NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — There’s a German U-boat about 7 miles off Rhode Island’s Block Island, in about 130 feet of water. Bill Palmer, chomping on an unlit cigar, will tell you it’s a time machine.
Palmer, a former Army paratrooper and retired youth athletics coach, has made dozens of dives to the wreck of the U-853 and hauled up watches, uniforms, a harmonica, submarine components and even a pistol, now displayed in his basement.
“These were kids that gave their lives for their country as we gave ours,” Palmer said. “This is the end result of war. It’s a grave. I’ll sit out there on my boat, right on top of it, and people sail by and wave, and I just wonder if they know this thing is down there.”
As the nation prepares to commemorate Veterans Day, few sailors who fought in the Battle of Point Judith survive to remind us just how close World War II came to U.S. shores. A small service is held each November to remember the 55 German sailors who perished so far from their homes.
The submarine, known as U-853, was sunk the day before Nazi Germany surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. German’s naval authorities had already ordered all U-boats to return home, but the young captain of the U-853 either ignored or never received the orders.
On May 5, 1945, near Point Judith, R.I., the submarine torpedoed and sank the SS Black Point, carrying coal from New York to Boston. Twelve men died on the Black Point, the last U.S. merchant ship sunk in the Atlantic during the war.
A group of Navy ships was nearby, en route to shore leave in Boston. Kenneth Homberger, on board the USS Atherton, planned to jump on a train back to Quincy, Ill., to see his high school sweetheart.
“We were right over the horizon when it happened,” said Homberger, now 89. “We always played tag out there with those subs, but we never really knew if we nailed one of them. This time we knew.
“We had a crackerjack sonar man. He would call out the bearings (of the sub), and the skipper would maneuver the ship,” Homberger recalled. “We finally sank that baby about midnight. I was manning one of the search lights. We saw a long line of bubbles coming up. Then there was oil and debris. Then we saw what was thought to be the skipper’s hat.”
All 55 crew members aboard the U-853 perished after depth charges from the Atherton and her sister ship, the USS Moberly, hit home.
The Atherton’s commander was Lewis Iselin, a Harvard-educated sculptor who died in 1990. He seldom spoke about his role in one of the final naval battles between U.S. and Nazi Germany, according to his daughter, Sarah Iselin, of Norman, Okla.
“He would talk more about the war in the Pacific, the exotic experiences he had,” Sarah Iselin said. “He didn’t enjoy talking about the bad part of the war.”
The sub is a popular dive spot but poses hazards to those unaccustomed to navigating tight spaces underwater. At least three people have died exploring the wreck.
“If you haven’t been diving long, you shouldn’t try it,” said Bob Cembrola, a diver, marine archaeologist and a curator at the Naval War College Museum in Newport. “People think about World War II, and they think about the Pacific and Europe, but it was going on right here. You think of all the guys that died in that sub and the senselessness of it.”
It’s now illegal to remove items from the U-853, which is considered a war grave.
There were rumors in the 1950s and ’60s that the wreck contained treasure: money or gold or gems smuggled out of Germany in the war’s last days, a million dollars’ worth of mercury. Proposals were made to raise the sub.
The sub’s propellers were brought up; they sat outside a Newport inn for years and are now in a warehouse at the Naval War College, where Cembrola hopes to someday include them in an exhibit on the U-853.
In 1960, a diver brought up a skeleton. The German government reacted with outrage — as did local clergymen and naval officers. The skeleton was buried with full military honors in Newport.
This time most years, as America commemorates Veterans Day, a small memorial service is held at the grave, marked by a stone that reads, in German, “An unknown German seaman from U-853.”
His crewmates remain in the U-853. The bones are slowly dissolving in the sea water, and in time, they’ll vanish. Then all that will be left is a rusting hull on the bottom of the sea and a notation on nautical charts for the area that reads “Danger, unexploded depth charge, May 1945.”