By Michael Salvarezza and Christopher
It was May 5th, 1945, and the long and tragic world war in Europe was finally reaching its conclusion. Adolf Hitler, having just committed suicide, had been replaced by Admiral Karl Doenitz of the German Navy. In a New York Times story, Doenitz is quoted as telling his Nazi forces that, “the struggle against the Western Powers has become senseless.” In a United Press International article, Doenitz is said to have issued orders to all U-boat commanders to “cease hostilities” at once and to return home immediately. It appeared as if the terrifying siege against allied shipping along the Atlantic coast of the United States was finally over.
Or was it?
A few miles Northeast of Block Island, a small spit of land lying east of New York’s Long Island (technically part of the state of Rhode Island) the U-853, commanded by Oberleutnant Helmut Froemsdorf, lay in waiting in the murky waters of the Atlantic.
Built in 1943 by Deschimag, in Bremen, German, the U-853 had been a recent addition to the German Navy. She was a IX-C class submarine, running 252 feet in length with a 22.7 foot beam. Constructed of steel, the U-853 displaced 1,120 gross tons. The armament she carried included two twin 20mm anti-aircraft guns, one 37mm anti-aircraft gun, one 105mm deck gun and six torpedo tubes. She was nicknamed Der Seiltaenzer (Tightrope Walker) by her crew and had reached her operating position off of New England late in the month of April 1945.
During this time, a Collier (bulk cargo carrier) named the S.S. Black Point was completing an uneventful voyage from Newport News, Virginia to Weymouth, Massachusetts. She was loaded with a cargo of 7,500 tons of soft coal. This cruise would be her last and the Black Point would soon become the last American Flag merchant ship to be sunk by German submarines. What makes this sinking so tragic is that it occurred after Donitz’s orders were given to cease hostilities and only a few hours before the official end to the war.
The Black Point had left its coastal convoy at the approach to New York Harbor, as these waters were considered to be free of enemy submarines. As she entered the western end of Rhode Island Sound, four miles Southeast of Point Judith, Rhode Island, a huge explosion ripped a 40 feet opening in her stern section. Within 15 minutes, the Black Point had capsized and was laid to rest in 95 feet of water. Twelve men lost their lives in the sinking, while 34 crew members were rescued by ships that soon converged upon the area. One of these ships, the S. S. Kamen, immediately sent an SOS report of the torpedoing and the hunt for the U-853 began.
Black Point Image: Courtesy National
At 1742 hours, the radio operator of the Moberly, a Coast Guard frigate traveling with two Navy destroyer escorts (Amick and Atherton), picked up the signal from the Kamen. These ships were 30 miles from the scene and arrived in the vicinity of the sinking at 1930 (7:30 p.m.) hours. Taking stations 3,000 feet apart, they began their search.
For the remainder of the evening, a series of attacks on the U-853 ensued. Each time the vessels believed they had dealt a mortal blow to the German ship, sonar would reveal its movement as it attempted to escape. The struggle was a perilous one. In fact, shortly after midnight on May 6, the Moberly and the Atherton both damaged themselves by failing to avoid the explosions of their own depth charges. Eventually, as the evening wore on, the attacks were halted until 0530 the following morning, when the sun began to rise on the final day in the life of the U-853.
Two blimps, K-16 and K-58 from Lakehurst, New Jersey, joined the attack with the arrival of daylight. They were directed to assist in locating and identifying oil slicks and to help mark the location of the submarine with smoke and dye markers. The U-boat was believed to be heavily damaged and appeared to be bleeding large amounts of air and oil.
The K-16 blimp dropped a sonar buoy on a spot where oil was still rising to the surface. The sonar operators in both blimps then heard the sounds of metallic hammering coming from the submarine. About ten minutes later, a long shrill shriek was heard. Attacks were then made on this spot using the blimp’s 7.2” rocket bombs. At 1045 hours, the U-853 was declared sunk and on the bottom 7.7 miles east of Block Island.
Type of vessel:
Depth of Water:
Loran C Position:
May 6, 1945
June 25, 1943
1,120 gross tons
Upright, slight list (left)
25776.1 - 43824.8
41° 00' 13.31" (N) / 071° 00' 24.85" (W)
Today, decades after the sinking of the U-853, mystery still surrounds this wreck. Why did she attack and sink the Black Point one day after the cease fire order had been given by the acting Fuhrer? Did the U-853 receive and then ignore the order, or was the order never received? Several theories persist regarding the “true” nature of the U-853’s mission. Some say that she was designed to be Hitler’s private escape craft. Others maintain that she was transporting millions of dollars worth of mercury, cash and gold. In fact, several salvage attempts have been made on the vessel, none of which have ever resulted in the recovery of treasure. Indeed, in 1961, a full scale salvage attempt was seriously considered which would have attempted to raise the U-853 from the bottom. This project never proceeded further than the planning stages.
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