America's U-Boats
Terror Trophies of World War I
Chris Dubbs
(University of Nebraska)
Wikipedia claims that in the 17th Century the first submarine appeared just over the horizon in Toledo --- not Ohio, but Spain --- which is odd, since there isn't very much ocean in central Spain. Our first believable story reveals that a man with the appropriate name of Cornelius Dribble (pronounced Drebbel in his home country of Holland) built one propelled by oars. How Dribble kept water from dribbling in is not revealed.

I much prefer the story of Nat Symons, of England, who used leather bags that filled with water which took him to the bottom of the Thames. To rise, he had a squeeze-box --- not to be confused with ane accordion --- which he twisted. The water went away and the boat resurfaced, presumably with the occupants still breathing (air, not water).

The best of all these pre-submarine whoppers concerns the Confederate navy's H. L. Hunley, which, in 1864, launched a torpedo in the general direction (no gyroscopes those days) of the Union's sloop-of-war the USS Housatonic. When the torpedo exploded, it did so with such gusto that both vessels sank at once.

Before World War One, submarines were seen as a clumsy experimental craft as fatal to the occupants as to the enemy. Subs were known to run into things, flip over, and suffocate their unlucky inhabitants. The admirals in the Royal Navy recalled their own experience with mechanical failures.

    The danger of noxious fumes from their gasoline engines or on board batteries prompted [them] to keep mice aboard submarines. The rodents served as canary-in-a-coal-mine sentinels to signal the buildup of deadly gases.

At times, these submarines descended and "never came up at all. It was the general opinion of the Service that the submarine fellows fully deserved their extra six shillings a day."

The WWI blockade of Germany by Britain's Grand Fleet bottled up their navy in its harbors and imposed a halt on all trade. Soon enough, and with unparalleled speed, Germany developed the new and carefully engineered Unterseeboots or U-boats.

These submarines could safely navigate huge areas of the North Atlantic, and, with uncanny accuracy, sink freighters, warships and troop carriers. Unfortunately for all concerned, they also could and did lay waste to civilian carriers and hospital ships.

The Germans needed ways to disrupt the flow of food and equipment of war from the United States and Canada, but the British had no idea that they would build such a large fleet of superior undersea craft which would, by 1918, sink 5,000 Allied ships.

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Dubbs' book is primarily concerned with a couple of specific elements of submarine history during and immediately after the war. The first addresses itself to Germany's astonishing progress in engineering these vessels. When they were finally unveiled after the war, naval engineers were astonished at the technological improvements. U. S. naval officials saw that German submarines demonstrated "superior periscope optics, and the double hull construction that better protected them from depth charges." These set the German boats above those in the Allied navies.

Germany built several boats that were enormous by submarine standards The first to visit the United States was the Deutschland which arrived in 1916 in Baltimore. It was over 200 feet long, thirty feet wide, and seventeen feet from keel to periscope. It had traveled 4,000 miles from Bremen without stopping for food, fuel, or water.

Since America was still neutral, it was hoped that it could be used as a freighter, to bring food and medicine and desperately needed war materiél back to Europe. Americans, always interested in a deal --- even if it meant giving the finger to our friends in England and France --- looked forward to resuming a trade, even if it was all underwater. Trade with Germany before the 1914 had reached $345 million a year, but was, with the blockade, now at zilch.

Germany contracted to build five more undersea freighters, but all depended on the reception here of the Deutschland. The Captain was Paul König, ever modest about his record-breaking journey. The august New York Times said that the arrival was "an incident that compels admiration and stirs the imagination." The captain and the crew were treated as heroes. At the Keith Theatre, the manager "called the sailors down to the footlights. All Americans should be proud of these Teutonic heroes, he proclaimed,"

    as the orchestra struck up the German patriotic anthem, "Die Wacht am Rhein," and the audience applauded for five minutes.

A visit from another submarine --- the U-53 --- came on October 7, 1916. Again it was welcomed, again it was mobbed by Americans, fascinated by the well-dressed sailors, the polite captain. When it departed, a day later, as soon as it reached the three-mile limit, it began sinking Allied shipping entering or leaving the port of New York. Just like that. We had given it a safe harbor, a friendly reception . . . and once back in the war zone, it began to act like a war machine.

U. S. vessels arrived on the scene to rescue those who had been on the freighters and passenger ships. Dubbs reports, "There developed a congested, chaotic scene of warships, sinking vessels, and lifeboats."

    As additional merchant vessels navigating these busy sea lanes continued to arrive on the scene, they found themselves caught in the bizarre panorama of a U-boat methodically reaping its harvest of ships while U. S. warships plucked the victims from the lifeboats.

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The remainder of this book is taken up with the United States at war, the coming of the peace in 1918, and the Versailles Treaty which required Germany to give up its submarines. 176 of them were distributed to England (106), France (46), Italy (10), Japan (8), and the United States (6).

Why America got so few was typical. Americans were now bored with war. We had been rattling the sword for eighteen months, and now it was time to play: bathtub gin, the movies, cars, stock market, flappers.

At this point, Dubbs sticks in an extremely boring chapter that could easily been dumped. It's all about the last Victory Loan with which Americans decided to help pay for the war (it had been rather pricey) by "loaning" Washington four-and-a-half billion dollars. In those days, we actually paid for our wars, didn't run them like a credit scam as we do now.

The six U-boats that we took as our war prize were the touts for the loan, going from port to port to stir up interest. All coastal cities were visited, and one sub even managed to find its way into Lake Michigan.

After the dust settled and we had all become dandies and flappers with flasks in our back pockets, the subs were unceremoniously sunk by the U. S. Navy.

This is called "America's sense of the future." God knows how these vessels would thrill us if even one existed now, what it would be like if even one had been saved for historical purposes. They were beautiful, complicated pieces of machinery that might well have been key to Germany winning the war if more had been produced in time.

But she didn't and they weren't, so we dumped them.

§   §   §

Dubbs obviously knows his stuff. He even knows where the bodies of UC-97, UB-88, U-148, U-117, and U-111 are buried right now. But he ends his book with a whimper. I would have liked to have more history here --- who built these things, and where, and when. How certain things were put in place: who thought up the conning tower; how about the flaps; how about the changes --- some of the earlier boats were triangular; who, when, decided on the present configuration.

How does one actually go down, how does one stay down, how does one come up? What does it feel like down there? We'd like more technology here --- how the damned things work, how do periscopes go up and down, how are torpedoes launched, what exactly is used to keep the air breathable?

Most of all, what's the psychology of it all? What happens to the humans in these fetid closet-sized tanks, especially ones that are forced to go long distances underwater. Is it like they showed in Das Boot --- lots of sweat and brave captains and coughing seamen and noisy depth-charges and looking at meters and leaks and silent action and hold the laughs . . . and at the end they drop a torpedo directly on you and now you're nothing but corn-meal mush.

America's U-Boats might have made a gripping story. On line, we find almost 200 submarine movies: Pimple's Dream of Victory, Morgenrot, The Three Stooges in Orbit, Run Silent, Run Deep, Operation Petticoat. There's something going on down there. But fifty pages dedicated to raising $4,5000,000,000 by sending greasy tattered used U-boats around from Natchez to Newark? We shoulda stood in bed.

Or, at worst, stayed near the bed of the sea.

--- Richard Saturday
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