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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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