Military.com Image

Icarus before the war. A Class 165-B cutter built in the 1930s to combat rum-runners, she was converted to an anti-submarine vessel when the United States entered World War II. (U.S. Coast Guard)


Coast Guard Sinking Of U-352

A chance encounter off Cape Lookout led to the first sinking of a German U-boat by the U.S. Coast Guard.

By James R. Reedy, Jr.

The old men remember all too clearly the mind-numbing blasts of the exploding depth charges that wrecked their submarine. They remember the terrifying shriek and crash of 3-inch shells slamming into their boat's hull as she wallowed helplessly on the surface and the incessant, deadly hail of machine-gun fire that threatened to cut them down even as they leaped into the sea. And they remember floating in their life jackets 30 miles offshore, watching the Coast Guard cutter that sank their submarine steam away, apparently leaving them and their wounded shipmates to the sharks.

Most of all, they remember the kindness of the American sailors on that same cutter who later plucked them from the ocean, fed them, cared for their wounded, and landed them at Charleston, S.C. For the survivors of the German submarine U-352, World War II ended on May 9, 1942.

U-352 Creeps Away

The sleek 220-foot VII-C class submarine U-352 began her short life on the ways of the Flensburger Schiffsbau (Flensburg Shipyard) in 1941. As a tribute to the people of that city, she carried the twin lions and stone tower of the Flensburg coat of arms on her conning tower. Kapitänleutnant Hellmut Rathke, 31 years old and an ardent believer in national socialism and strict military discipline, took command at her commissioning in August. After several weeks of sea trials, she returned to Kiel for minor repairs and to fill out her crew. In early January 1942, the new boat departed for her first war patrol in the shipping lanes east of Iceland.

In 1941 German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic were not having an easy time. Convoy tactics and an efficient British Royal Navy anti-submarine force made attacks on merchant shipping difficult and hazardous. Even worse, many submarine commanders reported serious problems with their torpedoes. They complained in particular of faulty detonators and frequent misfires.

U-352 searched the North Atlantic waters for three weeks before she finally found a ship to attack. As she stalked the target, however, a British escort vessel detected her. Before Kapitänleutnant Rathke realized his predicament, no less than four British destroyers were blasting away with depth charges, each enemy ship intent on sinking his boat. U-352 managed to extricate herself and creep away intact, but not before several charges had come uncomfortably close.

Constant Strain

The German submarine crews had to deal not only with a lack of targets and the presence of convoy escorts but also with British naval aircraft, which could make U-boat duty particularly unpleasant. Whenever U-352 surfaced in daylight, patrol planes spotted her, dropping aerial depth charges and peppering her with cannon and machine-gun fire. Running on the surface at night to recharge her electric batteries, she risked detection by enemy radar. As the patrol went on, the constant strain was felt by the crew. Confined inside the cold steel hull, Rathke's men began to realize that, despite what they had been told in training camp, U-boat service was not going to be a lot of fun.

One night, desperate to make a sinking before the boat had to return home, Rathke slipped into an Icelandic harbor. His intended victim was a ship moored to the pier -- a virtual sitting duck. But things could go wrong even when the enemy was not aware of a U-boat's presence. The decision to attack in the harbor nearly led to disaster, not because of anything the enemy did, but because of a mistake by one of the jittery crew members.

To compensate for the sudden loss of weight that occurs when a submarine fires a torpedo, water ballast must be pumped into certain compartments to prevent the sub from losing her trim and rising to the surface. During the Icelandic harbor attack, the torpedo man responsible for that job mistakenly ballasted the wrong compartment.

Before she could fire, U-352 suddenly went down by the stern and slammed into the rocky bottom of the harbor. The attack had to be aborted, and the Nazi wolf slipped back out to sea, her mission unaccomplished. Luckily for her crew, the harbor defense forces failed to spot her.

Rathke's reaction was immediate and harsh. He confined the offending torpedo man to the hot, noisy electric motor room and ordered that none of the crew communicate with him. When the boat arrived at her new base at St. Nazaire, France, the man was taken away by military police. None of his shipmates ever heard anything about him again.

"American Hunting Season"

The United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, with few patrol aircraft and almost no anti-submarine vessels. The U.S. military was totally unprepared to fend off the U-boat menace, and by early 1942 Nazi submarines were operating virtually unmolested from Maine to Florida and all over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

During their refit, U-352's crew heard fantastic stories of the easy pickings to be had off the American coast. Submarines were sinking ships in broad daylight, using their deck guns. For months the Americans continued to operate on a peacetime basis; no convoys, no escorts, no radio silence, no coastal blackout. A lurking U-boat could lie offshore in the dark until it saw a ship silhouetted against the glow of city lights, then pick it off with ease. Sinkings along the East Coast of the United States during February and March reached a rate of more than 30 vessels a month. German submariners called the period "The Great American Hunting Season." Everyone wanted to get in on the action.

Military.com Image
Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester was deadly serious about preparing Icarus' crew for dealing with U-boats. It paid off. (U.S. Coast Guard)
U-352 left the St. Nazaire submarine pens for her second war patrol in early April 1942. At sea, Rathke opened his sealed orders and passed the news of their destination to the crew. They were headed for the shipping lanes off the coast of North Carolina. The men of U-352 were jubilant. Finally, a chance at some real targets. Rathke was also cautioned by his German superiors. American anti-submarine defenses were rapidly improving. Patrol aircraft were becoming especially numerous. The young captain was warned to be alert.

Because they operated so far from home, U-boats off American shores were limited to only a few weeks on station. Stores of food and fuel could be augmented somewhat by "milk cow" submarines, which served as mobile resupply depots, but maintenance and repair required a return to base. Rathke was driven by the need to make up for his first fruitless patrol. He envisioned himself joining the ranks of the celebrated U-boat aces -- Fritz Frauenheim, Joachim Schepke, Reinhard Hardegen, Otto Kretschmer and Günther Prien. At the very least, he wanted to sink the 100,000 tons of shipping necessary to win the coveted Ritterkreuze (Knight's Cross).

Lying In Wait

For more than two weeks, U-352 stalked the sea lanes between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. The few ships she spotted were well convoyed and at extremely long range. Her single attempt to attack one failed. Several times she was forced to dive because of patrolling aircraft. One plane swooped in out of the sun, unseen until the last moment, and dropped two aerial depth charges. Both exploded nearby as the submarine crash-dived, doing minor damage and shaking the crew up considerably. The boat barely got down in time. The Great American Hunting Season was coming to an end.

U-352's commander, however, was determined to make his mark and not return empty-handed a second time. With stores of food and fuel steadily dwindling, he made a fateful decision. He abandoned the safe, deep offshore water along the 100-fathom curve and turned U-352's bows to the west, running in toward the land. By May 9, U-352 was making night patrols within 10 miles of the North Carolina beaches. During daylight her black hull lay quietly on the sea bottom just offshore, conserving fuel and resting her crew.

A few days earlier, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Icarus had departed her Staten Island, N.Y., base for duty in Key West, Fla. One of the Class 165-B cutters built during the 1930s to combat rumrunning, she had recently been outfitted for anti-submarine warfare. In addition to her original armament of one 3-inch cannon and a few light machine guns, she now carried depth charge rails on her stern, a World War I Y-gun for throwing charges to either side, and several heavy machine guns. She also carried new hydrophonic listening gear for detecting submerged submarines.

The commander of Icarus, 52-year-old Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester, had started his Coast Guard career in 1919 and had risen from the ranks to become a commissioned officer. A dedicated and exacting commander, Jester had drilled his crew thoroughly in anti-submarine tactics.

At Last, A Target

At about 4 p.m. on May 9, U-352 lay on the bottom, 120 feet down, waiting for darkness. While most of her crew rested, Senior Radio Operator Kurt Krüger maintained a listening watch on the submarine's hydrophones. Suddenly, he heard the screws of an approaching ship. Kruger reported the contact to Rathke, and excitement ran through the boat like an electric current. At last, a target.

Stealthily, Rathke brought his boat up to periscope depth and sighted through the attack scope. He spotted what appeared to be a small freighter running alone on a southwesterly bearing. He maneuvered into position, aimed carefully and fired a single torpedo. Moments later, the entire crew heard the satisfying whump as the warhead detonated. A quiet cheer went up. U-352 had finally sunk a ship. Or so they thought.


Military.com Image
Disembarking from Icarus at Charleston Naval Base on May 10, 1942, U-352's survivors form ranks on the pier prior to being taken to Fort Bragg, N.C. Gerd Reussel, a submariner who had died of wounds aboard Icarus, was buried with military honors at Beaufort, S.C. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At 4:20 p.m. Icarus had just passed Cape Lookout when soundman Bill Rabich picked up an indistinct contact on his hydrophone headset. Rabich described it as "mushy" but he immediately reported it to the bridge. Knowing there were many shipwrecks in the area that might be mistaken for submarines, Rabich called the lead soundman, Santiago Quinoñes, for confirmation. Minutes later, as Quinoñes listened, the contact moved down Icarus' port side and sharpened into a definite target.

Eighteen-year-old Seaman lst Class John Ostensen had just relieved the helm when the bridge received Rabich's first report. The ship often picked up contacts from wrecks and rocks on the bottom, so it did not cause much excitement. Nothing had come of the ship's previous contacts. Moments later, word reached the bridge that Icarus had a definite target. Simultaneously, Ostensen was almost knocked off his feet by a tremendous explosion that shook the cutter from stem to stern. Like most of the crew, his initial reaction was "What was that?"

Hanging onto the 5-foot-diameter wheel and looking astern out the pilothouse door, the goggle-eyed seaman saw an enormous spout of water erupting in Icarus' wake. Amid the clanging of the general quarters alarm and the organized chaos of a ship going to battle stations, Ostensen and his stunned shipmates realized that, suddenly, they were at war for real. They had just been attacked by an enemy submarine.

Nowhere To Hide

Fortunately for the Americans, Rathke's torpedo had detonated prematurely, exploding in the ship's wake about 200 yards off the port quarter. Quinoñes, still tracking, never lost contact with the target. Jester ordered his helm over, steering at flank speed for the submarine. Guns at the ready, Icarus closed in.

Rathke peeked through the periscope, eager to confirm his first kill. He expected to see a burning, sinking freighter in the crosshairs. To his utter dismay, he found a U.S. warship instead, and the warship was intact, fully armed and charging straight at him.

A submarine's first defense is to dive deep and slip away from her attackers. Type VII-C boats were designed to run at depths of more than 500 feet. With less than 100 feet of water under his keel, Rathke had nowhere to hide. Hoping to confuse the cutter, he took the only action he could. Maintaining his course, he drove U-352 into the turmoil of water and bubbles left by his exploding torpedo. It was a fruitless effort.

Deadly Accuracy

Icarus lost contact at 180 yards. Estimating the sub's position from its previous track, Jester dropped his first pattern of depth charges right on target. Less than two minutes after the torpedo exploded, five more spectacular blasts ripped the sea apart. U-352 was a doomed boat.

For most of the German crew, the surprise was total. One minute they were congratulating each other on having finally sunk a ship. The next, the incredible shock of exploding depth charges slammed into their boat, smashing the attack periscope, wrecking the steering gear, and killing the executive officer, Leutnant zur See Josef Ernst. In a terrifying confusion of shattering gauges and bursting water pipes, men donned escape gear and prayed they would live to use it. Reeling from five near-direct hits and unable to control her direction, the crippled submarine tried to crawl away across the bottom on electric power. With deadly accuracy, Icarus homed in on her a second time.

Three more vicious explosions rocked the submarine as Icarus hit her with a "V" pattern. This barrage wrecked the U-boat's diving planes and killed Heinz Teetz, the engineering officer. Several other men were knocked down and injured. More machinery was damaged, and the electric motors were put out of action. Now totally disabled, U-352 lay defenseless as blast after blast crashed into her. Rathke tried to blow ballast and surface, but the tanks had been ruptured. The huge bubbles of air that came up only served to show the American cutter his position.

Alle Mann Raus!

Icarus finally accomplished what the Germans could not do for themselves. The single depth charge dropped during the cutter's fourth attack blew the wrecked U-boat to the surface. Helpless, she wallowed drunkenly on the ocean swell as the cutter turned and bore down on her for the final time. Rathke knew the game was over.

"Alle Mann aus dem Boot! Raus! Raus! Alle Mann raus! Schnell!" Rathke's command did not have to be repeated. In rapid order, men began scrambling up through the conning tower hatch.

Besides the torpedoes still in her tubes, U-352 was armed with an 88mm deck gun, a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, and small arms. Icarus' crew knew the wounded U-boat could still sink them, and they took no chances. Jester opened fire at 1,000 yards, turning toward the submarine to allow all his guns to bear. He was not about to let this one get away.

Survival Measured In Seconds

Icarus' gunners were determined to keep the U-boat men away from their deck guns. They hammered the submarine with a deadly hail of .30- and .50-caliber machine-gun fire as the cutter closed in. Survival on U-352's open decks could be measured in seconds.

Boatswain's Mate Charles Mueller had trained diligently to perfect his skill as pointer on the cutter's 3-inch cannon. Today his hard work would pay off. His first round was short, but it ricocheted off the water and slammed through U-352's conning tower. Thirteen more times in the next five minutes the 3-inch barked. Seven of Mueller's missiles were on target.

As the Germans tried to flee their sinking boat, 3-inch shells punched through the conning tower, killing and wounding several men. Seaman Gerd Reussel's left leg was blown off at the hip. He would die later that night. Chief Machinist Fritz Bollmann lost an arm. In the radio room Kurt Krüger carefully removed the three code wheels from his Triton decoding machine. He would drop them outside the sub, so that if the decoder was recovered it would do the Americans no good. Krüger barely made it out.

On deck the situation was no better. Despite Rathke's order to abandon ship, some men hesitated. Machinist Striker Heinrich Twirdy, shot through the wrist, could not swim and had no life jacket. He was saved by another sailor. Senior helmsman Fritz Badneck, attempting to load the 20mm cannon, was shot through the body and flung overboard by machine-gun fire. The idea of manning the deck guns was quickly abandoned. As their boat settled by the stern, the surviving Germans began diving over the side. Five minutes after she had surfaced, the black hull slid under for the last time, leaving 33 men bobbing in the water. Fifteen German sailors went down with the ship.

No Regulations, No Precedents

Icarus ceased fire. Lieutenant Jester radioed Sixth Naval District Headquarters in Charleston that he had sunk a submarine and "30 to 40" men were in the water. For long, long minutes, he received no reply.

Horrified, the Kriegsmariners stared in amazement as the cutter began to steam away, apparently leaving them. Surely the Americans could not be such monsters. Then a man with a megaphone stepped out on the wing of Icarus' bridge and called to them: "Gentlemen! I wish you a good evening -- down with the sharks!"

Unbelievable. They were being abandoned 30 miles out at sea. Grouping themselves together in the gathering dusk, the Germans cared for their wounded as well as they could and prayed for survival.

Jester found himself with two problems. At this point in the war there were no regulations, and certainly no precedents, for picking up enemy prisoners. As much as he disliked the idea of leaving the Germans in the sea, he risked endangering his vessel and crew by stopping to collect them. If there was another enemy submarine nearby, he could easily lose his ship. Also, Icarus was a very small craft. There were very few secure places where he could put such a large group of enemy prisoners. Three times he radioed headquarters and requested orders.

Reversing Course

Finally, 45 minutes after Jester's initial message, an answer came back. He was to pick up the survivors and land them at Charleston for interrogation by American and British intelligence. The cutter reversed course. One by one the Germans were brought on board, searched, and taken below to the forward berthing spaces. Happy to be alive, they enjoyed the coffee and sandwiches Icarus' mess cooks provided and traded jokes with their American guards. For them, the war was over.

When the cutter finally nuzzled up to the wharf at the Charleston Naval Base on May 10, a small crowd of naval personnel and a detachment of Marine guards awaited her. One by one, the Germans marched off the ship, forming in orderly ranks on the dock. As they stepped ashore, Kapitänleutnant Hellmut Rathke and his men became the first foreign troops to be interned on U.S. soil since the War of 1812.

U-352 was the first submarine sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, and only the second submarine sunk in U.S. waters. In May 1942, merchant ships were being attacked with alarming frequency within sight of U.S. beaches. Americans knew very well that the war had come to their shores. News of U-boat sinkings in other parts of the world made the papers regularly, but for some reason the U-352 story was kept quiet. For months afterward, no mention of it appeared in any American newspaper.

Promotion, Burial, And Finale

Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester won a promotion to lieutenant commander and was awarded the Navy Cross. Several of Icarus' crew, including Mueller, Quinoñes and Rabich, were also recommended for promotion. Icarus proceeded to Key West and served on anti-submarine duty for the remainder of the war.

Gerd Reussel, the young German sailor who had died at sea aboard Icarus, was buried as befitted a fallen soldier, with military honors in the National Cemetery at Beaufort, S.C. His grave is there today.

Rathke had impressed his crew with the necessity of providing no valuable information to the Americans. Nevertheless, the intelligence officers learned quite a bit. For instance, they found out which were the best bars and brothels in Kiel, St. Nazaire and La Baul, and which ones had the friendliest girls. However, they learned very little about German submarines, and nothing about U-boat organization. After a few days they gave up. The Germans were sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., and then on to other POW camps. They would not see their homeland again until 1947.