German Submarine 7 Miles off the Coast of Rhode Island Serves as a Reminder of War and Its Costs

Bill Palmer shows off his WWII pistol he found in the sunken submarine, U-853.
Bill Palmer shows off his WWII pistol he found in the sunken submarine, U-853.

According to Bill Palmer, the German U-Boat that is beneath 130 feet of water about 7 miles of Rhode Island’s Block Island is a time capsule.

Palmer is a former Army paratrooper and a retired youth athletic coach, has made a great number of dives to the wreckage of the U-835. He has brought up some amazing treasures from the past. Some of these items include things like watches, uniforms, a harmonica, submarine components and even a pistol which he proudly displays in his basement.

While the nation prepares for Veterans day, a few sailors who took part in the Battle of Point Judith and survived, stand as reminders of how close the Second World War came to the US shores. A small service is held every November to remember those 55 German sailors who died so far from home. The German submarine, known as U-853, was sunk the day before Nazi Germany surrendered–thus ending the war. Germany’s naval authorities had ordered all U-boats to return home. It is unknown of the captain of the U-853 ignored the orders, or never received them.

May 5, 1945 near Point Judith, Rhode Island, the submarine torpedoed and sank the SS Black Point, which was carrying coal from New York to Boston. Twelve men died as a result of the strike against Black Point. It was the last US merchant ship to be sunk in the Atlantic Ocean during the war. Navy ships was nearby, en route to shore leave in Boston. Kenneth Homberger who was on board the USS Atherton planned to jump on a train back to Quincy, Ill.

‘‘We were right over the horizon when it happened,’’ said Homberger, now 89. ‘‘We always played tag out there with those subs, but we never really knew if we nailed one of them. This time we knew. ‘‘We had a crackerjack sonar man. He would call out the bearings [of the sub], and the skipper would maneuver the ship,’’ Homberger recalled. ‘‘We finally sank that baby about midnight. I was manning one of the search lights. We saw a long line of bubbles coming up. Then there was oil and debris. Then we saw what was thought to be the skipper’s hat.’’

All the men who were on board the U-853 died after depth charges from Atherton and the USS Moberly hit home. Atherton’s commander was Lewis Iselin who was a sculptor who attended Harvard. He passed away in 1990. Iselin rarely spoke about his role in one of the final naval conflicts between US and Nazi Germany. Sarah Iselin, Lewis’ daughter, told the Boston Globe, ‘‘He would talk more about the war in the Pacific, the exotic experiences he had. He didn’t enjoy talking about the bad part of the war.’’

The submarine is a popular diving spot, even though it can be a hazard to those who do not know how to properly and safely navigate tight spaces underwater. Three people are known to have lost their lives while trying to explore the submarine. ‘‘If you haven’t been diving long, you shouldn’t try it,’’ said Bob Cembrola, a diver, marine archaeologist and a curator at the Naval War College Museum in Newport. ‘‘People think about World War II, and they think about the Pacific and Europe, but it was going on right here. You think of all the guys that died in that sub and the senselessness of it.’’

The submarine is now considered a war grave and it is now illegal to remove items from the U-853.

During the 1950s and the 60s, there were rumors that the submarine contained treasures like money, gold, or gems that were smuggled out of Germany. Some even believe the submarine contains a million dollars’ worth of mercury. There have even been proposals to raise the sunken U-boat. The submarines propellers were brought up and they are now in a warehouse at the Naval War College. Cembrola hopes to include the propellers in a special exhibit of the U-853.

In 1960, a diver brought a skeleton up to the surface. The local clergymen, naval officers and even the German government were outraged by this. The skeleton was buried in Newport with full military honors. A small memorial service is held at the German’s grave. It is marked by a stone that reads in German, “An unknown German seaman from U-853.”

His fellow crew members remain in the sunken submarine. Over time, the bones will dissolve and eventually disappear. All that will remain of the U-boat will be a rusted hull on the bottom of the sea and a notation over the area on nautical charts stating: ‘‘Danger, unexploded depth charge, May 1945.’’

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE