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Archive for the ‘The maX Files’ Category

 There is no greater bond than that which exists between a father and son. Even before the son is born, he lives inside the father, and from the day of birth the father begins to grow in the son. Hardened to something akin to steel, and tempered by tears and time, the bond connects them forever, and the son must learn to live with that man inside him, or go mad. I understand now, that my father never wanted to hit me or my brother. He always gave us ample warning before his patience wore thin as the thin plaster walls of our tiny two-bedroom house, before he stormed into our room and drew his belt from his pants. Even as the last moment approached, we couldn’t stop our giggling, at least we never did, until we heard the unmistakable sound of the belt coming out, and by then it was too late.

You could say that dad was a patient man, but his patience had limits. You could say he was a just man, but lucky for us, he never measured out the punishments we deserved. Dad wasn’t the kind of man who meted out justice and counted the strokes. Nor did he ever feel the need to explain himself afterwards or fashion it into some sort of a life-lesson to rationalize his behavior. He’d just storm out of the room, as angry as he had arrived. He was working two jobs and just wanted us to be quiet so he could sleep. In short, what you needed, was what you got, with him. Because Eddie was the oldest, he would wale on him several times until his anger had nearly subsided and then, he would give me my two or three licks with the strap too. I was always small and thin. Eddie, on the other hand, was thick and heavy-set. His body absorbed the beatings better than mine did, and he was always first with the wise-crack after Dad had left the room.

I feared my father for most of my youth, and detested the harsh way he treated my brother, and I carried that mixture of hate and fear for a long time. But, in truth, the beatings were few and far between, and the benefits of having a strong and unambiguous parent far outweighed the bad. One day I woke up to the realization, that despite everything I had grown to love him over the years, and that most of what I had tried to accomplish in life was for him. But I also discovered how little I knew of him.

I met my father, Edward Dubiak, for the first time in the spring before my fourth birthday. He had left us nearly two years before to travel to California to find work. The post-war years were very hard on everybody in Scranton, but especially hard on my mother and father. The two major sources of employment, the coal mines and the railroad, had both closed down, and many men and women found themselves without work. Competition for the remaining jobs was stiff, and while other men were returning from the war with medals on their chest and honorable discharges in hand, my father waited for the War Department to process his case.

He was released from the Army in July of 1945, and at the time of his discharge he had to surrender all of his uniforms and unit insignias. Finally in 1950, more than five years after the end of the war, he received a copy of his discharge form signed by the Adjutant General of the Army; he had not received the honorable discharge he had hoped for, but other than honorable.

I found this document many years later and the picture it paints is not inconsistent with the story I was told of his time in the service. I can’t remember who told me exactly, or how it was divulged, but I grew up believing that my father enlisted in the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor, and that he had struck an officer. He was a young man, with only an 8th grade education, burning to get into the war. He was court-martialed and discharged from the Navy, but later was accepted into the Army. In the Army he wore many hats, serving for a time as a mess-cook, and an Engineer, and finally volunteered for training as a paratrooper. He was injured, however, in a training jump from a high tower, and, when he never made it into combat, he started going AWOL and sat out the rest of the war in the brig.

Thats the story I grew up with, the story my father wanted his family to believe. While other boys spoke openly and proudly about their dads in the war, I kept silent. But it wasn’t the story that he carried in his heart or his wallet, where pressed tightly between a piece of boot-leather and a cloth pouch with a silver-dollar sized St. Christopher medal, was a faded photograph of a proud, disciplined young soldier with Corporal stripes on his sleeves and silver Airborne wings on his chest.

It was in the winter of 1972 that I first got an inkling of the pain his silence hid, and I was home on leave from the Navy for the first time in over a year. We sat at the kitchen table, and he listened quietly with his big brown belly protruding from beneath the unbuttoned flannel shirt, as I told and retold the story of how our ship had been attacked by a MIG in the Tonkin Gulf, and how one of our escorts had shot it down.

“Are you a shell-back?” he asked. I knew that was important to him somehow.

“Yes,” I replied, and proceeded to tell him how we had crossed the equator on my very first cruise down to Singapore.

“My brother was a shell-back too,” he said. Which brother, I wondered.

That night when I got home, Dad was still sitting there at the kitchen table, poring over his collection of silver coins and other trinkets he had accumulated over the years.

“You’re still up,” I said. I could tell that he had been drinking some. He wasn’t supposed to do that anymore, but we all suspected that he had a bottle or two of Kessler’s whiskey stashed around the house.

“I couldnt sleep.” he said, “I was thinking…” and his voice trailed off, helpless.

“When you go out,” he asked, after a moment, “do you go out with the other guys or by yourself?”

I knew that he meant my comrades in the Navy, and not the old high school friends that I had been with that night. “Sometimes,” I said, “but I usually end up by myself.”

“Me too,” he said, gently stroking the blue letters of the word Ski tattooed on the web of his right hand, between the thumb and forefinger. “I was a loner too.”

He never got to tell me what he tried to tell me that night. I went back to Vietnam, and he was hurt on the job in March of the following year, when he became trapped between two train-cars. One of the heavy laden cars hit his big belly and left a large bruise. At home that night he woke suddenly and rose up out of bed to go to the toilet, and my mom saw that he had been bleeding. She dialed 911 and that night they took him to the hospital, where he died several hours later.

My ship was in Yokosuka, Japan at the time, preparing to go back to sea. That afternoon the ship’s Chaplain called me to his office in the library and said that the ship had received a radio transmission from a ham radio operator near San Francisco, who informed them that my father had been injured on the job and might not survive. I was immediately granted an emergency leave and hustled out to the airbase at Yokota to board the first flight back to the States. I sat by myself on one side of the transport plane, staring at the wooden casket containing an officer’s dead dependent son, and everything else was just a blur. Death and I, it seemed were racing home to my father.

It was a long flight to Travis Air Force Base, and would have been the worst flight I had ever been on, had I actually digested any of it. The plane rose up and dipped and bounced continually as if it were a roller-coaster, and the compartment was very cold. A young Airman, one of the members of the flight-crew, stood outside the cockpit door, quietly listening through a head-set that he had plugged into a jack by the door, and occasionally he would repeat aloud what he heard spoken on the intercom.

“Were flying at 50,000 feet.”

“Anchorage is snowed in, so we cant land.”

When I arrived home, Dad was already gone. Death had beaten me. And it wasnt until several days later at his funeral that I actually got to see him, to say good-bye for the last time. I wasn’t prepared for that day, perhaps nobody ever is prepared for the death of a parent. I stood there by his casket staring at the life-less form before me, and all I could think was, it wasnt the man I knew. The body that lay there was cold and grey, and nothing like the wistful, brooding man I had talked to less than a year before. I said good-bye, as if to a noble stranger. I watched as the body was laid to rest, and the first shovelful of dirt shoveled in on top of it, but somehow I sensed that his spirit, once broken, perhaps shamed, perhaps bound to secrecy by some sacred duty or oath, was now free and alive somewhere in the world, and that it still had work to do and one day it would seek me out.

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The Search Begins

Many years passed, and the memory of my father faded into the landscape of my daily routine. For several years I was able to visit his grave once in a while at Rose Hills in the City of Industry. I would stop by and just sit with him on the grass, trying to make sense of it all. When I left I always felt better, more assured than I had felt when I arrived. But as the years went by, I was thrown farther and farther away from him, and rarely gave the past much thought.

It all changed in 2001, the year the movie Band of Brothers aired on HBO television. That year, I began my own strange and wonderful odyssey into the past. I didn’t see the movie at that time, but I borrowed a copy of the book by Stephen Ambrose from the public library. I began reading about the men who volunteered to be paratroopers in WWII, and how they trained and strove to “be the best,” to obtain their wings and the voice reading the words in my head was that of my own father. It was as if he were telling his story. He told me how he had made several jumps from the 250 foot training towers, and how he was hurt, and afterwards we jumped together from a C-47 and I realized that he had made those jumps, that he wouldn’t have had the wings on his chest if he hadn’t. I saw myself back in Navy bootcamp, standing in line to jump off the platform into the pool, and how I had felt him in front of me, and we had jumped together. And though I couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t fly, we made both of those jumps together, on our faith, and I had been with him.

And then I read the following:
“On December 26 (1942), the last jump, each got a certificate declaring that he was ‘entitled’ to be rated from this date as a qualified parachutist. Then the proudest moment of all, the one toward which they had been working for six months, the pinning on of the silver wings. From that moment, never to be forgotten, each member of Easy, every member of the 506th, was forever special.”

I felt the shame my dad must have felt when, after getting his wings, he was transferred from the Airborne to another unit for going AWOL.

I read further how Colonel Sink, the regimental commanding officer, sent the men home on a ten day furlough, and how when the furlough was over, many of the men reported back late for duty.

And then I read this:
“Colonel Sink held a regimental parade. The men turned out in their class A, or dress, uniforms. They were marched down a sandy street to an empty lot behind the cooks’ hutments. Sink called them to attention, then gave the command ‘At ease.’ They watched and listened in silence as a lieutenant read a list of names, one from each company, from among the men who had reported in last.

‘Private John Doe, E Company,’ the lieutenant called out. A drummer, standing beside the lieutenant, beat a soft, mournful roll. Two sergeants, bearing submachine-guns, moved to Private Doe. He stepped from the ranks. His face was pale. The sergeants, one on each side, escorted him forward. The drum continued to roll. They stopped in front of the lieutenant. he read out the orders. Private Doe was being drummed out of the paratroopers, condemned to the infantry.

The lieutenant ripped the 506th patch from the private’s arm, the wings from his chest, the parachute patch from his hat, and threw them all on the ground. It was so humiliating that the officers and men were cursing under their breath….There was more. A jeep drove up and dumped out Private Doe’s barracks bags. He had to take off his boots, put on regular shoes, wear his pants down like a regular infantryman (‘straight legs,’ as the paratroopers called them). He picked up his bags and, followed by the submachine-gunners, marched sadly away, the drum continuing to roll, a picture of bleak loneliness. This was repeated nine times….”

Suddenly, I broke into tears. Could my father have been one of those Private John Doe-s?

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Screaming Eagle

After reading the Stephen Ambrose book, “Band of Brothers” I began to search in earnest for any old photos or documents around the house. I remembered that there were several photographs of dad wearing his Army uniform in one of our old photo albums. I got those. They were small photos, perhaps taken on the same day as the one he had kept in his wallet, and they all clearly showed the Airborne wings and the paratrooper ball on his cap, but nothing more.

I had nearly given up on the idea of researching dad’s military history, when three items just popped up out of nowhere, or perhaps out of the ether. I found two more photos. The first photo, which I found laying out on the top of a dresser, was a much cleaner copy of the one he carried in his wallet. Like the one in the wallet, it had been folded into thirds, but there was no writing on the back. The second photo was a print of a “multiple negative” of him and his sister. This proved to be my most valuable find, despite its imperfections, because it showed his left sleeve very clearly. On the sleeve he wore corporal stripes, and the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st Airborne Division.

Since my discharge from the Navy, I had kept all of my own DD-214 form copies in a large manila envelope in the hall closet. One day I went to get one, and another older looking document fell out. At the top it read “Transcript of Military Record” and it was dated June 16, 1950 and signed by Major General Edward F. Witsell, The Adjutant General. The document contained a lot of information about my dad’s service in the Army, so much that I’ve included a scanned copy in another section of this web-site. He had been inducted on February 4, 1943 and entered service on that same day, had qualified Expert with the M-1 rifle on September 6, 1944, and his highest rank held was Pfc. The document also showed that he had not served outside the continental U.S., but that he had had prior service in the USNR for 10 months and 7 days.

He was discharged July 21, 1945 under “Other than Honorable” conditions. When I read this, I couldn’t fathom what that meant. Had he been “dishonorably” discharged? I knew from my own days in the service about honorable discharges, dishonorable, bad conduct and medical discharges, but I had never heard of this one. Clearly he must have deserved at least a Bad Conduct discharge, because he had lost 509 days of service, nearly two years, under Articles of War 107, which I gathered was the Army’s way of saying “time spent in the brig for AWOL.”

I felt, that with this document, I finally had enough information to submit a FOIA request to the US Army. His unit was listed as Btry B 797th AAA AW Bn. In the letter to the National Personnel Records Center, I noted this and the other information I had from the document and the photos, and sent it off. And then I waited for the reply.

As I waited I began to search the internet for questions I had about the document itself. I wondered why it had not been issued until 1950, nearly 5 years after the war had ended. I also wondered why it had not been signed by his own commanding officer. I found scanned images of similar documents on the internet, and they were all signed by the local commanding officers, and dated 1945 or 1946. I began to feel more and more certain that my dad had probably been waiting for some kind of a decision concerning his case. That would explain the phone number, if it were one, on the back of his wallet photo. But, most of all, I began to remember little things about my dad, that just seemed to add up to much more than the blank spaces on his military record.

I also concluded that my dad could not have been one of the John Does mentioned in Band of Brothers. That court-martial took place shortly after Christmas, 1942, and my father wasn’t inducted into the Army until several months later. As I was soon to learn, he couldn’t have been court-martialled out of the paratroopers, because, at the same time, he was being court-martialled out of the Navy.

But that’s another story.

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Hot-Cakes

My dad worked as a Car Inspector for the Santa Fe Railroad in Los Angeles. I think he preferred to work nights, so he could sleep all day while my brother and two sisters were at school. Some days I hardly saw him, but many a time I would awaken to hear him coming in the back door early in the morning while we were all still in bed.

He worked Monday through Friday, but, because he was on the night-shift, his week actually began Sunday night and, because he always worked extra days when he could, Saturday was his only real day-off. On that day, he was always up early cooking his famous pancakes.

My dad made the best pancakes in the world. Nearly thin as crepes, and dark never burnt, you could eat them by the stack and you never needed to use more than one pat to smother them in savory butter. The butter would sit on top, slowly melting into the syrup, coating each pancake with just the right combination of ingredients as it dripped down the sides. My brother and I would eat them by stacks of ten, and dad just kept them coming.

He cooked his pancakes on an old griddle that he had found one night in one of the railroad cars. He said that a bum had probably left it to escape with his life. Tirelessly dad would stand, all morning, at our old O’Keefe and Merritt stove, pouring out the thin batter and flipping the nearly charred cakes, reflecting, not saying a word.

But one Saturday, when he and I were in the kitchen alone, he suddenly began to laugh to himself and said: “When I was a cook, we used to put cigarette butts into the food for flavor.” At first I thought that he was just thinking out loud, and didn’t realize it, but he continued: “I worked on PT Boats at a base up in Connecticut,” he said. “They had twin Packard engines.” Then he looked at me and said, “I knew John F. Kennedy there, when he was a Lieutenant.”

My dad was proud of his time in the service. He wasn’t bitter about it at all. But something that happened was eating him up inside, not unlike the way we were eating the hot-cakes.

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The first letter I actually wrote for information about my father’s military service was to the Freedom of Information Act office at Maxwell Air Force Base. I included a wealth of information that I had accumulated, and have layed out in my earlier blogs. They replied several weeks later:

“Dear Mr. Dubiak

This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act request dated March 25, 2003, for documents, photographs, records of awards, promotions, courts martial, etc., pertaining to the service of Edward Dubiak, formerly attached to the 11th Infantry Regiment. The information that you are requesting does not fall under our purview; therefore we have referred your request to the Department of the Army….”

I wondered where the information about the 11th Infantry Regiment came from.

Two weeks later, I received a similar letter from the Chief at the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Office of the US Army, Bruno C. Leuyer. After noting that I had requested a “myriad of records pertaining to my father’s military service,” he explained that all of my father’s personnel records, “to the extent they exist,” would be located within his Official Military Personnel File at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, and that I should make my request for records with that office.

Finally, after many weeks I received a reply from the NPRC. I didn’t know what exactly to expect. I had asked for so many documents and supplied so much information, that I honestly hoped that a truck would be involved. Instead, I received several pages, though not as thick as I had hoped, the first of which read:

“Dear Sir or Madam:

Thank you for contacting the National Personnel Records Center.

The ARMY record needed to answer your inquiry is not in our files. If the record were here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed. The fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel for the period 1912 through 1959…”

I was honestly devastated. I wondered how this could have happened to my sacred heritage, to the precious truth I was seeking. I thought how ironic it was, that at about the same time as the fire, I had been in the Navy standing a fire-watch, when the ship went to General Quarters during combat, over a Motor-Generator unit for a tracking radar, and how I had never once shirked that duty or fallen asleep on watch. I wondered too if the archivist, knowing the files had been destroyed, had made much effort to search other pertinent records that he might have been aware of.

But the request wasn’t a total loss. For, farther down in the letter, it read:

“We are pleased to respond to your request for NAVY Personnel Records by providing the enclosed documents.”

[To be continued…]

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The more I delved into my dad’s story, the more I began to remember little things that he said and did, that didn’t seem very important at the time.

My dad always drank his beer warm. He would buy a perfectly cold quart bottle of Olympia beer and let it sit out on the counter all day long, before he drank it. I don’t know where he acquired this taste for warm beer, but I know that many of the soldiers who went to England during the war, learned it from the Brits. Unfortunately, my father never left the US, according to his military transcript.

Dad said “he knew JFK, when he was stationed at the PT Boat training station in Connecticut.” The MTBS training station was in Melville, RI.

My dad only had an 8th grade education. But he seemed to know a lot about rockets and radios. One time my brother and I were trying to get an old short-wave radio to work, and he taught us how to make an antenna using a spoon and a glass of water.

He was especially interested in the early Project Mercury space launches. When I was a boy, he would wake me in the middle of the night and we would sit on the couch and watch the broadcasts together. He was a great fan of Dr. Werner von Braun, who was the head of NASA at the time, and he seemed to know a lot about him. After von Braun left NASA, my dad seemed to lose interest in the Space Program. But several years later, he sent away for a silver medallion commemorating those early space-flights, and kept it with his “valuable” coins.

Dad’s pride and joy was his coin collection. He would sit up late at night poring over those coins and trinkets, as if they were medals. In his collection he had mostly Eisenhower Silver Dollars, Kennedy Half-dollars and many old dimes with lady Liberty on the face. He also had many rolls of Buffalo nickels. In the same box with his coins, he also kept two old US Army issue wristwatches. Both of the watches were stopped at 1:00.

When I asked my mom once what my dad did in the war, she said that he had gotten in trouble for going AWOL, and that he hit an officer in an altercation. I have been able to verify that when he was in the Navy, he did get in trouble several times for going AWOL, and even received a bad conduct discharge from the Navy. What I can’t understand is, if he continued to go AWOL when he was in the Army, why did he not get a Bad Conduct Discharge from them. And if he later struck an officer in the Army, why didn’t he receive a dishonorable discharge or go to prison?

Dad told me once that “he was a loner.” General Omar Bradley once said, he was a loner. In 1959, nearly fifteen years after the war, my dad received a visit from a friend in the Army, an old guy in his 60’s, whom he referred to as Irwin. Dad was very respectful to Irwin, and even wore a dress shirt that day, and asked mom to take a photo, which was so out of character. The man in the photo bears an uncanny resemblance to General Stafford L. Irwin, who served under General Bradley during the war and was one of his classmates from West Point. But General Irwin died before 1959.

Dad had his nickname “Ski” tatooed on his hand. I asked him once, why they called him Ski, and he said, “You know, like Dombrowski or Dubiak-ski.” I got the feeling he was telling me a fib, for whatever reason. I had the same name, but I was never called Ski.

According to his military transcript, my dad spent nearly two years in the stockade. Yet he never said a bad word against the Army, or the Navy for that matter. He did, however, have another habit – he called every man he met, Sir, in a very respectful manner. I have listened to men who have been in the military a lot, and some of them exhibit this same learned behavior. They all seem to be NCOs in HQ units, who associate with officers a lot in their daily routine.

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Jan. 21, 1942 Edward Dubiak enlists USN at NRS Philadelphia , PA Lt. K.B. Emmons USNR

Jan. 27, 1942 NavTrSta, Newport, RI

Feb. 18, 1942 RecSta, NYd (Comm. Inshore Patrol), Boston, MA Capt. R.C. Grady, USN(RET)

Mar. 1, 1942 Boston Sec. Base, Lockwood Basin, FFT Mine Assembly Unit, Hinghan Lt. Cmdr. J.L. Merrill USNR

Apr. 7, 1942 RecSta, NYd (Comm. Inshore Patrol), Boston, MA Capt. C.A. Abele USN(RET)

April 17, 1942 MTBS Training Center, Melville, RI Lt. D. J. Walsh, USNR

April 28, 1942 Captain’s Mast. Offense: AOL from 0730 4/24/42 to 0750 4/28/42, a total of 4 days 20 min. Sentence: Confinement (SOL) [solitary] for a period of 5 days B&W [on bread and water]. Lt. D.J. Walsh, USNR

May 21, 1942 Changed rating from AS to Seaman 2nd Class. Lt. D.J. Walsh, USNR

Sept 10, 1942 Declared a straggler since 0600 9/7/42. Lt. D.J. Walsh USNR

Sept 15, 1942 Declared a straggler from 0600 9/7/42 to 0625 9/15/42 a period of 8 days 25 minutes. Lt. D.J. Walsh USNR

Sept 18, 1942 Deck Court. Offense: AOL from 0600 9/7/42 to 0625 9/15/42, a total of 8 days 25 minutes. Plea:guilty Sentence: To be confined for a period of 10 days and to lose ten dollars per month of his pay for two months. Lt. D.J. Walsh, USNR

Oct. 12, 1942 U-608 is ordered to lay mines in NY harbor.

Nov. 9, 1942 Unidentified man holds up rationing board clerk at White haven near Wilkes-Barre and escapes with gasoline rationing coupons.

Nov. 10, 1942 U 608 completes mining operation of NY harbor, approach to Ambrose Lightship.

Nov. 10, 1942 German Mine Explodes in New York Harbor.

Nov. 11, 1942 Captain’s Mast Offense: AOL 4 hours until 12 PM Nov. 10, 1942. Theft of car in Bristol, RI. Award: Summary Court Martial. Lt. Cmdr. D.J. Walsh USNR

Nov. 13, 1942 Summary Court Martial held. Offenses: (1)AOL from 0800 to 1200, 11/10/42. (2)Unlawfully take, drive, and operate an automobile, the property of John Hogan, Usher Place, Bristol, RI without permission and did damage same. Sentence: To be discharged from USN with a Bad Conduct Discharge. Lt. Cmdr D.J. Walsh USNR

Nov. 29, 1942 Lt. John F. Kennedy meets with Sen. D.I. Walsh of Mass. Chairman of the Senate Naval Affair Committee.

Dec. 9, 1942 Discharged from USN with Bad Conduct Discharge. No Travel Allowance Paid. Lt. Cmdr D.J.Walsh Executive Officer. Paid $34.28 signed Ens. G.C. Ferguson. Man has been notified to report to local draft board. Desire to be discharged at this station. Signed Edward Dubiak.

Jan. 8, 1943 Nannie Lyons 88 Wellsburg, WV -> + 88 = Apr.6 1943

Feb. 4, 1943 Inducted into US Army at Wilkes-Barre, PA

Apr. 6, 1943 Maru Musto 36 Holidaysburg -> +36 = May 12, 1943

Aug. 29, 1944 HQ Antiaircraft Artillery Training Center, Office of the Commanding General, Camp Stewart, Georgia requests information from USN for circumstances of discharge from USN in 1942 of Seaman 2nd Class Edward Dubiak. Major W.A. Rugg, Asst. Adjutant General.

Sep. 6, 1944 Qualification Expert M-1 Rifle.

July 21, 1945 Date of Separation under AR 615-368 Discharge: Other Than Honorable.

Total Length of Service: 1 year 24 Days
Prior Service: 10 Months 7 Days USNR

897 Days total in US Army
509 Days Lost under AW 107

Note: That leaves 388 Days Not accounted for, during which time he was promoted two times to Pfc. and Corporal, completed his Basic training and Airborne training, and on Sept.6, 1944 qualified on the rifle-range as an Expert marksman. The only way I can make it all fit is if he qualified on the rifle range while he was in the brig.

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U-608

On the morning of October 20, 1942 a U-boat set sail from the port of St. Nazaire in occupied France. Situated on the right bank of the Loire River estuary on the south coast of the big thumb of France, St. Nazaire was the home base to the men and ships of the 6th Unterseebootsflottille, commanded by KorvettenKapitan Wilhelm Schulz. The base, and especially the massive concrete submarine pens had been targeted numerous times in the last year by the RAF, and the surrounding waters were constantly being mined by British Wellington bombers, and swept by German minesweepers. In March 1942 British commandoes had staged an unsuccessful attack on the base, but still it remained hardly damaged.

The submarine that departed that gloomy day in October was a recently constructed type VIIC U-boat. It’s keel had been laid down the previous year on March 27, 1941 at the Blohm und Voss shipyards in Hamburg. A year later, on February 5, 1942, the new U-boat was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine, and after much hoopla placed under the command of a young naval officer, Oberleutnant Rolf Struckmeier, and assigned to the 5th Ausbildungsflottille in Kiel for training preparatory to entering the fleet.

The commander of the 5th Flotilla at the time, Kptlt Karl-Heinz Moehle, was a dedicated submariner and holder of the Knight’s Cross medal for valor. In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, he had taken charge of U-123 and on his second patrol in the North Atlantic sank five ships in an attack on an Allied convoy that lasted over five hours. After the war he would be sentenced to five years in prison, not for that heroic deed, but for encouraging obedience to the infamous Laconia Befehl, an order issued by Admiral Doenitz in the aftermath of the Laconia incident. The Laconia, a British passenger liner, was sunk in the South Atlantic on September 12, 1942. Shortly after the sinking, Cpt. Hartenstein, the Captain of the U-boat sent out several radio calls, including an uncoded distress signal requesting assistance in picking up survivors and promising to cease hostilities. The first message was short and direct:

Sunk by Hartenstein British “Laconia”. Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian POW’s. Till now 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (oil). 19 eels, trade wind 3, ask for orders.

The second un-encoded message, transmitted on 25 meter band, was desperate, and to men like Doenitz and Moehle, a serious breach of discipline:

If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked ‘Laconia’-crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. – German submarine.

This must have infuriated Admiral Doenitz, because he promptly issued the following order:

1) Every attempt to save survivors of sunken ships, also the fishing up of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the setup right of overturned lifeboats, the handing over of food and water have be discontinued. These rescues contradict the primary demands of warfare esp. the destruction of enemy ships and their crews.
2) The orders concerning the bringing in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.
3) Survivors are only to rescue, if their statements are important for the boat.
4) Stay hard. Don’t forget, that the enemy didn’t take any regard for woman and children when bombarding German towns.

Largely because of this order, Admiral Doenitz was charged with war-crimes after the war and tried at Nuremberg along with the other major Nazi war-criminals, and narrowly avoided being hanged.

For six months Struckmeier and U-608 trained under Moehle’s watchful eye, and underwent inspections and a battery of trials at Kiel designed to test the limits of his men and his boat. Finally on September 1, 1942 the boat was transferred to the combat flotilla in St. Nazaire, the 6th Unterseebootsflottille. On its first patrol in September, U-608 operating as part of a 12 boat Wolfpack, designated Vorwarts (Forward), was credited with two of the ten total sinkings. A 32 ship convoy, with two Canadian destroyers and four corvettes as escort, was first sighted by the Wolfpack on September 9, 1942 by U-584, but the Captain of U-584 lost them in the dark that night. U-96 picked them up the next day, and moved in, sinking two ships and damaging another. That night U-608 also arrived on the scene, and missed in its first attempt to torpedo a freighter. But the following night, Captain Struckmeier sank two stragglers, that had previously only been damaged. That patrol, their first, Struckmeier and crew received credit for the sinkings of The Empire Moonbeam, a British ship of 6,849 tons and the Hektoria, another British ship of 13,797 tons.

Now the U-608 was headed out on its second patrol. When the boat was past the breakwater, Captain Struckmeier turned over the watch to his second in command and retired to his cabin to open the special orders for the cruise. He poured himself a hot cup of ersatz coffee, and tore open the manila envelope, and might have missed the piece of scrap paper that fell out, but for the fact that it landed in his saucer. It was a small triangular piece of green paper with a cloth-like feel, and Struckmeier immediately recognized it as a corner torn from an American currency note. It had been folded into the triangular shape, in the manner that one would fold a piece of paper into an airplane. Upon closer examination, he could barely discern at the vertex of the two intersecting creases, that a Statue of Liberty face had been etched into the grain of the bill itself, adjacent to a dot surrounded by several concentric circles, work that could only have been accomplished by a clever forger.

Struckmeier refolded the dollar bill, and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He didn’t know exactly what to make of it, but when he read the heading on the first page of the orders it all came clear: New York Mine-laying Orders for U-608. He grabbed a bottle from the overhead shelf, and poured some brandy into his coffee, and began to read.

12.10.42.

New York Minelaying orders for U 608.

I. Task:
  a) Extensive mining of area “Ambrose”. If this is impossible, mining to be carried out in “Alternative area Ambrose”. If no success with latter in spite of repeated attempts, mining to be completed in “Outer area New York” (See sketch).
  b) Enemy traffic is to be observed beforehand, so that mines can be laid inside specified area where greatest success can be expected. If observation is impossible of provides no information, mining to be carried out around “Ambrose Lightship” and S.W. of it.
  c) The commander is, under all circumstances to try with tenacity and energy to lay the mines as far in as possible where they promise most success, i.e. in “Ambrose” area. The alternative or outer areas are only to be mined when all attempts on the inner one have been smashed and further attempts to mine seem hopeless.

II. Geographical boundaries:
  a) Area “Ambrose” lays within following degrees:
  400 27′ N. 730 55′ W. 40 30′ N. 730 49′ W.
  400 28′ N. 730 45′ W. 40 23′ N. 730 54′ W.
  b) “Alternative area Ambrose” is bound on east and south by circumference of circle whose center is by light bell buoy 2A (400 30′ N. 730 65′ W.) and on the N.W. by a line from Long Beach (730 41′ W.) and from point on Jersey coast (400 23′ N.).
  c) “Outer area New York” lies between circles drawn from light bell buoy 2A with radius of 13 and 22 miles respectively.

III. Mine Material: 10 TM C mines.
  Settings – Period of effectiveness 60 days, period of delay 2 days, sensitivity 10 meters, 5 mines set to go off first run over 5 at fourth. 5 mines with red field, 5 with blue field. Mines set to fall to depth between 20 – 33 meters, minimum range 1,000 meters.

IV. a) Map D 455 to be employed.
  b) Black and green painted wreck buoy marked 3″ in position 400 25.4′ N. 730 52.1 W.
  c) See Standing Operational Orders 492 paragraph 2; 495 paragraph 2 “Operational Intelligence for Navigators” 687 – 42: 688 – 42.
  d) See Appendix.

V. Reports to be made as soon as possible after mining completed, by short signal, but at least 50 miles from mined area.
  Following code to be used:
  LT IQ = Mining of “Ambrose Area” completed.
  LT GO = Mining of “Alternative area Ambrose” completed.
  LT JR = Mining of “Outer area New York” completed.

The Captain sat for a moment, reflecting not on the difficult and deadly assignment, but thinking rather how he would inform the crew, wondering if he should mention the dollar bill at all. His palms were wet, and he felt the beat of the diesel engines inside his ear drums, and realized it was his own heart-beat that he was hearing. It would have been difficult enough, even if the orders were crystal clear, but this deception, this little dollar bill, this arrow pointing at the Statue of Liberty – was this what Germany was about? No, this was what the Nazis were about – sneaking around back-allies, whispers in the night, rule by terror and fear. What a great propaganda victory this would be for the Fuehrer and Dr. Goebbels – like the Reichstag fire that brought them into office and the fabricated attack by Poland that began the war. He could see the headline now in all the Berlin newspapers: U-BOAT DESTROYS STATUE OF LIBERTY!! He and his crew would nonetheless be Heroes of the Reich, placed on high pedestals for all Germans to admire, but all the rest of the world would detest them.

Struckmeier finished off the coffee in one swallow, and snatched the top sheet off the desk and left his cabin. He intended to go right to the Navigation Officer’s station, but he hadn’t quite gotten his sea-legs back yet, or perhaps the brandy had hit him already, and he lurched forward into the table. Gripping the edge of the table-top he said, “Pull the map for sector C-A, Hans. Sofort.”

“Ja wohl, Herr Kapitan.” snapped the young officer. “Immediately.”

He laid out the sector map on the table and took the tiny paper from his pocket and felt that the eyes of the whole crew were on him. With the tip held fixed on Liberty Island, he rotated the paper until one of the creases pointed to a course that avoided any land masses. As he had suspected there was only one way in, straight in – he took the ruler and drew a heavy vertical line through the statue, all the way to the bottom of the map. He held his finger on the spot where the line met the bottom, and tapped twice to emphasize the location.

“Plot our course to this point right here,” he said. “We don’t have to be there until the 9th, so play it safe. I’ll be in my cabin.”

“Ja wohl, Herr Kapitan, and we’ll need to allow for the bad weather.”

“Yes,” he replied. “At least we have that.”

When he got back to his cabin, Struckmeier shouted for the cook. He needed coffee, lots of it, if he was going to get an 865 ton U-boat, that was 67 meters long and 6.2 meters wide, inside New York Harbor without being detected. He knew the orders came right from the top, from the Grand Admiral himself. Doenitz had said many times, and even been quoted in the papers saying that he believed a U-boat could steam right into any American harbor on the surface at night, without so much as a challenge. But why now, he asked himself?

Struckmeier had no illusions about the war. He had heard the latest reports from North Africa and Stalingrad on the BBC and the American broadcast stations. Oftentimes they were the only stations they could receive out at sea. But the strategy was working better than ever. When the U.S. first entered the war there was some question of whether mine-laying would be possible on the U.S. coast but the U-boat Captains quickly figured out that there were two strips, divided by a channel of water 35-50 meters deep, that were suitable for mining, that ran from the Fire Island light ship, east of New York in the north, all the way to Cape Canaveral in the south. All of the large ports on the US east coast had already been mined, and they were seeing good results. Nor was the laying of mines prejudicing in any way the U-boat attacks, which continued virtually uninterrupted, because mines were generally layed in shallow water where submarines could not operate anyway. Over 170 ships had been sunk off the Atlantic Coast in just the last 6 months, many within sight of shore. Why risk entering a major port now, when the Americans had installed anti-submarine nets in most of their ports and shore batteries all along the east coast?

In New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself doubted if even Coney Island could be defended if push came to shove, but an anti-submarine net had been strung from Norton’s Point on Coney Island to Hoffman Island. In fact on December 10, just three days after Pearl Harbor was struck, a notice went out to all shipping in the area that “A mined area covering the approaches to New York Harbor has been established. Incoming vessels will secure directions for safe navigation from patrol vessels stationed off Ambrose Channel Entrance.” Struckmeier wasn’t worried about the mines or even the nets though. He knew that New York was all about access, and he had divers on his ship who could punch a hole in the nets. What bothered him was what was positioned at either end of the net.

There were two gate tenders stationed at the submarine nets in New York, designated by the Coast Guard YNG-3 and YNG-39. YNG-3 was an observation platform with visual signalling equipment and a detachment of sailors armed with Thompson submachineguns. YNG-39, on the other hand, was a fully equipped gun-boat fixed in the harbor, and only able to be moved with the aid of tug-boats. Equipped with the latest electronic anti-submarine detection devices and connected directly to Harbor Entrance Command at Fort Wadsworth, YNG-39 also had a 50 caliber machine gun, 2 – 30 caliber machine guns, and a 1 pounder cannon. Though U-608 had an 88 mm naval gun and a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun, it was not equipped to fight a prolonged battle with any kind of shore installation. 4 bow and 1 stern torpedo tubes were its primary armament, and beneath the waves was the only safe place for a submarine to be.

The transit across the Atlantic Ocean went extraordinarily smoothly, and the crew was revitalized, and in excellent spirits. Sailing south from St. Nazaire along the French coast, they loitered in sector BF for two days charging their batteries at night, and listening for any last minute radio instructions. Each day they ran submerged, slowly picking their way through the Bay of Biscay that the RAF mined regularly. On October 24 they had cleared the Spanish coast and just entered open water when they sighted an American Battleship sailing with a lone Destroyer Escort on a course of 240 degrees at medium speed. Contact was lost immediately, however, and after searching for a couple days they resumed course 270 degrees, due west on October 27.

For five more days they sailed due west, sticking to the B sectors on the map, shadowing the main merchant route from Bristol in England to Halifax in Newfoundland. On November 1 they slipped down south into sector CD 13 and were now due east of New York City. Finally on November 5, they reached sector CB, and found themselves south of Newfoundland in the middle of a gale, where they charged their batteries to the fullest, and began to skirt the areas of high traffic. Struckmeier didn’t want to stir up the hornet’s nest just yet. The rough seas would play havoc with the American ASDIC equipment and make their periscope harder to spot, but their best hope was to remain undiscovered.

[End of Part 1]

Aftermath

According to the Kriegstagebuch, or daily log kept by Captain Struckmeier, the U-608 completed her mining operations according to orders, on November 10, 1942 and the next day was granted freedom of movement along the whole American coast to Newfoundland, for refueling and supplying.

On the 15th of November, U 608 sank a 5,000 ton freighter in sector BB 8898 on course 160. They returned to port, entering St. Nazaire on December 9, 1942 and didn’t go out again that month.

It was not an entirely uneventful return cruise though. Several interesting things happened to U-608 that I hope to further investigate. Immediately after laying the mines in New York, they were granted permission to explore the east coast of North America to Newfoundland. Interestingly enough, another German submarine had dropped off a spy in Canada, on the very same night as the New York operation.

I found a little information about this particular incident at the US Naval Historical Center’s online website:

“Werner Janowski, an agent landed on the coast of [southern shore of the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec] Canada [by U-518] early in November [9 Nov.] 1942, who was caught within a few hours through his stupidity in throwing away a box of Belgian matches in a hotel room and otherwise arousing the suspicions of civilians– to voluntary surrender on the part of the agent.”

[Reference http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq114-1.htm%5D

Later U-608 ran out of fuel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and drifted for several days, this occurring shortly after they had met with another ship to take on “air torpedoes” from a ship returning to port.

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