U boat crew saved by airship
9th July 1942: Seven out of thirty-six men survive 49 hours in the water after first successful attack by the USAAF off the East Coast of America
At 2015 on the 7th July 1942 U-701 was caught on the surface some 30 miles off Cape Hatteras and bombed. It was an important moment in the U-Boat war - the first U-boat sunk by the United States Army Air Force off the American East Coast during Battle of the Atlantic. The ‘Second Happy Time’ - during which over 600 ships were torpedoed off the east coast - was finally coming to an end.
With the control room flooding and the U boat at 15-20 metres, the first group of seventeen men escaped through the conning tower hatch. As many as thirty-six men in total may have escaped from the U-Boat but the groups became separated - and deaths quickly multiplied once they were in the water
They had with them three escape lungs and one life preserver. The aircraft that had attacked them, a Hudson belonging to US Army Bomb Squadron 396 piloted by Lt. Harry Kane, had dropped two more life preservers and smoke floats. Apart from that they were alone swimming in the sea.
Two men decided to attempt to swim to land and were never seen again. One non-swimmer drowned within the first hour.
On the 8th they saw various planes apparently searching for them, but a succession of men began to drown. Then a Coast Guard vessel came within 200 metres of them. Still they were not spotted.
‘As the sea was still like a pond, I kept up the practice of discarding my life preserver, saying that I would swim to shore. I assumed that with a few strokes I would feel bottom under my feet and would be able to stand up, but every time I tried this I went under.’
Kapitänleutnant Horst Degen - Commanding Officer of U-701 - was to later recollect the final events1:
July 9, 0300
With the coming of darkness we huddled close together in order to survive in this way also the second night. Fortunately the sea subsided. We found a lemon and a cocoanut. Each man received a swallow of cocoanut milk, a piece of the meat and everyone had the opportunity to suck the lemon. A tremendous refreshment! Our thirst was awful, and the large quantities of salt water burned mouth, nose and stomach. (The cocoanut was opened by VAUPEL with the greatest exertion with the help of the oxygen flask from the escape lung.)
In the course of the night the following drowned: LEU, MICHALEK, LASKOWSKI. All three men were delirious and yelled terribly.
At dawn my strength began to leave me too. I seem to recollect vaguely that I talked nonsense and that KUNERT kept on quieting me. As the sea was still like a pond, I kept up the practice of discarding my life preserver, saying that I would swim to shore. I assumed that with a few strokes I would feel bottom under my feet and would be able to stand up, but every time I tried this I went under. That would bring me to again and I would swim back to the life preserver. This occurrence must have happened many times. Then I lost consciousness.
I awakened as though I had been asleep when I suddenly heard myself called. About 30 meters away sat KUNERT, VAUPEL, and GROTHEER making for me in a white rubber boat. I was taken into the boat as KUNERT was about to open a can of pineapple with a knife. Out of a can already opened GROTHEER gave me tomatoes to eat, and all the while a Zeppelin airship circled about us.
The situation was as follows: The airship had sighted us and thrown the rubber boat into the sea. Shortly thereafter a large rubber sack was also thrown down. In this we found: 1 small first aid kit, 2 loaves of white bread, 1 sack of water. All this happened in the late afternoon.
‘I could not ascertain how they were saved. It is doubtful that there were any others who were saved. We were told that we were picked up 90 sea miles north of the place where the ship sank (Gulf Stream!)’
As the coastal waters are thoroughly oily, we were completely covered with a black layer of oil. Now, while in the boat, the sun shone down upon us, and this resulted in a terrible sunburn.
Around 2300 a large flying boat arrived and took us on board. We were given water and hot coffee. All four of us were completely finished. We shall probably never forget this 49 hour endurance swim. Thus we have escaped the "reaper" to whom we had already given our hand. The U-boat heaven lay open before us, and KUNERT said that he was already looking forward to the first half liter they would serve him there.
We were delivered to the Navy Hospital at Norfolk where we were treated with the greatest care and attention and made into human beings once more. There we found three other survivors.
I could not ascertain how they were saved. It is doubtful that there were any others who were saved. We were told that we were picked up 90 sea miles north of the place where the ship sank (Gulf Stream!)