Close call for a Tin Can Sailor, Part I.
It WAS a whim that landed Robert A. Maher in the navy. One day in August 1940, he was outside his family's Kearny, New Jersey, home when a carload of his friends drove up. They were going to enlist in the naval reserve, so he went, too. After committing himself to active duty whenever the navy decided to summon him, Maher learned that all his friends had been rejected for one reason or another. He was on his own.
The navy came calling in November 1940. Soon, 22-year-old Maher was aboard the USS Borie (DD-215), a four-stacker destroyer built in 1919--the sort of ship sailors called a "tin can. " When the United States entered World War II, the Borie served off Panama and in the Caribbean. But her defining moments would come in 1943, fighting German U-boats in the Atlantic.
Maher and his fellow Borie sailors would be tested severely in combat with the German submarine U-405 on the night of November 1, 1943, and in an ordeal of survival the following day. In this first installment of a two-part account, Maher recounts Borie's epic battle with U-405 in the North Atlantic.
Maher's role aboard the Borie was fire controlman, requiring him to maintain and operate equipment that aimed and fired the destroyer's guns. His battle station above the ship's bridge gave him a privileged, if harrowing, view of the battle with U-405.
In late October 1943, our Task Group (TG) 21.14, consisting of the carrier USS Card and the destroyers USS Borie, USS Barry, and USS Golf, received reports of the location of a U-boat refueling concentration [U-boats refilling their tanks from a fuel-carrying sub]. TG 21.14 was commanded by Captain [Arnold J.] Isbell, the commanding officer of the Card, who immediately ordered the group to proceed to the reported position....
We arrived in the area about midday, between the Azore Islands and Iceland and smack dab between Newfoundland and Ireland. Our aircraft started hunting and on the afternoon of October 30 a U-boat was spotted and attacked by Lieutenant Junior Grade (JG) Fryatt [pilot of a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber from the Card.]. The U-boat dove and Fryatt's bomb missed, but we knew that we were in the proper hunting ground.
It was always exciting operating with a carrier.... Most of the time we knew what was happening because our PA system was hooked into the radio network between ships and aircraft. On October 31, at about 1600 [4 P.M.], we heard the excited cry from Lieutenant JG Fowler [an Avenger pilot], "Two bogies on the surface!"
After the report [Fryatt and Fowler] descended to 500 feet and stayed behind the boats, which were U-91 and U-584..., until more of the Card's squadron could arrive.... U-91 wisely submerged and escaped just before the arrival of two more Avenger aircraft, piloted by Lt. JGs Balliet and MacAuslan. As these planes closed in, Fowler and Balliet each dropped a "Fido" [MK24 acoustic homing torpedo] on each side of U-584.... [The sub] went to her doom a few seconds later.
Because of reports from the pilots, Captain Isbell thought that the escaping sub was a "milk cow," a U-boat used to refuel and provision other subs. Sinking a milk cow would shorten the patrol of other submarines with obvious benefits. With this thought in mind, the Borie was ordered to search further.
Captain [then Lieutenant Charles] Hutchins, our commanding officer, informed us over the sound system that we had "volunteered" to search for the escaping U-boat. Amongst the cheers of all hands at sunset and moderate seas, we set off towards the area of last contact. We young bucks, dumb and happy, were really excited....
On arrival at the designated area, we went to general quarters [a state of combat readiness, with all hands at battle stations] and started to conduct our search with both radar and sound gear [sonar]. My battle station being just above the bridge, I could hear the steady "ping" of the sound gear...as the outgoing sound pulses were lost in the vastness of the distant water. At 2010 [8 P.M.] I suddenly heard the cry, "Radar contact, bearing 095 degrees, range 6500 yards...."
With a hard turn to a heading of 095, the Borie crashed through the waves toward the enemy at a speed of 22 1/2 knots. Radar contact was maintained, but at 1,700 yards, we opened up with star shells. Boom! Boom! Boom! The sky came alive with bright flares.
Meantime, the sonar kept up its monotonous "Ping, Ping, Ping." Nothing was seen. I heard, "Radar contact lost." Almost at once was heard "Ping BOING! Ping BOING!"--the sound of the returning echoes, which was followed instantly by the cry "Sound contact!" ...The sub had submerged; we lost radar contact at exactly the same bearing we had obtained sound contact.
Slowing down to 15 knots, we now made a depth charge run, after losing underwater contact at 150 yards. Bombs were dropped and along with them a light marker float. KAABOOM! There was one hell of an explosion, it rattled our ship and blew out fuses. Within minutes we were heading for the light marker and again I heard the sound echo "Ping BOING! Ping BOING!" along with [the] cry, "Sound contact," followed by range and bearing. The odor of oil was detected as we approached for the second attack....
As we turned to make yet another attack, it was reported that the sub could be seen on the surface, but no one on the flying bridge saw it. However, sound contact was made again. Another depth charge attack was ordered. Afterwards sound contact was lost.... We searched for three hours for evidence of destruction, but nothing was found. Captain Hutchins radioed back to the Card, "Scratch one pig boat! The milk cow is done for."
Wrong on both counts--it was not a milk cow and it was not sunk.... We had found an attack submarine, U-256.... After the war it was found out that U-256 had managed, in spite of severe damage, to make it home to Germany....
We continued hunting. And bingo! "Radar contact bearing 170 range 8000," came the shout from below.... From Captain Hutchins, "All ahead full. Come left to course 170." From the helmsman, "Left to 170, Sir." The sea was moderate. It was about 2 A.M. as the ship's speed increased to 27 knots. Excitement building up in the crew could be felt by all.
At about 2,000 yards radar contact was lost. But again we heard the returning echoes, "Ping BOING! Ping BOING!" The order was given to let go depth charges. My exact response to what happened was "Holy shit!" Because of a malfunction, all of the depth charges in the two racks rolled into the ocean at once! The resulting explosion lifted our stern and caused the ship to surge forward, but the job was done. Nothing could survive that, right? Wrong! Looking back towards the marker flare, I was first to see it--the conning tower of U-405.
I cried out, but not in the true navy fashion, "There it is, about 40 feet to the right of the flare!" Radar contact was obtained, and with that we turned on our 24-inch searchlight.... We were able to keep U405 ... illuminated for the entire one-hour battle that was to follow. The conning tower appeared just off the port quarter and on it could be seen a large white polar bear....
As leading fire controlman my battle station was director firer, and Jim Allegri was director trainer. In director control of fire [a system that used a central electromechanical calculator to sight all the ship's guns automatically and allow the director firer to trigger them], the director aimed and fired all the main battery in unison with pointer--me--pressing the fire key. As the guns came to bear, the order was given to fire. I pressed the key and three four-inch projectiles exploded as one in the vicinity of U-405's main deck gun, obliterating it before it was even manned.
Depending on the range, the main battery gun's fire control switched from director control to local control [control by the gun crew] throughout the battle. As the main battery continued its BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! the 20mm guns opened up with devastating power, made even more spectacular by the one-in-five tracer bullets that made it possible to follow all the streams from the machine guns.
The roar and smell of battle was just unimaginable. Watching results of the covering streams of 20mm was both horrifying and fascinating.... I really believe that the machine gun fire sweeping across the deck is what finally doomed U-405. Apparently U-405 could not submerge.... It tried to escape into the darkness, at the same time sending men out to man the machine guns. In the first few moments they were wiped clean off the platform with our machine gun fire. For some reason men started to come out of the forward hatch about five at a time, and started an impossible dash of about 30 feet to get their guns. No one ever made it. They were knocked bodily over the side, arms and legs flying....
The speed and evasive tactics of U-40S were very impressive. We tried to maintain parallel course to keep all guns bearing on target. The submarine's turning cycle was smaller than ours and I now know that she could do 17 1/2 knots on the surface. U-405 made good use of both of these features....
Captain Hutchins managed to keep guns bearing most of the time in spite of our larger turning circle.... I was sure that we were going to collide, not ram.... Just as we were about to smash, I swear the U-boat turned on all its power, picking up enough speed to pass right under our noses. Looking down, I could see the shining faces of the Germans that were still on the bridge....
At one time, I don't remember exactly when, but probably about halfway into battle, there came from the conning tower a number of what appeared to be Very pistol [flare gun] rounds. It was not any recognition signal known to any of us. It seemed that U-40S either stopped or at least slowed down to an almost stopped position. And then a man appeared on the bridge in the bright shiny light of our searchlight and started to wave his arms in a crosswards movement.... Shortly before this, [our] gun captain's telephone lines had tangled in the empty shell cases that were by now rolling all about the deck. Getting frustrated, he had torn the phones off and thrown them down to the deck. Seeing the man on the deck of U-405 waving, Captain Hutchins commanded "Cease fire!" but the galley deckhouse four-inch guns continued to fire.
Hutchins now tried to shout directly across to the gun crew and could plainly be heard by us on the flying bridge, "Cease fire! Cease fire!" Unfortunately, however, it couldn't be heard above the noise on the galley deckhouse and the big gun continued to boom out its death shots.... Within a few minutes the trunk of [the German's] body stood there momentarily, arms extended, but his head disappeared. It was a sight that would give me nightmares for many months....
U-405 picked up speed and started to make evasive courses again. The battle continued much as before with U-405 attempting to get away or train a torpedo tube on us, or both. We meanwhile were trying to close the range, either to ram or fire a depth bomb.
"Stand by for a ram!" The order was given to me by [Lieutenant] Walter Dietz, the gunnery officer, for me to relay it to the rest of the gunnery division by our fire control phone system. The last five minutes or so had been very frustrating but very exciting.... Because the range had closed so much, almost to point-blank, we were unable to use the gun director and for a short time we were only spectators.... I watched as if it were a game, the beautiful arching tracers of the 20mm guns and the smashing four-inch projectiles hitting the subs. Some of them careened off the rounded hull into the darkness as a dull red wobbling glow. I watched with fascination the German sailors being knocked over the side, flying over the side, while trying to man their machine guns. As each one went over another would take his place. Bravery or desperation?
"Stand by for a ram!" I was suddenly brought back to reality, "Stand by for a ram!" I passed it to the men at their battle stations.... I could see our bow crashing up and down, rapidly closing on U-405 still in our searchlight beam. I started to think, "Holy Mackerel, if we hit them at this speed I'm going to sail right over the windscreen and onto the deck." I got behind the range finder and placed my hand on it in front of me and I thought "Hell no, this way I will get my face smashed," and then moved in front and put my arms over the range finder behind my back, preparing myself for the crash....
As we came closer to a 90-degree angle just before ramming, I could see the Germans in the bright light still trying to come up with some kind of defense, scurrying around and near the conning tower. No one could deny that they had courage.... Almost at the point of impact, U-405 made a sudden turn to the port side trying to parallel our course and of course to make us miss. Their move was too late! We went at them now at about a 30-degree angle, lickety split.... I closed my eyes, held my breath and prayed for the best. Sneaking a peek with one eye I saw our bow about to crash into the U-405, and I saw the fear in the eyes of one German as he tried to get aside. Holding tighter, I waited... Nothing. I looked up and saw that we were astride the sub with our bow just forward of the conning tower! Just before impact, a large wave had caused us to rise above and over their deck.
For a moment there was a stunned low in everyone's action and thoughts. Now all hell broke loose on both sides. To our regret, the flying bridge had no small arms, so except for the phone messages, we were only spectators. In fact, from our vantage point directly below the searchlight and looking straight down on the conning tower and circled by the bright beam, it looked more like a Hollywood epic than an actual battle. I could see the polar bear symbol clearly and also the machine guns they had been trying to keep manned....
Ed Johnson started in with his 20mm mount, depressing [it] so that at first he had to shoot away the windscreen before hitting into the men on U-405's deck.... Dick Wenz, upon hearing the order to ram, had broke open the steel small arms locker and passed them out to the men on deck....
The flying bridge was almost exactly overhead of the conning tower, so as mentioned before we had a great viewing spot.... Except for a few zips as machine gun fire went by, we weren't aware of being a target and their fire was not enough to distract us from the tableau unfolding below us.
I saw Johnson open up, and the explosion as the first shot hit the windscreen. Many years later Eddie was telling me that he never got over feeling bad about killing all those men with his machine gun. I saw Walter Kurtz throw a four-inch shell casing into a group of men standing near the conning tower. From below on the bridge, I saw a bright flash from a Very pistol and then watched a bright ball of fire arc across into a man's chest. He went down, rolled over with his chest burning, a sight I will never forget. One of the range finder operators, a fearless kid, after watching for a while, started to scream, "Kill! Kill! Kill the bastards!" The day before he would not have killed a fly. I found out later that he had been nicked in the hand by a bullet just before.
Lieutenant Dietz repeated an order to me from the bridge. "We will not board. We will not board." My first reaction was "No shit!" This didn't go over well at the time but later on the remark was forgotten. I then got a call from the fire control man at the fire control switchboard, which was isolated by dogged-down hatches. "What the hell is going on up there?" He didn't even know that we had rammed U-405.
I saw one German reach out with his hands as if he wanted to be helped aboard Borie, but no one offered to help. Small wonder, as they were still firing their machine guns!
...I was stunned and impressed with the size of U-405. From my vantage point I could see that it was almost as large as our ship of about 300 feet long, which was large for a sub during WWII. I also had been impressed by its speed and maneuverability before we tangled with her.... (After the war, I was to find out that U-405 was only 220 feet long. It's strange what stress will do to your judgment....)
We on the flying bridge didn't know it yet, but the Borie had received serious underwater damage to both engine rooms, with the forward engine room already flooded by the time that we separated. It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably between 10 and 15 minutes. When we separated, U-405 made a mad dash into the night with Borie firing whatever guns she could bear and doing it very effectively. A four-inch shell was seen to explode into the sub's starboard diesel exhaust but it didn't seem to slow it down any....
Range opened to about 500 yards, we fired one torpedo, but missed because of one of [U-405's] fast, tight turns. U-405 continued circling in a very tight turn which the Borie could not match, plus Borie's movements were hampered by the flooded engine room. We did however maintain our murderous shelling and by now between 20 and 30 of the sub's crew had been killed while trying to man their guns.
Not being able to close range on U-405 because of the difference in the radius of turning circles, Captain Hutchins used a clever ruse. He ordered the searchlight turned off and of course the sub immediately tried to escape into the dark of night. Now we tracked them by radar until they were in a position that was to our advantage. With our entire starboard gun battery bearing on U-405, "On searchlight!
Commence firing!" came the command, and U-405 then came under heavy damaging gunfire. We started to close to ram again, but before we hit, U-405 turned into our starboard quarter and seeing an advantage, Hutchins swung our ship hard to port, using both rudder end engines. The move brought us to a parallel course to U405 and within range of our depth charges.
Three charges were fired with a perfect straddle--one over and two short. Boom! Boom! Boom! All three exploded at a depth of 30 feet. We not only heard the explosions, they damn near knocked our socks off, since we were almost dead in the water. What we felt was nothing compared to what it must have been like on the sub.
U-405 appeared to lift out of the water and it almost stopped, thus ending what appeared to be an attempt to ram us while heading directly into our still heavy gun fire.... But then they turned toward our stern and apparently tried to get away, but now their speed was just not enough. They were on our starboard side heading way aft of us. We closed on them again. We started to circle around to our port side, so at first the range opened up. At almost 700 yards the torpedoes in the port tubes were ready.
Hutchins ordered "Stand by to fire torpedoes!" Tom Neary, sitting on the torpedo tubes, matched pointers with the torpedo director, the unit that measures the proper angle so that the fish hits the target. At just about firing time, this first salvo of the main battery let go with the usual jolt throughout the ship causing the engine room hatch to jump open. The open hatch stopped the tracking of the tube just before we heard the whiz of the fish leaving the tube.... All of us on the bridge could see it charge through the water on its death mission and we watched in fascination as yet another tableau emerged.
This time fate was on the side of U-405 as we watched our torpedo slither by their bow, missing it by about 10 feet. In the meantime, we were still firing all guns.... Shortly after the torpedo missed, we again hit the sub's starboard diesel exhaust, which finally brought U-405 to a standstill.
Out of the conning tower came showers of Very stars, splashed the night with white, red, and green lights indicating that they were at last ready to surrender. This time Captain Hutchins' order to cease fire was heeded by all guns and the night was silent.... One or two men appeared from the conning tower and started to throw yellow two-man life rafts into the water. They were tied together and gave the impression of a string of very large hot dogs.
U-405 was now settling fast by the stern but what was left of the crew, about 20, managed to get off and over to their rafts.... U-405...went into an almost vertical position and went down. An underwater explosion was felt soon after. The German survivors in their raft continued to fire Very stars as we moved slowly towards them, still in our searchlight beam. It was thought that they were signaling another sub, as a white star was reported in the distance.
With survivors just off our port bow and so close we could see their shining faces looking at us, sound operator Potter reported a torpedo, bearing 220. Hutchins ordered hard to port, heading 220, all available speed. This heading unfortunately caused us to go through the group of survivors. I definitely remember seeing the face of one young boy as I looked straight down on him. His eyes were wide and his mouth was also wide open in a silent scream as he extended both arms, hoping to be picked up.
This was not to be, as someone had reported seeing a torpedo traveling down along our port side. All of us were upset because we had to leave them, but we hoped that the other sub would rescue them once the battle was over. They were no longer the enemy, but were brave fellow seamen. In the light of what was to follow, they would not have been much better off ...
Bob Maher retired to Florida after a career with Bell Telephone Laboratories. See our October 2009 issue for the second part of his story. Harry Cooper is head of Sharkhunters International, an enterprise focused on WWII U-boat history, online at www.sharkhunters.com.