Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Submarine is Lost,Yet its Legend Persists

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Oberleutnant Hans Sanger was the highest ranking of 29 Kriegsmarine personnel whose bodies were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean after the destroyer Roper (DD-147) sank their Unterseeboote (U-Boat) early on the morning of April 14, 1942.  They were buried at Hampton National Cemetery the following evening, where they remain to this day. (M.C. Farrington)  
Shortly past midnight on April 14, 1942, USS Jessie M. Roper (DD-147), a WW1-era Wickes-class destroyer, made radar contact with a suspected German submarine operating on the surface. “The night was clear, with many stars visible; the sea was very nearly calm,” noted the Roper’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton W. Howe. The destroyer continued a nearly due south pursuit of the target it was now tracking off the North Carolina coast. The crew of Roper was ordered to general quarters as the old destroyer closed the distance with the unknown target. When the ship was approximately 700 yards from the still unidentified vessel, a torpedo was observed passing Roper close down the port side, immediately making clear the severity of the pursuit. 

ABOVE: A sketch from an after-action report by Lt. Cmdr. H.W. Howe, who would later be awarded the Navy Cross for his actions against U-85. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942) BELOW: A painting of U-85 turing sharply to starboard in an attempt to evade Roper.  (Robert Hurst via

When the distance between the vessels was only to 300 yards, the unknown vessel “cut sharply to starboard.” The darkness was suddenly pierced by Roper’s 24-inch searchlight as it illuminated the hull of U-85 as the submarine attempted to evade the rapidly approaching destroyer. As the two vessels circled each other like boxers in a ring, the combat became a race to see who could man their guns faster. As crewmen poured from hatches aboard U-85, Chief Boatswain's Mate Jack Edwin Wright aboard Roper responded with accurate .50 caliber machine gun fire, sweeping the U-boat deck of would be assailants. Shots were then fired from Roper’s starboard 3-inch guns, and despite numerous misfires, Coxwain Harry Heyman, Roper's junior gun captain, scored a hit just aft of U-85's conning tower. "This hit undoubtedly contributed markedly to the final destruction of the submarine," Howe wrote in his after-action report.

A sketch from an after-action report by Lt. Cmdr. H.W. Howe.  Drawn the day after the battle, it shows the frantic 20-minute engagement. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942)
A combination of this hit, and likely the remaining U-boat crew scuttling the ship, culminated in the rapid sinking of U-85, the first German submarine sunk by the United States Navy in World War II. Roper circled back through the last location of the U-boat where it proceeded to deploy 11 depth charges into the water. The action from the first spotlight contact aboard Roper to sinking had taken less than 20 minutes. The victorious destroyer remained on station until morning but was unable to stop and render aid to any possible survivors, as Howe feared that U-boats operated in pairs and his ship could be in danger if it slowed. The bodies of 29 German sailors recovered afterward became the first foreign combatants interred in American soil since the War of 1812.

USS Roper as seen from above in this 1942 photograph.
The starboard, aft 3-inch gun struck the fatal blow to U-85.
Notice the abundance of depth charges on the stern as well
as amidship. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Sometimes a myth surrounding a ship is harder to destroy than the ship itself. Case in point: A U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article by Parke Rouse Jr., from June 1982 contains what today might be called, “fake history.” 

Rouse claimed that when some deceased submarine crewmembers were recovered, they were “wearing civilian clothes with their wallets filled with U.S. currency and identification cards,” inferring that their mission was clandestine in nature. This is only partly true. German U-boat sailors often wore civilian clothing in conjunction with their military issued gear for comfort and functionality. The reports compiled by the Navy on April 15 and 17, 1942, described the type of clothing that was recovered as a mix of civilian and military garments. The reports also listed the pocket contents recovered from the crew. While identification tags and currency were recovered, there were zero instances of U.S. currency or identification documents being found.

Rouse's article also states, “They had been preparing to row ashore in a rubber raft when the submarine was discovered.” There is no mention of a raft in Howe’s after action report, nor was a raft documented as having been recovered by the Navy. Also the submarine was 14 miles from the coast when sunk, a long distance to row at night with no coast visible. It is safe to say this bit of information can hold no credence and after scrutiny, ought be discarded unless some primary documentation can be found supporting the claim.

Although some military intelligence was gathered from the 29 recovered crewmembers inspected at Naval Operating Base Norfolk after the battle, much of what they carried, such as this photograph, was personal in nature. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942
Of the German bodies hauled aboard Roper, Rouse wrote, "Two were officers, [and] one of them the U-85’s captain.” This is categorically false. Naval intelligence officers positively established the identities of all 29 bodies. The original Navy report of April 15 states that it was believed that one of the bodies recovered may have been of the captain, but eventually only one casualty was identified as an officer: Oberleutnant Hans Sanger. The body of the U-85’s captain, Oberleutnant (possibly Kapitanleutnant at time of sinking) Eberhard Greger, has never been recovered. Once we put the various pieces together, it is safe to state that U-85 was not involved with any type of spying operation.
Among the personal pictures found among the belongings of the ill-fated submarine crew is this image of U-85 taken sometime before her fourth and final war patrol (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942),  To the right is a photograph by Brett Seymour of the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center, taken from a similar viewpoint in 2009, which shows a possible penetration of the pressure hull from USS Roper’s gunfire. The wreck of U-85 is considered a war grave by both the United States and Germany. (Courtesy the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))  
Among the articles recovered by the Navy in the flotsam was the diary of Erich Degenkold, a sailor aboard the U-85. In it he records a short statement describing each day. The night before he was killed, his final entry ominously foreshadowed the events that would soon unfold. “American beacons and searchlights visible at night.”
After the 29 bodies recovered from U-85 were brought back to Hampton Roads aboard USS Roper, they were transferred to Naval Operating Base Norfolk (now known as Naval Station Norfolk) aboard USS Sciota (ATO-30). After an intelligence investigation was conducted on the evening of April 14, 1942, Sailors at a hangar at nearby Naval Air Station Norfolk prepared to transport the bodies to Hampton National Cemetery. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
Sailors from Naval Operating Base Norfolk (now known as Naval Station Norfolk) move a box containing the body of a U-85 crewmember to a truck during the transport of the deceased sailors from Naval Air Station Norfolk to Hampton National Cemetery. According to an intelligence report dated April 17, 1942, the US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth did not have enough caskets for such a large mass-burial, and neither did local funeral businesses. The Veterans Administration in Kecoughtan (Hampton) came through, however, and supplied enough caskets and shipping boxes to ensure a proper burial. (NARA Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
On the evening of April 15, 1942, 29 sailors from U-85 were buried Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia, with military honors. Fifty-two prisoners from Fort Monroe, Virginia, prepared the graves, and Soldiers from the fort acted as pallbearers. At 8 pm, the burial service was read by a Catholic chaplain, followed by the Protestant chaplain, Lieutenant Junior Grade R.A. Lundquist. A firing party of 24 Sailors from the Naval Operating Base fired three volleys, and Taps was sounded. The event attracted dozens of onlookers outside the cemetery walls. (NARA Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
The area of the Hampton National Cemetery containing the U-85 graves, as it looks today.  Union soldiers from nearby Fort Monroe were some of the first to be buried at the cemetery in Hampton, Virginia, but it is also the final resting place for Confederate soliders from the Civil War, as well as German and Italian prisoners from World War II. (M.C. Farrington)  
--For additional information about the USS Roper and U-85 please visit the NOAA website, and the Naval History and Heritage Command website. Special thanks to the folks at who maintain an excellent website full of links to primary sources about U-85 and many other German submarines. Several artifacts from U-85, including an enigma machine, can be seen on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in North Carolina.


Jim Thomson said...

"U-85 was lost along with her entire crew in the first sinking of a submarine by the United States Navy in WWII."

This passage is mistaken, as a few months before, on Dec. 7th 1941 the USS Ward sank a Japanese submarine outside the Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor HI a few hours before the aerial attack.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this clarification. The people of Saint Paul will always remember the readiness and vigilance of the USS Ward's crew, gratefully and proudly.