70 years later, World War II vets recall capture of German sub

Written By BY STEFANO ESPOSITO Staff Reporter Posted: 07/06/2014, 09:57am
Array Gordon Hohne of the U.S.S. Pillsbury spoke of his experiences. The final reunion Ñ and 70th anniversary Ñ of the capture of the U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry featured the last surviving veterans who captured the U-boat as they toured the U-505 exhibit with their families and museum officials. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

Gordon Hohne remembers the liverwurst sandwiches the German seamen left unfinished in their haste to flee. He remembers the U-boat tilted bow up, tossing in battering seas.

What the 89-year-old doesn’t remember is feeling fear — fear that the Germans might have booby-trapped the abandoned sub that he and eight other Americans boarded off the coast of West Africa on June 4, 1944.

“You got a job to do, and you try to do it,” Hohne, of Hubbardston, Mass., recalled this week.

Hohne — the only surviving member of the original team that boarded the captured U-505 70 years ago this week — left the lengthy, heart-felt speeches to others Wednesday.

“They had every reason to believe that five minutes later they’d all be dead,” said Kurt Haunfelner, vice president of exhibits and collections for the Museum of Science Industry, where the U-505 has been housed as a major attraction since 1954. “Did it stop them? Did it hold them back? No. They did their duty, and they did it in an extraordinary way.”

Twenty surviving members of the mission to capture the U-505 — the only German U-boat captured by the U.S. Navy during World War II — were among the guests at a ceremony at the South Side museum to mark the anniversary. Some survivors, like Hohne, sat in wheelchairs. Others hobbled on canes beside the U-boat’s 252-foot-long pitted steel hull.

Time has dimmed the light in Don Carter’s eyes and gnarled his fingers, but his memories of the U-505’s capture remain vivid. Carter, now 93, was a signalman aboard the U.S.S. Guadalcanal aircraft carrier. He remembers the depth charges that brought the U-boat to the surface and the German sailors abandoning ship.

“All they were doing was jumping in the water as fast as they could,” said Carter, who lives in Norwalk, Calif.

Carter’s job was to board the captured U-boat and send flag signals back to the carrier, while his fellow sailors attached a towing cable to the 700-ton sub. Carter said the sub was moving so violently that other sailors had to hold his legs to stop him from tumbling into the ocean while he did his job.

“The sea (swells) were running about 6 to 8 feet,” said Hohne, also a signalman. “The sub was going around in circles because the rudders were stuck.”

Even though he said he felt no fear when he dropped down into the U-boat hatch 70 years ago, it hit him upon his return to the aircraft carrier.

“When I got back to the ship, my hands were shaking,” he said.

The U-boat was eventually towed 2,500 nautical miles to Bermuda, so that the U.S. Navy could study the boat’s military secrets.

As the years pass, Carter said he’s struck by how many of the sailors involved in the famous mission have died.

Two months ago, Carter made a call to a fellow veteran who was looking forward to coming to Chicago for the anniversary celebration. The phone rang. A woman answered.

“She said, ‘Sorry, sir, but he died yesterday,’” Carter recalled.

“It was quite a shock to me.”

Email: sesposito@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slesposito

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