Two Sailors on Opposing Sides Survive WW2
edited by Tracy H. Turner
The Gunner’s Mate
As a Gunner’s Mate in the U.S. Navy, he had first been assigned to cargo ships in order to man guns placed aboard for defensive purposes in supply convoys to Russia. He was aboard two ships that were sunk, miraculously surviving each time, although listed as missing for a short time on one occasion. Sometime after this, he was assigned to U.S.S. LST-56; a ship built to land tanks and troops on the beach, which is exactly what they were doing at Normandy, France on 6 June 1944.
On that evening he went ashore as a volunteer on Omaha Beach with a group of sailors to help pick up casualties. Shortly after returning to the ship, he wrote the following letter about the air battles, artillery shelling, and the bewildering scene on the beach. Surviving the war, he came home, got married and raised a family. Below, in his own words, is his letter written from the ship at 8:25 p.m. sitting just off Normandy Beach immediately after he returned from picking up casualties.
USS LST -56, Omaha, Beach (Dog Red Sector), Normandy, France 6 June 1944, 8:25pm
You have probably heard the song “Just Before The Battle, Mother”, it goes on…”I am Thinking Most of You”. Well, that’s the way it is with me now, only the battle is well under way. You probably will never read this letter, in fact, it isn’t being written for that. My crew has just been relieved for a couple of hours and we are recommended to do something to keep our minds occupied so I am writing.
The time is exactly 2025 and this has been the worst day of my life. We are sitting about one half mile off the beach and about every ten or fifteen minutes the jerries are giving us a few rounds of 88’s. I just counted three going off while I was writing that last sentence. They must be getting too scared to aim anymore for those weren’t as close as the last ones. The day started about 0610 this morning. We sighted land and almost at the same time (that one was a little closer) had our first air raid. It only lasted about four or five minutes but they certainly seemed like hours to me. I counted seven planes but I know there were more. My crew got off sixteen rounds. We didn’t hit any as I saw but we must have sure scared the devil out of them for they didn’t come back until dusk this evening.
Talking about being scared, mom, you will never know how badly I was or am right now. I don’t think I have spoken more than a dozen words other than commands to my crew since daylight this morning. All I keep thinking of is you and Charlotte and wondering if you have the news yet that this is going on. I surely hope you have and that you are both praying for me-not only me but the rest of the boys here that are to die before the night is over. Also for the poor souls that have died out there already. You know, mom, a fellow never realizes how much God, his mother, and sweetheart mean to him until times like these, and believe me, I am certainly finding out now. I don’t know why I am so scared. I have been through sixteen air raids including the two today and ought to be getting used to being shot at by this time.
I wonder how some of these fellows sitting here feel being it’s their first time. It is getting to be a little different around here now. There are “E” boats on our starboard and coastal guns on our port and planes above. Thank God they don’t all come at once. To tell you a little of what happened to me today: first we came to within about one third of a mile from the beach. We couldn’t get much further because of the Texas firing directly in front of us and also mines and wrecks. We started to unload on barges at 0915 and were unloaded at 1330 and about the same time got the first shells thrown directly at us. We got two through number two and one through number one boat davits. No casualties. At 1600 we lowered two small boats to take Army personnel ashore and to pick up casualties.
That’s where hell really began. Big brave me volunteered to go ashore to pick up casualties. We got about ten or fifteen hundred yards to the beach and two small boats ahead of us hit a mine. I saw five soldiers and one sailor swimming afterward. I don’t know whether that was all that was left or not. The coxswain of the small boat fainted (I thought he was hit) and Ellett took charge. We hit the beach and a sight almost sickened me. There were rows and rows of soldiers on stretchers and some didn’t even have them. Some were dead, some were limbless. One, laying almost at the ramp of the boat, was without head or shoulders completely. (I think he was German). I think about one third of them were German there. There weren’t enough medics so ours had to take care of them, too. About the next thing that happened, I heard someone holler and our officer in charge was laying on the deck (or rather beach) shot through the head. He was about done for when I got there. We carried him to our boat. Finally we were loaded and started our return to the ship. How I ever lived through it I’ll never know. There were snipers not more than two hundred yards away. I didn’t see them but I saw the flash of their rifles. Our men were getting them slow but sure.
We got back to the ship and were unloaded by 1740. I ate a piece of bread (about all I could hold) and went to relieve the gun crew. It is about time for me to gather my crew and go back now. This is going to be a night of hell, so if I don’t pull through I will meet you and Charlotte on a better ship and dad will be the first mate.
U.S. Navy LST
This man, his wife and six-year-old son immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1955. He was in the German Navy during the war and was a radioman, or, as it was more commonly called at the time, a wireless operator and was assigned to a U-boat. The U-boat was homeported in Lorient, France and, as it turns out, was very successful in its operations.
Their successes ended on December 12th, 1943, in the middle Atlantic west of the Canary Islands. American destroyers and aircraft sank the submarine after a protracted fight with casualties on both sides and although the boat went to the bottom of the Atlantic, my friend was among those who survived. The battle lasted two days and employed three destroyers and several air attacks to destroy the German submarine.
The vast majority of sailors on German U-boats were lost at sea, being that over eight hundred were built and somewhere around seven hundred were sunk. His experience as a prisoner of war in the United States made him want to become an American citizen. He was a prisoner of war for about four years in which he was treated good enough to want to move to America with his wife and son. This is a man that doesn’t take America or its freedoms and responsibilities for granted.
Below, in his own words, is his account of the sinking of his submarine, his capture, and prisoner of war experience in the United States.
On the U-172 1000 Feet Below the Enemy, 6th And Final Patrol
We left our homeport, Lorient, France on November 13, 1943 on a chilly gray day with deep hanging clouds. We didn’t like this kind of weather too much, as those clouds could be good cover for enemy airplanes. Our sub was 750 tons with a crew of 60 and we had 20 torpedoes aboard. Our course was toward St. Nazaire, about a hundred mile cruise southwest of our homeport, Lorient, to pick up 2 special torpedoes. We arrived there without any enemy interference and found our former skipper was port commander. We were there for a couple days and I remember a couple of things that happened, one of which, I didn’t like too much.
We drove into one of the sub bunkers with 10-foot thick concrete built to withstand enemy attacks and hit the concrete wall smashing part of the hull. They patched the hole quickly but we heard that it wasn’t done perfectly to save time. The other incident was that our former skipper gave our new skipper his knit stocking cap for good luck. Nobody could foresee that this cap would nearly bring death to all of us. We all knew the danger ahead of us and I personally had the feeling that this would be my last trip and if I were lucky, I would end up being a prisoner of war.
Ahead of us was the Bay of Biscay, or “grave of the U-boats” that we had to pass through to reach the open Atlantic. As a rule, we surfaced for a couple hours at night to restore oxygen and batteries. One night, just after surfacing, we saw enemy planes approaching and went down as fast as possible. We went down all right, but something went wrong, as water came through the hatch into the boat. We had no choice but to surface again and found that the skipper’s “good luck” hat had got caught in the seal as he had jumped into the boat while diving. The only bad thing from this was that the nerves took another beating.
On the 9th of December we met a tanker (also a U-boat) and we were told we could send two letters. I wrote my father and girlfriend to tell them that the worst is over and not to worry about my return. On the 12th of December the skipper announced that we would remain surfaced in order to reach our destination on schedule. While running on the surface, an airplane shot out of the clouds and flew over but didn’t drop any bombs. We dove away and stood at about 300 feet, then picked up the sound of ships above. All of a sudden, there was a terrible explosion, the boat jumped up and down, lights went out and I thought it was the end. It was an American destroyer dropping depth charges, and caused serious damages. The explosions caused the welds on the hasty repairs from the concrete bunker accident to break loose and we were leaving an oil track on the surface for the enemy to see. How wrong the people were when they said I had a nice job in this war, because when there is trouble, all you have to do is dive. They didn’t know that most of our subs went down taking all men with them.
We were running out of oxygen and battery power as the depth charges continued and we went down past maximum depth. We had no choice but to surface and we had to transfer air from torpedoes to blow water from the ballast tanks to get there. I give the good Lord alone credit for getting us to the surface. We were in the middle of 4 American destroyers and as I was getting out my best friend wished me good luck and it appeared he gave his luck to me as he died while I survived.
As I was swimming away from the sinking U-boat, I didn’t feel too bad. I was seeing daylight for the first time in a long time, the sun was shining, and I knew this terrible war was over for me. For a moment, I was thinking of a song I loved: “There Are No Roses on A Sailor’s Grave, No Lilies on an Ocean Wave; The Only Tribute Is the Seagull’s Sweeps, And The Teardrops That A Sweetheart Weeps”.
We were picked up after being in the water for 2 and a half-hours. On December 29th, we arrived in Norfolk to a large crowd welcoming the ships back home. I became a prisoner of war for about 4 years, during which time I picked cotton, turnips, and worked in motor pools. I was in 13 different states including Florida, Arizona, and Utah. We couldn’t speak to the American people but we could see that the living standards were much higher than in Germany. People seemed more relaxed. The first words I learned were “keep smiling”, “o.k.” and “take it easy”.
As a prisoner, we had food, clothing, and were paid 80 cents a day.In September 1947 I went home with one thought in mind. I wanted to go back to the United States and become an American citizen if at all possible. This great wish of mine came true in 1955 and I had the opportunity to visit Norfolk as a free American citizen. I talked to quite a few fellows, men we gave a hard time to during this past war and also men who chased us, but there are no hard feelings, as we all had to do our job. America is a great country but please, don’t take everything for granted, try to appreciate what you’ve got and be thankful to be a free citizen.
Crew on deck of U-172 during the war
These two sailors from two countries at war with each other and their stories have historical significance and comprise a deep, heart-felt irony that should be shared. World War Two veterans won’t always be around to remind us of lessons that should have been learned from that conflict. Lessons and memories that could temper future and even current world contentions have a tendency to be forgotten with the passing of this generation. No one wants war but these stories should remind us of what Thomas Paine, author and first to use the term, “United States”, said in 1777; “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it”.