June 4 is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the most eventful day of 1942’s Battle of Midway, that epic moment when the Japan’s naval juggernaut ran out of luck and was pummeled by a group of American aviators.
But the day also marks the occasion when U.S. Navy sailors, for the first time since the days of sail, captured an enemy man-of-war on the high seas — something that no one, even in 1944, ever thought would happen again.
Capt. Daniel Gallery, commander of a hunter-killer strike group based around the escort carrier USS GUADALCANAL (CVE 60), devised the plan to capture a U-boat. He’d noticed that, when forced by depth-charge attack to the surface, German sailors were abandoning their submarines in such haste that they weren’t stopping to set scuttling charges, relying instead on Allied forces to do the job of sinking their ships. Gallery gathered his captains, told them to prepare their crews to seize the moment if such a scenario arose.
And it did. About 150 miles off the African coast, Gallery’s task group, including the destroyer escorts PILLSBURY (DE 133), POPE (DE 134), FLAHERTY (DE 135), CHATELAIN (DE 149) and JENKS (DE 665) chased and attacked a German submarine, the U-505. Just as Gallery had predicted, the damaged German submarine broke the surface, was raked with machine-gun fire from the American warships, and its crew scrambled to abandon their sinking ship. Just as quickly, American sailors aboard whaleboats from the escorts moved in.
The sub was still moving, although slowly. It was down by the stern, with water sloshing inside three flooded compartments. Lt. (j.g.) Albert David and an eight-man boarding team leapt to the stricken submarine, not knowing if scuttling charges would go off at any moment.
But they didn’t — the Germans hadn’t set them to explode. Although the outcome was in doubt until the U-boat could be brought under control, Gallery’s team had brought off one of the great intelligence coups of the Atlantic war – the capture of an operational U-boat, complete with code books and machines, charts and weapons. The submarine was then towed 1,700 miles to Bermuda for a more complete examination.
On June 6, allied forces invaded Normandy, France — D-Day — and the newspapers, radio and newsreels couldn’t get enough information about the new ground war, or about the fall of Rome, Italy a day earlier. But the men of the GUADALCANAL task group held their silence, unable to reveal the capture for fear of alerting the Germans to the loss of their secrets. It wasn’t until after the end of World War II that the capture could be revealed.
While all the ships and aircraft in the escort group have long been scrapped, the U-505 lives on, in a sheltered display at Chicago’s Science Museum.
Read the U.S. Navy’s account of the capture.
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