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Sinking of U-869

USS HOWARD D. CROW DE 252

From the Times Union

An old war story with a new ending.
A German submarine discovered off the New Jersey coast in 1991 inspired a book and a revised history.


By BRUCE A. SCRUTON, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

ALBANY -- The gray-haired men sat with mugs of coffee, telling a war story. It's an old story, but they now tell a new ending -- how their ship sank a German U-boat more than 60 years ago.

Thanks to a chance encounter by some divers in 1991 and the persistence of a few of them, the history of how two vessels met with fatal results in World War II is now coming to light.

The obsession about the USS Howard D. Crow - sent to the scrap yard in the late 1970s - and submarine U-869 -- sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey in 1945 - became the bestseller "Shadow Divers," published last year.

While the book focuses on the divers and to some extent the crew of the ill-fated submarine, this group of coffee drinkers -- some of the Coast Guardsmen who manned the Crow -- is in Albany as part of a reunion of destroyer escort crews. One stop was a Tuesday visit to the USS Slater, the lone surviving destroyer escort from World War II.

The men recalled that it was late afternoon on that Feb. 11, 1945, when the Crow was accompanying a convoy of supply ships across the Atlantic Ocean to England.

Ted Sieviec was on duty in a gun turret. Howard Denson was the sonar operator. Harold Muth, who was to serve 34 years in the Coast Guard, retiring as a captain, was an ensign on duty in the ship's Combat Information Center.

Denson, now 82, heard the sonar "ping" of a metallic object -- a submarine, he reported to the sonar officer. That belief was strong enough that the crew went to battle stations. Sieviec, now 81, moved from his gun turret to fire a "hedgehog," so-named because its pattern of 24 forward-firing missiles made it resemble the animal.

Denson, a "plank owner," or original crew member of the Crow, kept listening to the sound running ahead of the ship, reporting its direction and range. In the CIC, the target's direction was being plotted.

The hedgehog fired and bubbles and an oil slick rose from the deep. Depth charges were dropped. More bubbles. More oil.

Confident a submarine was below, the ship's captain called for help from another destroyer escort, the USS Koiner, and a task force whose sole duty was to hunt down and destroy the enemy. The Koiner also dropped depth charges.

But as darkness fell, there was no other debris. The target was not moving. The convoy was moving off and needed protection. The Koiner's captain, the ranking officer on the scene, determined the "submarine" was probably a sunken wreck and called off the attack. The task force was canceled. The two ships rejoined the convoy.

"Many of us were sure we had a submarine," recalled Muth, as he and his shipmates recounted the events. "You don't get bubbles from an old sunk fishing trawler."

But the war continued. Other missions -- a dozen convoy escorts during the war for the Crow -- were accomplished. Muth said "in two years, we made five, six attacks on what we thought were submarines."

But there were no confirmed sinkings.

During World War II, being a German submariner was one of the conflict's most dangerous occupations. An estimated 80 percent of the men who went to sea in U-boats did not return.

"I think the greatest sailors were the submariners, on both sides," said Muth.

"Oh, yeah. You couldn't get me to go down in one of those," said Denson.

Yet for all the losses, only about 40 percent of the lost U-boats were ever officially credited. Many sallied forth, made one or two radio contacts with German naval headquarters, and were swallowed by the sea.

The U-869 was one of those subs credited, however. Based on captured German records after the war, U.S. Navy officials determined that the sub had been ordered away from its original destination off the New Jersey coast to patrol near Gibraltar. A sub was sunk in that area about the time the U-869 would have been there. The logic fit.

In 1991, divers made the unexpected discovery -- a German submarine in 230 feet of water, 60 miles off the New Jersey coast. Successive dives over six years found evidence it was the U-869.

So the mystery deepened. How could a submarine, believed to have been sunk in Gibraltar, come to lie on the ocean floor thousands of miles away? And, more importantly, what caused her to sink?

The divers discovered two holes in the sub, one in the conning tower and one over the aft torpedo room. The first theory that the sub had been sunk by one of its own torpedoes that circled back didn't work. Torpedoes don't hit the top of a ship, even a submarine.

Those holes led to one other explanation: an attack from a surface ship. Exhaustive searches found the log of the Crow detailing its Feb. 11 attack. The coordinates of that attack put it less than five miles from where the U-869 was discovered.

The sub's captain had been an aviator in the German Navy but transferred to the submarine service. He was given just a few months of training then put in command of one of the Reich's newest submarines.

Hellmut Neuerburg was 28.

He probably never got the radioed orders changing course. Youth provided no experience in escaping.

The crew of the Crow held its first reunion in 1984 and, according to Sieviec, there was some reminiscing about the attack.

"But there wasn't any big deal. It wasn't the topic," said Basil Philippy, 80, a seaman in 1944.

During the 1991 dive, PBS created, then aired a documentary about the discovery. Some crewmen from the Crow saw the show and the phones began ringing. Many in the crew knew their beliefs would be verified.

While evidence is strong and verbal assurances given that Crow's history is to be rewritten, "it's not official until it's written down," said Philippy.

"I hope it is written soon," he added. "There's fewer and fewer of us every year. Next year might be the last."

Bruce A. Scruton can be reached at 454-5462 or by e-mail at bscruton@timesunion.com.


All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.
 

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