UC-97: Forgotten WWI History in an Unexpected Place – Lake Michigan

By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

Storms had churned the water the night before. The sky was overcast, significantly cutting the ambient light below the surface. And the remote operating vehicle (ROV) malfunctioned, leaving only a difficult-to-control drop camera as the means to positively identify the sonar contact below the workboat of A and T Recovery. After much trial and error, and mounting frustration, finally the sun came out, and there she was – on the monitor I could see the stern of UC-97, a sunken World War I German U-boat 200 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan. Wait, Lake Michigan?  How in blazes did a WWI German submarine end up here?

Photo of UC-97 as viewed in the monitor during the ROV expedition.

 

Enemy Sub Earns the U.S. Money

In the spring and summer of 1919, UC-97 was the biggest sensation to hit the Great Lakes since possibly the Great Chicago fire of 1871. Hundreds of thousands of people, in virtually every port in the Great Lakes (except for Lake Superior) had lined up to take tours, or just to see, an example of the infernal war machines that had caused U.S. entry into the bloody First World War. America had stood by as millions of soldiers of the great powers of Europe were slaughtered in stalemated trench warfare. However, it was the German’s resort to unrestricted submarine warfare and, in particular the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 American civilians, that outraged many Americans. The killing of soldiers was one thing, but the loss of innocent lives, even if only on a fraction of the scale of carnage of the land war, was too much to ignore and continue business as usual. When the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 after a hiatus, resulting in the loss of more U.S. merchant ships and civilians to German torpedoes, the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. As the United States began to build and train an expeditionary Army, the immediate U.S. contribution to the Allied war effort was the provision of over 30 U.S. Navy destroyers to protect convoys from U-boat attacks that were on the verge of knocking Great Britain out of the war. As the trickle of U.S. soldiers sent to Western Europe turned into a torrent in early 1918, over 2 million U.S. soldiers, protected by the U.S. and British navies, safely reached the front and finally turned the tide, convincing German leaders that they could not win the war.

Surrendered German U-boats are at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, April 29, 1919.

 

Under the terms of the Armistice that went into effect on November 11, 1918, the Germans were required to surrender their entire navy, which had not been decisively defeated in battle. The German battle fleet steamed to the British base at Scapa Flow, where in violation of the Armistice, the Germans later scuttled their entire surface fleet. The German submarines, eventually 176 of them, were sailed to the British port of Harwich.  Although some of the subs were subject to German sabotage, and many suffered from poor maintenance in the final months of the war, they nevertheless represented a level of submarine technology significantly better than any other navy in the world, including the U.S. Navy. The British agreed to allow Allied nations to take some of the submarines to study their technology, with the proviso that the submarines later be destroyed, by sinking in water too deep to salvage, so that no other nation would gain an advantage by incorporating German submarines into their fleets. In the meantime, the British vigorously sought to have the submarine outlawed as a weapon of war. Having nearly lost the war because of German submarines, despite having the largest navy in the world by a significant margin, the British pushed hard at various post-war treaty conferences to have submarine banned (like poison gas.)  No other naval power supported the British position.

Initially the U.S. Navy had little interest in acquiring any of the surrendered German submarines. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William Benson, believed that since their use might soon be outlawed anyway, there was no point. He, and many others, did not believe that the submarine represented a viable form of warfare, and certainly torpedoing merchant ships was not something the U.S. Navy would ever engage in, especially since the Allies, led by the British, were seeking to have some of the German U-boat commanders, and the senior German leaders who authorized the sinking of merchant ships, tried as war criminals. Benson did not want any of his successors or other U.S. naval officers to ever find themselves in the position of the Germans. There was also an arrogant belief in the U.S. Navy that our submarines were superior to the Germans, and in some respects (underwater speed, and habitability) they were. The German U-boats, however, were superior in the things that made them more effective weapons of war (better periscope optics, better torpedoes, more reliable engines, and in particular, the ability to submerge far faster than any other submarine in the world.)

Despite CNO Benson’s lack of enthusiasm, the senior U.S. submarine officer, Captain Thomas Hart used his personal political connections to convince U.S. government leaders that acquiring several German submarines would be a great addition to the Victory Loan bond drive scheduled for the spring of 1919. The Victory Loan drive, an effort to raise money from American citizens to pay off the government’s huge debt resulting from the war effort, featured the use of captured German military equipment to be sent around the country for public display as an inducement for Americans to reach into their wallets and contribute. The leadership of the Victory Loan drive was convinced that what better German weapon to generate publicity, interest (and contributions) than the dastardly submarines that had led the U.S. to war in the first place? They would be proved right.

Due to political pressure, the U.S. Navy sent crews to Harwich to bring six of the German submarines to the states. The subs had been in a state of disrepair for many months.  Nevertheless, with extraordinary ingenuity and perseverance, U.S. Navy crews brought all six German submarines to the east coast in April-May 1919. The U.S. was the only navy that actually sailed German subs under their own power (mostly) to their respective countries (a number actually sank enroute to other countries.)

WWI German subs, UB-88, UB-148, & UC-97, surrendered to allies, 1919.

 

UC-97 stayed in the general vicinity of New York City while the other boats visited ports along the U.S. east coast. All of them were a sensation and attracted thousands of visitors. At the time, UC-97 was credited with having sunk seven ships with a loss of 50 lives, which added to her sinister, and crowd-pleasing, cachet. The reality was that UC-97 was completed too late to participate in the war, so she actually had no combat record. UC-97 was a UC-III class submarine, a variant of smaller coastal submarines designed primarily to lay mines, rather than attack ships, although she did have three 19.7-inch torpedo tubs (and seven torpedoes) in addition to her six minelaying tubes (and 14 mines) and a 3.4-inch deck gun. The UC-97 was 185 ft long, 491 tons displacement, with a crew of 32 men, a small submarine, even by WWI standards.

Over There World War I Navy recruiting poster, by artist Albert Sterner, 1917.

After the successful Victory Loan drive (which raised over 1 billion dollars in the last 24 hours to meet its goal,) the Navy decided the submarines would be useful as a recruiting tool. With the “War to End All Wars” having just ended, the Navy needed a new theme to attract Sailors to man the greatly increased U.S. battle fleet as ships authorized in the 1916 and 1917 fleet expansion programs began to come on line. Instead of appealing to patriotism to defeat “the Hun” and save western civilization, the Navy now turned to “adventure, see-the-world, and learn high-technology” as a draw (which worked on my grandfather.) The U-boats proved to be quite effective as recruiting props.

In May 1919, the UB-88 (LCDR Joseph L. Nielson, commanding) embarked on an epic recruiting voyage, visiting numerous ports down the U.S. east coast, into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi River as far as Memphis, then through the Panama Canal to the U.S. west coast, where it was later sunk as a target on January 3, 1921 off San Pedro, California. Meanwhile the UC-97 (LCDR Holbrook Gibson, commanding) transited to the Great Lakes, via Halifax, the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal, between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, becoming the first submarine of any nation to sail on the Great Lakes.

Both submarines were designed by the Germans for only short coastal missions, and only to last for the duration of the war, so the engineering challenges to these lengthy voyages were profound. Yet it was actually the challenges of accommodating huge crowds (as many as 5,000 people would tour each submarine per day) and additional port cities using political influence to be added to the itinerary that caused UC-97 to fall behind schedule and cancel the Lake Superior portion of the voyage, finishing up in Chicago in August 1919. Nevertheless, the voyage of the UC-97 was considered a huge success, and one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dismal 1919. Few today realize how tumultuous 1919 was; although the “Great War” had ended, over half a million Americans had died from the Spanish Influenza epidemic (which disproportionately killed younger, healthy people), numerous U.S. cities had experienced pro-Bolshevik May Day riots that had turned violent, which was used as a pretext for violent anti-union actions and provoked the first “Red Scare” that threatened American civil liberties, and also some of the most violent race riots in U.S. history, as white mobs in some northern cities gave blacks fleeing southern poverty a deadly reception. By contrast, the voyages of the submarines enjoyed extensive and positive press coverage, and provided a welcome distraction to the national turmoil.

 

A captured or surrendered German U-boat, possibly UC-97, entering New York Harbor, 29 April 1919.

 

Within a year of the finale of her voyage, UC-97 was a forgotten derelict moored on the Chicago River. Like the other five German submarines, UC-97 had been stripped of everything of conceivable value that could be used for study of German submarine technology. Engines, periscopes, pumps, etc. were scattered about various U.S. Navy commands, laboratories, design bureaus, and defense industries. Finally, in keeping with the Armistice stipulations, the UB-88 was sunk as a target on the West Coast, and three of the submarines were sunk as targets off the Virginia Capes as part of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s tests of sinking ships with aircraft (U-117 was quickly sunk by bombs from U.S. Navy flying boats, and U-140 and UB-148 were sunk by destroyer gunfire.) The U-111 sank on her own while under tow off Lynnhaven Inlet, was raised and then repaired enough to be towed to deep water off the Virginia Capes and scuttled. UC-97 was in no condition to go very far, so she was towed out into Lake Michigan to be used as a target on June 7, 1921 by the Navy reserve vessel USS Wilmette (IX-29.)

Sinking and Forgetting

The Navy made a big production out of sinking the UC-97. The first shot from one of Wilmette’s four 4-inch guns was fired by Gunner’s Mate J. O. Sabin, who had been credited with firing the first U.S. Navy shot in the Atlantic during WWI. The last shot was fired by Gunner’s Mate A. H. Anderson, who had fired the first torpedo at a U-boat during the war. After being hit by 13 4-inch rounds of 18 fired, the UC-97 sank. The famous ship was then immediately forgotten, for decades. The amnesia was so complete, that researchers in the 1960’s looking for evidence of a German U-boat on the Great Lakes were initially met by total incredulity by the U.S. Navy, including our predecessor, the U.S. Navy Historical Center. Multiple attempts to find the UC-97 in the 1960’s and 1970’s failed, and the sub acquired a reputation as one of the most elusive shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Not until 1992 was the sunken sub re-located by a commercial salvor who has continued to revisit and observe the wreck periodically. I had the opportunity to see this very unique, and largely forgotten, piece of U.S. naval history firsthand during a recent visit to the site by the salvor, A & T Recovery.

Surrendered German UC-97 going out Ambrose Channel to lay wreaths on submarine victims.

 

During most of UC-97’s voyage on the Great Lakes, she was under the command of LT Charles A. Lockwood (who moved up from being Executive Officer.) His career survived a diplomatic spat between Canada and the United States. While visiting Canadian ports and transiting the Welland Canal, the UC-97 had refused to fly the Union Jack, which would have been normal for a merchant vessel. Instead, UC-97 flew the U.S. national flag over the Imperial German Navy flag, the standard means to symbolize a captured naval vessel, which resulted in angry feelings among Canadian dock workers and port officials.  Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ultimately had to write a letter informing Canadian authorities that the UC-97 was a commissioned vessel in the United States Navy, which made flying the Union Jack inappropriate (the incidents only served to generate even more publicity.)

Lockwood would go on to be commander of U.S. submarine forces in the Pacific during World War II, after February 1943. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, on his own authority, directed the U.S. Navy to commence immediate unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan, technically a violation of the London Naval Treaty, which had outlawed unrestricted submarine warfare (Japan had abrogated the treaty even before Pearl Harbor.) Vice Admiral Lockwood executed the unrestricted policy with an efficiency that even the Germans couldn’t match in either WWI or WWII, sinking many hundreds of Japanese warships and merchant ships, strangling Japan’s industrial war effort as well as Japan’s ability to resupply far-flung garrisons across the Pacific, contributing immeasurably to the U.S. Navy’s victory in the Pacific. Many of the technological capabilities of the extraordinarily effective U.S. submarine forces in the Pacific in WWII were a direct result of lessons learned from the study German technology on board UC-97 and the other surrendered German U-boats.

Author’s note: I wish thank Mr. Taras Lyssenko for his invitation to accompany him on a visit to the UC-97 site. This note is based on official U.S. Navy sources, but also owes much to the extensive and original research by Chris Dubbs in his book “America’s U-boats: Terror Trophies of World War I” published in 2014.  Also of note, UC-97 is protected from unlawful disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act.

 

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