Friday, January 4, 2019

The Navy's "Most Unwanted" Ship and the Instruments that Escaped its Fate

On January 5, 1946, the United States Navy commissioned a heavy cruiser into its fleet. It was unusual enough that, until about seven months before, it had belonged to an enemy in a fight to the death with the United States and its allies.  A number of captured British, Spanish, and German vessels had been inducted into American service in over a century-and-a-half of the Navy's existence, but there were other factors that made this vessel one-of-a-kind.  It was the only German cruiser to be commissioned as an American warship, USS Prinz Eugen (IX 300).  Naval History magazine contributing editor J.M. Caiella wrote in 2017 that Prinz Eugen was “the Kriegsmarine’s largest, most modern, and most famous remaining warship” at the end of the war.   Despite this, he added that it was “perhaps its most unwanted.” Perhaps the most unique detail about this formerly feared warship, however, was that it was perhaps the only one that was ever awarded to the Navy on the basis of lots drawn from the hat of its first (and only) American commander. 
A closeup view of a compass within a binnacle from the WWII German cruiser Prinz Eugen, part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) collection. (M.C. Farrington)
German cruiser, Prinz Eugen, circa 1941. Halftone image from Division of Naval Intelligence, Identification and Characteristics Section, June 1943. (Library of Congress)
USS Prinz Eugen was originally commissioned into the Kreigsmarine in Kiel, Germany, as KMS Prinz Eugen on August 1, 1940.  It was the second of three Hipper-class heavy cruisers to see action during World War II, and the only one to emerge intact afterward.  Despite its potential lethality, Germany's surface navy was beleaguered by its enemies virtually from the very beginning of the war, so it was a miracle that Prinz Eugen even survived its first major combat operation in late May 1941, Operation Rheinübung.   Along with the larger battleship Bismarck, which was commissioned less than a month after Prinz Eugen, the two warships ventured out into the open Atlantic for a commerce raiding mission. The two raiders were supposed to avoid peer-to-peer battles and seek out merchant shipping, but all that changed when they encountered the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood.  With her 8-inch guns, Prinz Eugen landed some of the first hits on Hood on the morning of May 24 before Bismarck famously landed the coup de grace with its 38-centimeter guns, blowing the battlecruiser apart and leaving only three survivors out of a crew of  1,417.  

Photographed from the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, the battleship Bismarck floats in a Norwegian fjord on May 21, 1941, shortly before the two warships departed for their ill-fated Atlantic sortie. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
While Bismarck sustained mortal damage from British carrier-based aircraft only two days later before being finished off by battleships and destroyers, Prinz Eugen made it back to occupied France unscathed, yet without making a single kill.  Other than making a daring escape in February 1942 back to German home waters via the English Channel with the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Prinz Eugen's options became quite limited after a torpedo hit off Norway forced heavy repairs to its stern.  Even worse, most of its support vessels had by that time been sunk by the British.  After the German High Seas Fleet itself was decommissioned on Adolf Hitler's orders a year later, Prinz Eugen was redesignated a training vessel.  Other than the occasional shore bombardment, the remainder of its war record consisted mostly of troop transport and other support duties in the Baltic.
KMS Prinz Eugen in a floating drydock in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, probably in May 1945. Note that the main bridge shutters are closed and the main optical rangefinder above it and the cruiser's FuMO 26 large radar array are facing starboard. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
After Hitler's suicide in April 1945 and his replacement by Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz for the brief twilight of that murderous regime, the new Reich President's orders to Captain Hans Juergen Reinicke aboard Prinz Eugen, at the time laid up in Copenhagen, were to replace the national ensign with the white flag of surrender and await the arrival of the allies.
A photograph of Prinz Eugen's forward superstructure tower is annotated with radar and other antenna designations by one of the many specialists who pored over the ship after its surrender. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
In the fleet staff information central room of the cruiser Prinz Eugen, this radar search receiver combination used the four "Sumatra" antennas atop the forward superstructure. The four plugs on the bulkhead are for switching antennas. Note the chronometer, or clock, on the bulkhead at the upper left. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Among the victorious allies, who were vying for the spoils scattered among the ruins of the Third Reich and competing to shape the postwar destiny of the devastated nation, the Soviet naval representatives to the Potsdam Conference that summer were most interested in gaining control of the cruiser, which was officially surrendered to the British on May 22, 1945.  Although American representatives were not terribly interested in taking it in, Prinz Eugen was the most prominent vessel left in the German naval arsenal, it possessed thoroughly modern engineering and instrumentation, and it was still in reasonably good condition, so it behooved American officers like Captain Arthur H. Graubart to deny them the prize.  

On October 19, the members of the Tripartite Naval Commission divided the Kreigsmarine's remaining surface vessels into three lists.  Captain Graubart proposed writing each list onto a note card, placing them in his hat, and allowing the Soviets to draw first.  Surprisingly, the Soviet representative agreed.  While Graubart held his upturned hat above his head, a Soviet admiral drew out a card, but it did not contain Prinz Eugen.  Instead, the Soviets had drawn the older light cruiser Nurnberg, which they renamed Admiral Makarov and placed in commission as the flagship of the Soviet 8th Fleet.    
U.S. Navy Captain A.H. Graubart and Captain Hans Jürgen Reinicke walk on deck of he former German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, officially USS Prinz Eugen (IX 300), off the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Pennsylvania. Prinz Eugen had a crew of 8 officers and 85 enlisted men of the U.S. Navy supervising 27 officers and 547 enlisted men of the former German Kriegsmarine for tests. Reinicke was the commander of the German crew. (All Hands magazine, March 1946 via Wikimedia Commons)
Capt. Graubart lobbied for and ultimately gained command of Prinz Eugen, yet he still had to maintain the cooperation of its former skipper, Capt. Reinicke, as well as much of the German crew. Without their compliance, the long journey ahead would have been nearly impossible. Leading an overwhelmingly German crew, as well as its erstwhile captain, Graubart left Germany aboard Prinz Eugen on January 13, 1946. After circumnavigating half the globe, during which everything deemed to be of scientific and technical value was scavenged from the vessel at stops in Philadelphia and San Diego, the last of its German crew was released. Although its remaining American skeleton crew had trouble maintaining its boilers, Prinz Eugen ultimately arrived in Hawaii on May 19, after which it was towed to Bikini Atoll.
USS Prinz Eugen (IX 300) awaits its fate as a target ship for Operation Crossroads in July 1946.  Along with two of its main guns and a host of other usable equipment, its main rangefinder above the main bridge appears to have been removed an a U.S. Army radar truck has been lashed in its place. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
As it was after the German defeat in World War I, Navy scientists and engineers would gain knowledge from studying German vessels surrendered to the allies.  And, as it was for the German ships acquired by the United States after that war, Prinz Eugen's primary mission after becoming part of the United States fleet would involve unparalleled destruction; not upon other vessels, but upon Prinz Eugen itself.

The position of Prinz Eugen is shown about 1,200 yards from the detonation point on this chart of vessels arrayed for the first atomic bomb test at Bikini on July 1, 1946, known as Able Day, when a "Fat Man" bomb similar to the one dropped on Nagasaki was detonated about 500 feet above the battleship Nevada.  The cruiser received only superficial damage. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The aptly-named Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946 was a theretofore unparalleled demonstration of national might.  Similar but far grander than the tests Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell conducted using aerial bombs off the Outer Banks of North Carolina nearly a quarter-century before, a huge flotilla of American and captured enemy warships, many of them less than a decade old, was subjected to a class of weapon that promised to propel American power to heights undreamt of by earlier proponents of air power.  
On July 25, known as Baker Day, a second atomic device was detonated about 90 feet below the surface of the lagoon.  Prinz Eugen was approximately 2,000 yards away and stayed afloat, but it developed minor flooding in in both the steering and engineering compartments.  Because of the amount of radioactive contamination the ship sustained, basic repairs could not be made and it capsized and sank five months later. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Despite being subjected to two separate atomic blasts during the tests in July 1946, USS Prinz Eugen proved her mettle by staying afloat with only minor flooding.  After the tests, Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajelin Atoll over 200 miles away, but the radioactive condition of the ship made repairs too risky.  The leaks continued until, on December 22, the cruiser capsized just 200 yards offshore.  Today its two propellers (minus one that was removed in 1978 for a memorial back in Germany) are easily visible during low tide.
The Military Sealift Command's USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) and the commercial oil tanker Humber are positioned above the hulk of the Prinz Eugen during an operation spearheaded by Navy Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1 to recover fuel oil from the wrecked cruiser just off Carlson Islet, Kwajalein Atoll. (U.S. Navy photo by LeighAnn Ferrari)  
For decades, potential leakage of another kind from Prinz Eugen has been a major concern, particularly after the area was transferred to the Republic of Marshall Islands in 1986, but during the fall of 2018, a Navy-led salvage operation successfully removed 229,000 gallons of bunker oil from the hulk.    
A chronometer from Prinz Eugen is the only artifact in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) collection from the vessel that is currently on public display. (M.C. Farrington)  
Although almost nothing remains of the once-feared cruiser, a number of huge and heavy items, including its bell and a fire control rangefinder, were removed from the ship and incorporated into the Naval History and Heritage Command collection decades ago following their inspection by the U.S. Naval Technical Mission in Europe and other inspection teams at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and in San Diego.  The Hampton Roads Naval Museum's (HRNM) collection of artifacts from the vessel was not among those items, and most are decidedly more delicate. They were saved by an American naval officer when he took them off the ship before the two atomic bomb blasts pummeled the vessel, rendering anything left untouchable.  What makes them significant is their condition.  A modern Sailor worth his or her salt could probably navigate with the gear today. 

Today, visitors can see a chronometer, or clock, from Prinz Eugen in the Battle of the Atlantic section of the HRNM gallery, but the remaining items, from lighting fixtures to dinner and serving plates with silverware to an azimuth circle and a binnacle containing a compass that is still in working order, remain at a separate storage location on Naval Station Norfolk away from public view.
An azimuth circle in closed position from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen. (M.C. Farrington)
An azimuth circle in open position from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen. (M.C. Farrington)
Detail of an azimuth circle from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen. (M.C. Farrington)
Binnacle from from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen, closed. (M.C. Farrington)
Binnacle from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen with hinged lid opened to show compass. (M.C. Farrington)

Binnacle from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen with top cover removed to show compass. (M.C. Farrington)
One of two navigation lamps from KMS/USS Prinz Eugen in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection. (M.C. Farrington)


graham dominy said...

Very well written article. One small point. I don't think the Prinz Eugene was in Wilhelmshaven in 1945. She was more likely to have been in Kiel, Flensburg or Copenhagen, when Germany surrendered. She had been evacuating troops and civilians from East Prussia as the Russians advanced.So a port on the Baltic is more likely to have been her final haven.

I am currently in Oman without my naval reference books, but I think one of the light cruisers (Koln or Karlsruhe?) was in Wilhelmshaven in a damaged condition but with a working main armament at the time of the German collapse. She bombarded advancing British troops as they approached the city in April 1945. The RAF put her out of action.

Unknown said...

What a loss of history to use as a target ship.

dave said...

Both of the Prinz Eugen's Arado AR-196 spotter aircraft survived. One is in the Smithsonian collection ( The other belongs to the Naval Aviation Museum and is on loan to Nordholz Naval Airbase in Germany.

Unknown said...

I think the Prinz Eugen should have stayed afloat as a museum ship and could have been the last German Cruiser remaining from WW2. At least a number of items we're saved. This includes precious oil.

Unknown said...

Exceptional article, reporting, and photos... BZ!