The Navy Department Library
Oral History- Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1945
Recollections of Lieutenant Sheridan Bell (Chaplain Corps), USNR, concerning the sinking of a German submarine (U-233) by USS Thomas (DE-102) and USS Baker (DE-190) of Task Group (TG)22.10, a "hunter killer" unit, on 5 July 1944, as well as the capture of part of U-233's crew, and the death and burial at sea of U-233's commanding officer
Adapted from Chaplain Bell interview in box 2 of World War II Interviews, Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command.
Just after evening chow [meal], as the night planes were getting ready to take off, one of our lead destroyers came in contact with a [German] submarine [U-233]. It was about 5,000 yards in front of the ship so that the men of the crew, of the [escort aircraft carrier USS] Card [CVE-11], could witness the attack.
According to the Commander of the escort group, it was the most rapid successful sinking of a submarine in the Atlantic. For it was just twenty-two minutes from the time the Destroyer Escort [DE] contacted the sub until the survivors were being taken aboard one of the two destroyers [DD] standing by. So we were able to stand on the flight deck and see the fight, see the flames shooting up from the damaged submarine and the smoke and the fire of the guns.
The thirty-one survivors were brought aboard the [USS] Card within an hour so it was possible that evening to interrogate them and to get the necessary information that our Intelligence Officers wished to have. Some of the men were wounded, [and] those who were wounded and needed attention were taken to our sick bay [medical facility]. One of them was the Captain, [Kapitanleutnant Hans Steen], a man in his forties. He was brought down to the sick bay in an unconscious condition and immediately the doctors began to take care of him. I stayed with them a good deal that night and part of the following day.
The Captain did not regain consciousness but in that interval of twenty-four hours, everything was done possible on the part of the doctors to save his life. There were six [units of] blood plasmas given to him, two [blood] transfusions and in the period five tanks of oxygen were used. But, he was in such deep shock and the wounds had caused so much loss of blood that he died at five o'clock the following afternoon.
The Captain of the ship [USS Card] indicated that the [German captain's] funeral should be that evening before 8 o'clock reports. So at 1900 [7 p.m.], on the following evening [6 July], we performed the services of burial for the German U-boat Captain.
Our ship did not carry a swastika [Nazi flag] and it would not be appropriate for an American flag to be draped over the body. I found out that he was a member of the German Lutheran Church and felt that the most appropriate covering would be our church pennant which is the white pennant, nine foot pennant [a long tapering triangular nautical flag] with the blue cross upon it. So on our flight deck, on a platform on the port side (left side of the ship), rigging was erected by our carpenters which enabled us to dispose of the body as part of the service.
The company of the survivors of the submarine were informed and had been kept informed during the twenty-four hours in which they [the Navy doctors] were attempting to keep the Captain alive. Two of the crew of the submarine gave blood transfusions so they knew that everything had been done on the part of the medical officers to save his life. And they were informed of the service which would be at 1900.
The order was passed that it was a voluntary affair and the men of our ship's company who wished to attend would do so voluntarily. Practically the entire ship's company came to the flight deck and put on the uniform-of-the-day which was obligatory for the services. At 1900, the guard in custody of the prisoners, brought them up the forward elevator [large platform which raised aircraft from the hangar deck to the flight deck] and marched them to the midship where the body was placed on the slide. To make it possible for a quick disposal of the body, we had rigged a line from the top of the canvas bag securing it to the bottom of the slide, so that in the midst of the memorial service, during the committal, it would be possible to cut the line and the body go into the sea.
The service began with the two [German] officers standing on each side of the body of their Captain. I read as a service a beautiful prayer for our enemies which is in one of our Navy handbooks and there are certainly very appropriate Scripture which can be read: " The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
There are songs of comfort which I read and then I came to the committal when his body was to be committed to the sea. They stood at attention and as I started the committal and came to the portion where the statement is given that the body will now be cast into the sea, I reached forward with the knife and severed the line and the body slowly slipped off the slide and went into the sea.
Just at that moment, before I could step back to the microphone and continue the committal service, the entire company of survivors whipped out the Nazi salute and in perfect cadence gave a farewell cry to their Commanding Officer. I do not know what the words were but it sounded like this. "Hola! Hola! Hola!"
And I understood it meant farewell.
It was interesting to see how moved the entire ship's company were at this emotion and the restraint with the emotion as the men of the submarine said farewell to their Commanding Officer.
Immediately following this outburst, which took us by surprise, I stepped up to the mike and was able to finish the committal service with its statement of the resurrection and the hope of the Christian faith. At the conclusion of that, the ship's officers returned the prisoners to the hold of the ship where they were being kept until we could deliver them to an American port. And later, one of the [German] officers asked if he could see me. He was the one who could speak very good English and he thanked me then for the service, and for the spirit of the service and asked if, when it would be permissible, I would write to the widow of the Captain informing her where he was buried, latitude and longitude, and include in the letter the service that was used. This I promised and have kept it so that when the war is concluded and such documents can be sent back to Germany, I will do that for Captain Steen's widow.
The service was an interesting one because of the spirit of both companies. Each time that we have had survivors aboard, there has been a noticed interest on the part of our own men that they share their cigarettes and their candy and their ice cream with the prisoners of war do not look on them as enemy but as sailors who are then in need and there is no sense of bitterness or hostility.
Chaplain, I take it this service was read in English and later translated for the benefit of the German crew.
No, I'm sorry that was not done. But the one officer, you can see looking at me here, (shows picture) interpreted the service to the other of the members of the crew following the entire service.
I think you spoke of this Captain as Captain Steen. Do you know his full name?
Wilhelm Steen. [Kapitleutnant Hans Steen]
What was the number of the U-boat? Do you recall?
I'm sorry I don't have that [U-233] but they had been in commission for four-and-a-half years and most of that time had been at sea. I know that the Navy has pictures taken off some of the men which showed the commissioning detail and other activities of the ship's life.
What was the Destroyer that sank it?
The destroyers [destroyer escorts] were the [USS] Baker and the [USS] Thomas.
And where was this? Mid-Atlantic or South Atlantic?
No, This was the North Atlantic approximately 200 miles away from the Sable Islands [islands approximately 100 nautical miles southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada].
And I don't think you gave the date of the recording.
This was July the 5th, 1944.
How many did you figure were in the [submarine's] crew? About 50, would you say right off.
They say 61 were in the submarine's crew and we saved 31 with one of these being the Captain. There were 30 survivors brought ashore [at Boston, Massachusetts].
How come we caught them so unawares I wonder?
From what I understand, this was one of the weather submarines, giving out nightly weather broadcast to Germany and had been watched for a good long time. Our planes were scouting in that area and had come across it the day before but the attack was not successful. I don't know the details but whether our Captain made a fake and was able to surprise them by his night trip the night before or not but it just so happens that they were caught very unexpectedly and not realize that this escort group was so close to them.
Interviewer: Captain Isbell was off [no longer Commanding Officer of] the [USS] Card then?
Yes, Captain Rufus C. Young was the Commanding Officer.
I supposed you had several of these church flags?
Yes, we keep a number. This is the official size that is flown from the mast on Sunday morning and seemed to be the appropriate one to use for the service. It's a pennant nine feet long.
Notes: 36 United States Code 173-178, approved 22 December 1942, states that the church pennant is the only flag permitted to fly above the US flag while at sea, and then only while divine worship services are being held.
The photographs referred to in this interview are not located in the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. It is possible they are located at the National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.
31 December 2001