Naval Operations himself, Admiral Ernest J. King, who exercised his command through the fleet chief-of-staff.9 An organization integrating U-Boat data similar to its British counterpart was established in Washington. First designated OP-20-G, it was later known as F-21. And within that was a further compartment, F-211, where ULTRA cryptologic intelligence was processed before being posted on the F-21 charts.10

The U-Boats, though still dangerous, were losing the battle.

So it was in June 1944. As the Allies consolidated their beachhead on the Normandy coast and Marines assaulted Fortress Saipan in the Pacific, Captain John Vest stood on the bridge of the escort carrier Croatan (CVE-25). From there, he maneuvered his hunter-killer group in a sweep across the mid-Atlantic continuing to track an unknown contact he had picked up nearly three days earlier. It was the U-853, one of several boats sent in mid-May on a highly important mission. Unable to establish weather stations in Greenland and Iceland, the Germans sent U-Boats to the mid-Atlantic to gather weather data. They knew that the Allies would attempt to breach Festung Europa soon and it was merely a matter of choosing the right campaigning weather.

Croatan and its escorts, the six destroyer escorts of Escort Division 1311, had been tracking these weather boats for a nearly a month and had already accounted for the U-488 and U-490.12 But this new contact was more elusive. Earlier accounts attributed this elusiveness to the schnorchel, which was a breathing apparatus that allowed the boat to remain submerged far longer than older boats that needed to surface often to recharge their batteries. But it never fulfilled its initial promise.13 Although this U-Boat possessed the schnorchel, it was not a contributing factor in its escape. The chase continued day after day and the hunters had taken to calling their adversary "Moby Dick."14

Like the fictional Ahab, Captain Vest clung stubbornly to his prey and his persistence nearly paid off.  At 1307 on 17 June, huff-duff picked up a weather report from the U-853 placing it 30 miles to the south.  Within eleven minutes, two FM-1 Wildcat fighters arrived overhead and strafed the submarine killing two men and wounding eleven.15  Yet, as did Melville's pale leviathan, U-853 submerged and slipped away ... but at a cost.  The strain of the ten-day hunt and a previous encounter with British aircraft had wreaked havoc on the U-Boat's crew.  As Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz described it, the submarine "worked out of the area and commenced return passage on account of a large number of the crew being unfit for duty."16  It would be eight months before she could return and her skipper, Helmut Sommer, would be unavailable for months longer.

Gruppe Seewolf

By February of 1945, the war had turned decidedly against German interests. The Ardennes bulge had been reduced and the Western Allies now moved up to the Rhine while German resistance to the Russian juggernaut in Poland had nearly collapsed.  It was obvious to all but the most fanatical Nazi that further resistance was futile.  It makes it all the more surprising that Admiral Dönitz would propose to send several U-Boats to positions along the northeast American coast.  Perhaps he felt that in order to maintain espirit' within the Reichsmarine, an arrogant display within sight of American cities was warranted.17  As he stated in a speech given on 1 May upon his assumption of power,

Let everybody remain at his post doing his duty. Only thus will we be able to mitigate the suffering, which the future will bring for every one of us, and prevent the collapse.

Whatever his reasoning, the U-Boats were christened Gruppe Seewolf and set sail westward.

As part of Seewolf, the repaired and replenished U-853 left its base at Stavanger, Norway with a crew of 55 on 23 Feb 1945.  Her crew had been given time to recover from the Croatan experience; in fact, some never returned to the boat.  But the crew was confident and, owing to the boat's narrow escapes, they had nicknamed her Der Seiltaenger.18  Replacing the injured Sommer was Oberleutnant Helmut Frömsdorf.  Fromsdorf was young, as were most boat commanders.  He was born on 26 March 1921 in Schimmelwitz, Silesia and at 18 he joined the Reichsmarine, becoming a watch officer on the U-853 within four years.  He was chosen for command training and, two months later, he returned to the U-853 as its commander. He was 23.19


click for a larger view

The departure of Gruppe Seewolf, however, came as no surprise to the Americans.  Almost as the U-Boats set sail, Tenth Fleet had provided CINCLANT,20 Admiral Jonas Ingram, with enough information to enable the admiral to field a suitable response: Operation Teardrop.  The plan consisted of two barrier forces each containing two escort carrier groups, which would sweep across the North Atlantic and flush out the Seewolf's before they reached the American littoral. The plan worked nearly flawlessly: several of the Seewolfs were detected and eliminated.  During the evening of 15 April the Croatan group, now commanded by Captain Kenneth Craig, sank the U-1235 north of the Azores.  A mile-and-a-half away and forty minutes later, a member of the Croatan group, Frost (DE-144), caught the U-880 on the surface, forced her to submerge, and sank her with a hedgehog attack.21

The Croatan task group's luck continued when on the 21st she detected a third Seewolf , U-518, which was sunk through the efforts of Carter (DE-112) and Neal A. Scott (DE-769).  On 23 April, the U-546, after sinking an American DE,22  was finally sunk herself the next day by gunfire from several American destroyer escorts. 23  Only two of the original group remained: the U-808, which had survived two attacks by American escorts and would surrender off Cape Race on 9 May,

And the U-853.

By 23 April, as U-853 approached the Maine coast on the surface, lookouts spied a slow-moving target off Portland harbor.  It was the PE-56, a relic of the Great War.  A member of a class of patrol craft known as Eagle Boats, the PE-56 was built by the Ford Motor Company at its Rouge River plant outside Detroit.24  Though built to seek out and destroy U-Boats of an earlier generation, most Eagles were completed after that war and were obsolete soon thereafter.  By the opening of World War II, only eight remained extant.25  In this new technological era, the Eagle was defenseless. Of a crew of 62, only 13 men survived.

The sinking of PE-56 did not go unnoticed.  A naval task group (TG 60.1) assembled to investigate and the destroyer Selfridge (DD-357) depth-charged a possible contact.  However, after scouring the area, the task group commander concluded that the sinking was not the result of a submarine attack.26  A court of inquiry endorsed this finding in June and classified the loss of the Eagle 56 as a "result of a boiler explosion, the cause of which could not be determined." 27 Behind the scenes, however, the highly secret U-Boat Tracking Room at Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters had been following the U-853 and had classified the attack on the PE-56 as "possibly by U-Boat" and continued to track "one U-Boat estimate in the Gulf of Maine from the PE incident."28  However, no attempt was made to dissuade the court from its conclusions as doing so could compromise the fact that the Allies had been successfully tracking U-Boats through Ultra.29

[webmaster note: Read a recent, 2003, story about the sinking of USS Eagle PE-56]

Upon sinking the patrol craft and escaping the snooping task group, Fromsdorf ordered U-853 to submerge and move further west.  Unfortunately for the hunter, being submerged also meant that messages could be neither sent nor received, a fact that would have dire consequences for Kapitan Fromsdorf and his crew.

Goetterdaemmerung

On 30 April, Adolph Hitler, Reichsfuehrer of the thousand-year Reich, committed suicide a mere dozen years after it's inception.  As part of his final orders, he designated Admiral Dönitz as his successor.  Dönitz maneuvered for several days while attempting to surrender his forces solely to the Western Allies thus escaping Russian vengeance, but he was rebuffed.  On 4 May, he issued orders that all Germans forces would surrender and, as part of the surrender process, U-Boat Headquarters sent the following message that same evening:

ALL U-BOATS. ATTENTION ALL U-BOATS. CEASE-FIRE AT ONCE. STOP ALL HOSTILE ACTION AGAINST ALLIED SHIPPING. DÖNITZ. 30

The order was to become effective at 0800 the following morning.  However, of the 49 boats then at sea, several were submerged and would not receive the message.  Among them was the U-853.

The Black Point

At eight bells of the morning watch on 5 May, at the moment the cease-fire took effect, the collier SS Black Point sailed northwest off Block Island on her way to Boston carrying 7,000 tons of coal destined for the Edison Power Plant in South Boston.31  She was an old ship and a coal burner, at that.  Built in 1918, the 369-footer had been used in the intra-coastal convoys along the east coast.32  By 1945, these voyages were considered to be so safe that the skipper, Charles E. Prior, hadn't even taken the precaution of posting lookouts.33

Deep in the bowels of the Black Point, nineteen-year-old Howard Locke shoveled coal into the ship's insatiable boilers.  The work was dirty and back-breaking: four-hour shifts maintaining 500-degrees, then eight hours off.  This was not what Howard expected when he left the Army to join the Merchant Marine.34

At about 1740, forty minutes into Locke's evening shift and just as Captain Prior lit a cigarette on the bridge, the lookout at the Point Judith lighthouse noted the Black Point as she passed within three miles of his position.  As he entered the sighting in the log, he heard an explosion.  At that moment, an acoustic torpedo fired by the U-853 struck the old collier squarely in the stern.35

Radio Officer Raymond Tharl was at the crew's mess when the torpedo hit. He, like the Captain and most of his crewmates, was unprepared.  "More or less everyone thought the war was over," he later admitted.  When he recovered from the shock of the explosion, he ran to his post and sent out a distress call.  Then, as the Captain ordered "abandon ship," he joined several crewmates and "got off fast."36

In the boiler room, Howard Locke felt the ship shudder violently and then slow to a halt.  Electric power cut off and the room was plunged into darkness.  As the ocean swept into the boiler room through the gaping hole in the stern, he and a shipmate found an escape ladder.  "Neither one of us knew where it went to, but it was going up, so we took it."37  As they reached the main deck the bow had already assumed a 45º tilt: the stern was completely gone. Locke and his companion made their way forward and helped to free a life raft and hurl it overboard.  He then leapt about 50 feet into the sea where he pulled himself onto the lifeboat and pushed away from the doomed collier.  In the midst of the destruction and the dreadful noise they could hear the screams of the Black Point's pet chimpanzee from somewhere in the wreckage.38

In the officer's mess, Luke Pelletier of the Naval Armed Guard was about to head aft to the stern to his post at the main gun, a Spanish-American War relic.  As he stood, the torpedo struck knocking him down.  "I ran out to a catwalk aft, and there was no ship left there," he said.  He went overboard and finding a life raft, he drifted away from the ship not knowing that his shipmate, and best friend, Lonnie Whitson Lloyd had died, becoming the last American sailor to die in the Atlantic War.39

At 1755, just fifteen minutes after the torpedo struck, the Black Point settled rapidly by the stern, rolled over to port, and disappeared beneath the waves. Of the crew of forty-one merchant seamen and five armed guards, twelve men were dead.40 But, as she died, Radio Officer Tharl's message sped through the airwaves.

The Response

News of the Black Point sinking spread quickly.  Sailing due east, lookouts on the Yugoslavian freighter Kamen saw the explosion and within two minutes, sent out a message.  Though potential prey for a sub that was obviously near at hand, she sped to the scene arriving shortly thereafter, and commenced to rescue survivors.41

Howard Locke and his shipmates had drifted for forty-five minutes before the Kamen arrived.  He was welcomed aboard with a glass of schnapps.42 Several of the injured survivors would be transferred to Coast Guard crash boats and sped to Point Judith and Newport.43

The explosion was also heard by the Point Judith lookout and as he turned toward the sound, he noted the ship dead in the water.  He immediately notified the 1st Naval District headquarters in Boston,44  which then relayed the message to Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters at 90 Church Street in New York City.  The only anti-submarine unit in the immediate vicinity was the remnants of a task group, TG 60.745 that had left New York at 1200 hours that day.  It had arrived earlier after safely escorting the remaining vessels of GUS-8446, an 80-ship convoy that had originated in Oran and Casablanca. Several of the task group members were bound for the Charlestown Naval Base where the ships were scheduled to undergo extensive overhaul: destroyer Ericcson (DD-440),47 destroyer-escorts Amick (DE-168)48 and Atherton (DE-169),49 and the patrol frigate Moberly (PF-63).50  Accordingly, Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters issued dispatch 052223 diverting TG 60.7 to the sinking site and ordering various support activities to assist in discovering the intruder as needed.51

Far to the west at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, two Navy blimps, K-16 and K-58, were ordered to move immediately toward the site of the Black Point sinking and join in the hunt. They would reach the scene at 0540 on 6 May, about twelve hours after the sinking.52

Destroyer Ericcson, with the task group commander, Cdr. Francis C.B. McCune, aboard, was then under the control of a Coast Guard pilot in preparation for entering the Cape Cod Ship Canal and could not reach the scene for some time.53  Thus, Coast Guardsman Tollaksen found himself the Senior Officer Present and de facto commander of TG60.7.  At 1810 hours, less than 1 hour after the sinking, Tollaksen set condition I Easy, bringing all hands to battle stations.53  Within 15 minutes an unidentified target was picked up on radar at a distance of 2,000 yards; however, upon further investigation, the "target" was identified as a tin can and within two minutes, the Moberly pumped 9 rounds of 3" 50 cal. into the floating "menace."55

The Chase

The three ships, veterans of numerous convoy escorts and extensive ASW training, immediately went into action.  Though scattered between Block Island and Buzzard's Bay, they individually set course for the site of the sinking.

The Atherton was in the lead and proceeded westward toward the sinking site.  On board the Moberly, Commander Tollaksen, assuming that the sub might head north, sent Atherton to the northwest where, by 1930 hours, she was at a point approximately 3,200 yards due east of Point Judith.56  At the same time, Cdr. E.L. Barsumian brought Amick into Block Island Sound reaching a point approximately 4,200 yards north-northeast of Sandy Point on Block Island.  From here, she streamed her "foxer" gear over the fantail.57 The Moberly, having sailed north, changed course to west and, by 1930 hours, she reached the approximate location of the Black Point's demise. Meanwhile, far to the east, the Ericsson received orders from 1st Naval District headquarters to reverse course and make best speed to assist in the search for the suspected submarine.  Within 10 minutes, the pilot debarked and the captain regained the conn.58

It became apparent that the submarine had not moved north, but south.  The plan of attack was then altered on the assumption that the U-Boat would head toward a steep shoal known as East Ground that lay approximately twelve miles due south of Point Judith and nine miles from the site of the Black Point sinking.  U-Boats had taken to the strategy of hiding in the shadows of such undersea structures in the hopes of confusing, and thus evading, the prying eyes of American sonar.59

The effect of the American maneuvers was to form a line abreast with each ship about 3,000 yards apart.  The search pattern began at the northern tip of Block Island at 2010 hours with the intention of sweeping south toward East Ground.  Atherton sailed at the west-most position, Moberly at the extreme east, with Amick holding the center.  At 2006 hours, Moberly picked up a sound contact and changed course to evaluate the object.  Within minutes, the contact was deemed to be "non-sub."60

By 2014 hours, the line had become a concave arc facing southwest, the center of which was approximately 6,000 yards from East Ground.  Suddenly, the sonar operator on Atherton picked up a contact, but the return was unfamiliar.61  Owing to the superior gear on board Atherton, the other ships turned off their active sonars and listened to the returns generated by Atherton's pings while communicating with each other by TBS radio.62  They all agreed that the unusual returns were, in fact, a submarine determined to be moving 090 degrees true north and exhibiting a slight down Doppler indicating that the sub was submerging further into the depths.  The ships then readied for the attack.

The Attack (5 May)

 

USS Atherton DE 169, the simultaneous explosion of stern track and K-gun-launched depth charges clearly visible, hunts U-853. Atherton crewmembers observe their pattern from a hedgehog attack and await an explosion


Another depth charge explosion

At 2030 hours,63 Commander Lewis Iselin ordered the Atherton to commence firing.  Shortly thereafter, 13 magnetic depth charges were fired in a pattern that surrounded the ship.  One explosion was detected, followed by oil and air bubbles rising to the surface, but it could not be immediately ascertained whether the U-Boat had been hit or if a wreck on the bottom had caused the detonation.64  At this point, Moberly was approximately 6,000 yards south-southeast of the Atherton and moving northwest to assist.

Meanwhile, Amick, then only 4,000 yards away, received a dispatch from Eastern Sea Frontier ordering her to detach from the group and join the Booth (DE-170), which was then escorting the SS Banff Park from New York to Boston.65  This decision was probably based on the fact that Ericsson was fast approaching the area and that First Naval District was sending every available ship to the scene.66  Moreover, a submarine still lurked in the area and this was no time to be complacent.  Amick joined up with the merchantman, secured from general quarters, and headed toward Buzzard's Bay.

Within 20 minutes of her first depth charge run, Atherton fired two hedgehog67 salvoes and recorded explosions approximately 12 seconds after release.  Unfortunately, due to the relatively shallow depth in the target area, contact was lost in the disturbances caused by the explosions.68 Contact would remain lost for a further ten minutes.  By this time Ericsson had rejoined the task group and Cdr. McCune resumed command.  He ordered the Atherton and Moberly to bracket the last known position of the submarine.  Thus, Atherton steamed several miles north while Moberly sailed approximately the same distance south.  At this time, Atherton picked up a radar contact that her radar operators felt might be a German schnorchel.69

In clear weather, with a slight breeze blowing across the bow, Atherton reached the site of the radar contact.  However, upon turning on searchlights, it was found not to be a submarine, but only a small unlighted buoy.  Turning toward the last known position of the U-Boat, Atherton regained contact.70 Four minutes later, at 2341 hours, Atherton unleashed another hedgehog and depth charge barrage.  This attack was more successful, yielding large quantities of oil, life jackets, pieces of wood and other debris, and air bubbles rising to the surface.71  The water disturbances again caused the contact to be momentarily lost, but two minutes later, Atherton re-established contact and, moving about the vicinity, maintained it throughout the night.72

The Kill (6 May)

Just after midnight of Sunday, 6 May, the penultimate day of the Atlantic war, Atherton reported that quantities of oil and air bubbles marked the spot of her last attack.  To ensure success, she fired another 13-charge pattern.  Cdr. Iselin reasoned that since fathometer readings in the area ranged from 65 to 107 feet, the charges should be set to detonate at 75 feet.73  Once again, oil and air bubbles rose to the surface and, at 0044 hours, a life jacket was recovered.74  Tollaksen maneuvered Moberly to the sight at a reduced speed of 5 knots and illuminated the area whereupon oil and dead fish were observed along with "objects that resembled cork."75  At the same time, Atherton recovered a pillow, a life jacket, and a small wooden flagstaff.76

At 0105, Atherton telegraphed headquarters that it had finished the submarine off.  However, rather than call off the attack orders were issued to continue the barrage.  Commander Iselin recalled that, "There was no doubt that by this time we knew we had it but it seemed everyone wanted to get into the act.  I don't think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war."77 But there was more to come.

At 0114 hours, Atherton conducted another depth charge run once again set at 75 feet, and once again the fathometer indicated the presence of the U-Boat.78  Within 10 minutes, Moberly added another 13-charge pattern on the hapless submarine.  However, the force of the explosions rendered the master gyro, SL radar and steering gear inoperative.  In a matter of minutes, radar and gyro were back in operation with steering restored soon thereafter.79

The destroyer Blakeley (DD150) reported to CTG 60.7 and set a course due west toward Block Island to guard any escape efforts thither.  Meanwhile, with repairs complete, Moberly fired a full hedgehog pattern eschewing depth charges in an attempt to avoid the previous predicament.  After detonations were observed, sonar operators reported that the target appeared to be heading at a speed of 2 to 3 knots with a slight up Doppler.  Finally, the contact came to a stop seemingly at the bottom about 75 feet below.  Owing to a lack of movement, Doppler indications disappeared and the contact was lost in reflections from the surrounding terrain.80

With the cessation of movement, more evidence of the submarine's demise rose to the surface.  Atherton reported 3 pools of oil spaced about 30 feet apart while Moberly noted an oil slick and debris extending half-a-mile from the position of the attacks.81

At 0530, Moberly fired another full salvo of 24 hedgehogs, and, 10 minutes later, K-16 one of two blimps from Lakehurst NAS arrived on-scene.  CTG 60.7 ordered her to conduct a MAD search of the area in an attempt to fix the exact position of the U-Boat.  Strong signals were received in the general area of the rising oil slicks and the blimp dropped dye markers and a smoke float on these positions.  K-16 informed McCune that the target was stationary.82

Atherton then attacked the marked area and reported that she had picked up "items of wreckage and survivors equipment from submarine, mostly with German markings."83  This equipment included "German escape lungs and life jackets, several life rafts, abandon-ship kits, and an officer's cap which was later judged to belong to the submarine's skipper."84  Despite this evidence, the deluge continued.

The blimps conducted further MAD sweeps and subsequent to fixing the U-boat's position, Ericsson delivered another depth charge attack.  K-16 then dropped a sonobuoy on the oil bubbles, which were still rising to the surface. Joined by her sister ship K-58, sonar operators in both blimps reported sounds, which they described as a "rhythmic hammering on a metal surface, which was interrupted periodically."  About 10 minutes later they heard a "long, shrill shriek" and then nothing as the engine noise of the attacking surface ships drowned out any further contact.85  This would be the last sounds from the doomed crew of the U-853.  The airships then conducted their own bombing runs adding 6 rocket bombs to the onslaught.

At 0640 hours, Atherton fired another hedgehog salvo, all of which exploded, and then dropped a full pattern of depth charges as she passed over the position.86  Six minutes later, the Ericsson delivered a full depth charge load.87  Three minutes after this, Moberly added another depth charge salvo to the mix.88  At 0655, Moberly made another depth charge run89 and 4 minutes later, so did Ericsson.  This last attack caused the Ericsson to lose power in her steering and gyrocompass, but power was restored within 3 minutes.  And at 0726 hours, she made another depth charge run on the suspected position.  At 0745, Ericsson lowered her whaleboat, which collected debris from the area.90

At this point, while reeling in the foxer gear aboard the Ericsson, TM3c Robert A. Griep fractured his left arm and was treated by the ship's medical officer,91 becoming the sole American casualty of the battle.

At 0800 hours, Cdr. McCune reported to Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters that he believed that the nature of the debris recovered and the sheer weight of the ordnance expended provided conclusive evidence that the submarine was indeed destroyed.92  As higher authority was considering this evaluation, the violence continued.

Throughout the morning the ships alternated between attacking the suspected position of the U-Boat and retrieving the debris that resulted.  One can only imagine the scene as the ships criss-crossed the area with the hedgehog explosions preceding them and the depth charge explosions trailing behind.  In the twenty minutes between 0929 and 0949, 3 depth charge and 2 hedgehog attacks were delivered.93

A period of investigation ensued for the next hour-and-a-half as the three ships sent their respective whaleboats to retrieve debris.  The Ericsson dropped a marker buoy at position 41°15'5" N by 71°04'8" W, the last known location of the U-Boat.  Once the final whaleboat was retrieved at 1127, the battle resumed.  In the next half-hour, a further depth charge pattern and 3 hedgehog attacks were made.

Finally, at 1225 hours, the battle was suddenly over.  Upon evaluation of the evidence, Eastern Sea Frontier transmitted dispatch 061515Z to CTG 60.7 ordering a cessation of the attack.94 The blimps were ordered to depart the area, K-16 to conduct operations elsewhere and the K-58 to return to Lakehurst.95  A marker buoy was placed at a point bearing approximately 099° True, 14,000 yards east of Sandy Point Light on Block Island.  At 1239 hours, Ericsson made way for Boston followed 1 minute later by Atherton. Moberly remained a few minutes longer while she hoisted her small boat, which contained further debris bearing German markings.  She then joined her mates for the trip to Boston where each arrived with "brooms at mastheads," the traditional naval symbol of a "clean sweep."

Aftermath

A fearsome wind had blown along the stretch of Rhode Island coastline south of Point Judith, yet save for the wakes of the departing vessels, all was now calm.  And as with every great naval event, the lesser vessels arrived to provide services too mundane for the warships to perform. Upon the scene steamed the Penguin (ASR-12), a submarine rescue vessel whose compliment included navy divers and their accoutrements.96  At 1520 hours, divers descended the depths and reported that the submarine was indeed lying at the bottom with no signs of life apparent.  It was noted that of the hundreds of projectiles thrown at the elusive submarine (264 hedgehog projectiles, 195 depth charges, and 6 rocket bombs), there were but two hits.

Initial attempts to enter the U-Boat proved fruitless owing to the size of the diving suits relative to the small entrances on the boat.  Later attempts to enter the hull to retrieve relevant documents were further rebuffed by the bodies of the crew who, even in death, jealously guarded their boat.

For many years afterward, rumors abounded as to mysterious cargo that may be within the rusting hulk.  Some claimed that over $500,000 in gems and currency was sealed into 88-mm shell casings.  Another claimed that stainless steel containers on board contained a fortune in mercury.97  Several salvage attempts were made to claim this fortune, but none would succeed. Finally, the location of the U-853 was determined precisely in April 1953 when divers from the destroyer Samuel B. Roberts (DD-823) reached the submarine.  It was found resting on the bottom at approximately 130 feet where it remains today having become a popular destination for divers. Unfortunately, there have been several incidents of bones being removed and either taken from the scene, or carelessly tossed back into the water.

Not all of the 55 crew members of the U-853 remained on board.  One body floated toward the Rhode Island coast, was found, and was interred at the Rhode Island Cemetery Annex.  On the third Sunday of November 2001, the traditional day upon which German military dead are honored, several German and American naval personnel gathered at the gravesite to pay respects to the unknown sailor.98

Of the participants in the battle, few went on to any great renown. Subsequent to the war, Lewis Iselin, commander of the Atherton, became a sculptor of note while Captain Prior of the Black Point became the President of the Portland Marine Society until his death in 1991.99  The others disappeared into the fog of history.

The principle ships involved in the hunt were sent to the Pacific in anticipation of the invasion of Japan, but the Japanese surrender obviated this necessity. Each was soon declared surplus to American defense needs soon after the war was over.  The destroyer Ericsson was mothballed at Charleston in 1946 and sent to the scrap yard in 1971.100  The Moberly returned to the United States in August 1946 where she was decommissioned.  One year later, she arrived at Hillside, NJ for scrapping.

The Atherton and the Amick, whose careers had been intertwined, went their separate ways until 1946 when they were decommissioned at Green Cove, FL.  They were reunited in 1955 when  both ships were transferred to Japan, over the strong objections of the family of John Atherton.  They remained there until 1975 when they were returned to the United States and then further transferred to the Philippines where they were reunited with their former Escort Division 15 mate, USS Booth.101

The cap belonging to Helmut Frömsdorf that was recovered during the attacks remained in the possession of Lewis Iselin.  In Feb 1999, his daughters, Edith Byron and Sarah Iselin, donated the cap to the Destroyer Escort Historical Foundation.  It became part of their collection and
may now be seen in the museum aboard USS Slater DE 766, sister to the Atherton and Amick, moored in Albany, NY.102

 


Endnotes

1 Information concerning the Point Judith lighthouse and its environs is derived from: New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide: http://www.lighthouse.cc/pointjudith/history.html , and Ocean States Directory: Narragansett, Popint Judith, Galilee: http://www.ri-map.com/map.html

2 Blair, Clay, Hitler's U-Boat War: Part 1: The Hunters, 1939-1942. (New York: Random House, 1996) pp. 66-69. The first encounter between a U-Boat and an American vessel occurred in late April 1940 when the U-52 attacked the destroyer Niblack (DD-424). Some sources claim the first incident was between U-652 and the destroyer Greer (DD-145) in early September. Morison agrees that it was the Niblack incident. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Battle of the Atlantic. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1947), p 57.

3 Long Range Aid to Navigation

4 Magnetic Anomaly Detector

5 High-Frequency Direction Finder. German tactical doctrine called for U-Boats to be controlled by shore establishments through high-frequency radio transmissions. Two versions of Huff Duff were developed: the British version under the guidance of Robert Watson-Watt, the father of radar, and a French version developed by a French Subsidiary of ITT. The Americans later chose the French version after extensive testing. Williams, Kathleen Broome, Secret Weapons: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic. Found in Blair, Clay, Hitler's U-Boat War: Part 2: The Hunted 1942 -1945. (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 791-792. Ironically, U.S. submarine commanders in the Pacific urged their superiors to employ a similar centralized direction system in order to operate more effectively in wolf packs. Considering the success of Huff-Duff in the Atlantic, the idea was rejected. Blair, Clay. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan. (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1975.) p. 84.

6 Built on merchant ship hulls, they were designated by the Navy as CVE (aircraft carrier, escort) and were known by their crews as Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable

7 Russell, Jerry C. , Ultra And The Campaign Against The U-Boats In World War II. United States Navy
Studies in Cryptology, NSA, Document SRH-142. Record Group 457, Records of the National Security Agency: U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA. p.5.

8 Ibid. p. 13.

9 At the time of inception, Tenth Fleet chief-of-staff was the acerbic Rear Admiral Francis S. Lowe; by April 1945, he had been replaced by Rear Admiral Allan R. McCann inventor of the McCann diving bell used to rescue submariners trapped in sunken boats. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Atlantic Battle Won, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1956), pp 21-26, 345.

10 The Mariner's Museum, WWII: Battle of the Atlantic. At http://www.mariner.org/atlantic/gg01.htm

11 USS Frost (DE-144), Barber (DE-161), Swasey (DE-248), Snowden (DE-246), Huse (DE-145), and Inch (DE-146). Morison, Volume X, pp 321-322.

12 Ibid. p 378.

13 The schnorchel failed for several reasons: it slowed the boat to a mere five or six knots, stretching transit times to a point where a patrol would last only a few days; the vibrations made it very difficult to operate the periscopes effectively; the device often failed or filled with water causing serious problems for the crew; the schnorchel could be observed by 3-cm radar despite German efforts to provide stealth capabilities. Blair, Clay, Hitler's U-Boat War: Part 2 p. 709.

14 Morison, The Atlantic Battle Won, pp 321.

15 The wounded men included the sub's skipper, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Sommer; the dead were Bootsmann Kurt Schweichler and Maschinengefreiter Karl-Heinz Löffler. u-boat.net: The U-Boat War: 1939-1945. http://www.uboat.net/boats/u853.htm

16 Morison, The Atlantic Battle Won, op cit.

17 Ibid. p. 345.

18 The tightrope walker. Ibid. p. 321.

19 http://www.uboat.net/boats/u853.htm

20 Commander in Chief Atlantic. In his book concerning the Tenth Fleet, Ladislas Farago erroneously claims that the U-853 was undetected by the Americans until the Black Point was torpedoed. Farago, Ladislas, The Tenth Fleet. (New York: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1962), pp. 291-292.

21 Morison, The Atlantic Battle Won, pp. 346-349.

22 The Frederick C. Davis (DE-136).

23 Ibid. pp. 351-355.

24 The term "Eagle Boat" derived from a Washington Post editorial that envisioned " ... an eagle to scour the seas and pounce upon and destroy every German submarine." History at University of San Diego http://history.acusd.edu/gen/WW2Timeline/eagleboat.html

25 These were the PE-19, PE-27, PE-32, PE-38, PE-48, PE-55, PE-56, and PE-57. Department of the Navy, Naval History Division, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Volume VI, pp 744-747. Hereafter cited as DANFS.

26 Director of Naval History letter to Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England, Ser. 09BH/1U504614, 1 May 2001. Enclosure (2).

27 In June 2001, Navy Secretary Gordon R. England ruled that the sinking of the PE-56 was indeed a result of an attack by an enemy submarine thus allowing crew members to be awarded the Order of the Purple Heart. The New York Times, In Switch, Navy Says German Sub Sank Ship Off Maine in '45. 4 September 2001.

28 Director of Naval History, op. cit.

29 The presence of the U-853 came as no surprise to the survivors of the PE-56 several of whom observed the U-Boat partially submerged after the attack and described a red and yellow marking on the conning tower. Later investigation revealed that the U-853, as with other members of its flotilla, was painted black and sported an "insignia of a red trotting horse on a yellow shield" on its conning tower. Director of Naval History, Ibid.

30 u-boat.net, op.cit. http://uboat.net/fates/at-sea.htm

31 Angelini, Richard, Hunt and Kill of U-853, in United States Benson-Livermore Class Destroyers. http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Barracks/1041/eric853.html

32 Arsenault, Mark, Sailor recalls freighter's sinking. Providence Journal-Bulletin, in US Naval Armed Guard and WWII Merchant Marine. http://www.armed-guard.com/item04.html

33 Price, Scott, The CG's Final Act: USS Moberly Versus the U-853. Commandant's Bulletin (May 1995), pp. 29.

34 Arsenault, Ibid.

35 U.S. Maritime Service Veterans. http://www.usmm.org/blackpoint.html

36 Charbonneau, Paula, Saga of Merchant Ship Black Point is Recalled. New Bedford Standard-Times, 22 May 1995. Found in http://www.s-t.com/daily/05-95/05-22-95/0522maritime.html

37 Arsenault, Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Morgan, Thomas J., We Cast This Wreath in Memory. Providence Journal-Bullentin, 24 Aug 2000, p. B-01. Found in: US Naval Armed Guard. Op.cit. http://www.armed-guard.com/riem26.html

40 Besides Boilerman 2nd Class Lloyd, the Merchant Mariner dead were: William Antilly, George P. Balser, Leo H. Beck, Milton Mathews, Laurel F. Clark, Cleo Clark, Robert L. Korb, Ansey L. Morgan, Marvin A. Mertihek, Richard C. Shepson and Reino Lindstrom. Charbonneau, op. cit.

41 Ibid.

42 Arsenault, op. cit.

43 Price, op. cit., p. 30.

44 Ibid.

45 The Navy used then, and uses now, a numerical system to provide operational codes for grouping of ships. Thus, Task Group 60.7 is the seventh group of Task Force 60 which is a subordinate of the Sixth Fleet. Similarly, Task Unit 60.7.1 is a subunit of Task Group 60.7.

46 Convoys codes were based on point of origination and destination. Thus, GUS was a fast convoy departing from a port in North Africa and arriving, via Gibraltar, either at New York or Norfolk. A UGS convoy followed the reverse route. GUS-UGS convoys were instituted in 1943 as a means to escort tankers. Morison, Volume I, pp. 353-354.

47 The Ericcson was commissioned in March 1941 being named for John Ericcson, the inventor of the screw propeller. She began her career escorting convoys in the "short of war" period when President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to assist the British despite the fact that the Congress had not yet declared war. The Ericcson spent the war in convoy escort duty with the notable exceptions of participating in the invasion of North Africa in 1942 and Southern France in 1944. In May 1945, she was commanded by Lt. Cdr. Charles Baldwin. Also aboard was Cdr. Francis C.B. McCune commander of Escort Division 15 and Task Group 60.7. Department of the Navy, DANFS. Volume II, p 362.

48 The Amick was a 1,240-ton member of the Cannon class of destroyer-escorts. She was named for Eugene Amick who died aboard the cruiser Astoria during the debacle off Savo Island in August 1942. The Amick spent the entire war escorting convoys across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean with only an unsuccessful attack by German aircraft to break the monotony. In May, 1945, the Amick was under the command of Lt. Cdr. E.L. Barsumian. Department of the Navy, DANFS. Volume IA, p. 260.

The Amick was also the subject of the so-called Philadelphia Experiment, a staple of pseudo-science and a movie of the same name. The theory states that as a result of a secret government experiment, the Amick was rendered invisible for a period of time. See, for instance, About UFO's/Aliens at http://ufos.about.com/library/weekly/aa042301a.htm

49 The Atherton was a sister of the Amick and was named for John M. Atherton who was killed aboard the destroyer Meredith during the Guadalcanal battle not far from where Eugene Amick died. Atherton spent the war escorting convoys. In May 1945, she was under the command of Lt. Cdr. Lewis Iselin, a noted East Coast yachtsman. Department of the Navy, DANFS. Volume IA, pp. 445-446.

50 The Moberly was a patrol frigate that had been designed and built by the Maritime Commission at the Globe Shipbuilding Co. in 1943. She was named for a city in northern Missouri. By May 1945, she had made two trans-Atlantic crossing escorting convoys. At this time, she was under the command of a Coast Guardsman, plank-owner Cdr. Leslie B. Tollaksen. Department of the Navy, DANFS. Volume IV, p. 400.

51 National Archives and Records Administration, Eastern Sea Frontier Diary. Records Group 38, Box 339, p. 126.

52 Department of the Navy, Naval History Division, ZP-12 Operations. www.history.navy.mil/download/lta-09.pdf

53 National Archives and Records Administration, Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440). Records Group 24, n.p.

54 National Archives and Records Administration, Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63). Records Group 24, n.p.

55 Ibid.

56 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 85.

57 National Archives and Records Administration, Deck Log, USS Amick (DE-168). Records Group 24, p. 285. Foxer was the common name for the acoustic decoy used to spoof German acoustic torpedoes. Foxer was derived from FXR, the device's code name. Source: Destroyer Escort Central at http://www.de220.com/Armament/Decoys/Decoys.htm

58 Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p. The message was relayed through the lighthouse at Cleveland Ledge.

59 Tollaksen, Ibid.

60 Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p.

61 National Archives and Records Administration, Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169). Records Group 24, p.251.

62 Talk Between Ships, a short-range radio system.

63 Morison states that the attack commenced at 2028 hours. Morison, Volume X, p.357. The Navy history agrees with Morison's time. Department of the Navy, DANFS. Volume IV, pp 400. The deck log of the Atherton places this event at 2030 hours. Deck Log USS Atherton (DE-169), op.cit.

64 The attack was centered on 41° 14' N, 71° 27'W. Two known wrecks were in the general vicinity: the SS Luther E. Hooper at 41° 20'N, 71° 26'W, and barge #632 at 41° 21'21"N, 71° 31'30"W. Eastern Sea Frontier Diary, op.cit.

65 Deck Log, USS Amick (DE168), p. 286. The dispatch was numbered 051311.

66 These ships were the gunboats Action (PG-86) and Restless (PG-66), destroyers Barney (DD-149), Breckinridge (DD-148), and Blakeley (DD-150), the patrol frigate Newport (PF-27), and the former destroyer Semmes (AG-24 ex DD-189), now fitted with an experimental XQHA sonar system. Eastern Sea Frontier Diary, op.cit.

67 Hedgehog was an American adaptation of a British weapon. It comprised a steel frame with 24 protruding "spigots" in a 4 by 6 configuration, each of which held a projectile with a contact fuse. Hedgehog was developed as a means of attacking a submarine while maintaining sonar contact. Morison, Volume I, pp. 211-212.

68 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), op.cit.

69 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 86.

70 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), p. 251A. Morison claims that a hedgehog attack at this time sank the U-853. Morison, Volume X, p357. As we shall see, this attack took place four minutes later.

71 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), Ibid.

72 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 86.

73 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), p. 253.

74 Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p.

75 Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p. Cork is common in submarine construction due to its strength and light weight.

76 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 86

77 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), op.cit.

78 Ibid. The Ericsson log sets this time as 0115. Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p.

79 Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p.

80 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 86. Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p.

81 Tollaksen, op. cit. p. 87. Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p.

82 ZP-12 Operations, op.cit. Ericsson reports the blimps arriving at 0610. Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD440), n.p.

83 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE169), op.cit.

84 Tollaksen, op. cit.

85 ZP-12 Operations, op.cit.

86 Deck Log, USS Atherton (DE-169), op.cit.

87 Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p.

88 Deck Log, USS Moberly (PF-63), n.p. Ericcson credits Atherton with this attack, but there is no record in the Atherton deck logs to support this.

89 Ibid.

90 Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p.

91 Ibid.

92 Eastern Sea Frontier, op.cit., p. 129. At the time of the dispatch, 182 depth charges and 144 hedgehog projectiles had been expended for a total of 326 explosive devices. The totals would nearly double before the incident concluded.

93 Derived from the deck logs of the various ships.

94 Eastern Sea Frontier, op.cit ; Deck Log, USS Ericsson (DD-440), n.p.

95 ZP-12 Operations, op.cit.

96 Eastern Sea Frontier, op.cit.

97 Research Vessel Wahoo, at http://www.wahoo2001.com/wrecks/u853page.htm (bad link 2006)

98 Ausiello, David, German U-boat Sailors Remembered. Naval War College News, 15 February 2002.

99 Portland Marine Society

100 DANFS entry for Ericsson, op. cit.

101 Information derived from DANFS entries for Atherton and Amick, op.cit. Booth information from Baker, A.D. III, Combat Fleets of the World 1986/1987. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), p. 383.

102 Buck, op. cit.


The Battle of Point Judith
(c) 2003 Ralph DiCarpio

Photos courtesy of http://www.wreckhunter.net/u-boats.htm


 
 

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