Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Battle of Point Judith

The northern Atlantic was a dangerous place to be during WWII. Allied merchant ships were at the mercy of German U-boat submarines and many ships and merchant seamen were lost to the roving U-boat attacks. For most of the war years, merchant vessels were forced to travel in convoys, with U. S. warships deployed as escorts in order to abort attacks.
As with any war, technological advances progressed with great speed due to necessity. WWII was no exception. The emergence of such scientific tools as RADAR, SONAR, and LORAN, a very early form of global positioning, as well as other communication advances, made great strides in helping Allied warships detect and destroy large numbers of German U-boats, making the waters around the North American coast a much safer place for merchant ships to travel.
As the war progressed and technological advances emerged, U-boat attacks within the waters between Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine became so scarce, a complacency emerged among many of the merchant marine's vessels. This complacency was further enhanced on May 4, 1945 when Admiral Dönitz, the successor to Adolph Hitler who committed suicide on April 30, declared a cease-fire. The order was sent out to all of the German armies, air force, and naval fleet. A number of the remaining U-boats, however, were submerged at the time of the communication, and were unable to hear the news of the German surrender. Such was the case of U-853.
One week before Hitler's suicide, U-853 was patrolling near the Gulf of Maine when it discovered a lone vessel, the PE-56. A member of a class of patrol craft known as Eagle Boats, the PE-56 was slow and no match for the modern U-boat. 62 men were on board the PE-56 that day. Only 13 survived the U-boat attack.
Upon a court of inquiry, the reason for the sinking was determined to be a boiler explosion, not a submarine attack. The highly secret U-Boat Tracking Room at Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters knew better, but was unable to give testimony at the court of inquiry for fear that the highly classified program would be discovered by the Germans.
Following the attack on PE-56, U-853 headed south along the New England coast, biding its time in search of another easy target. It was during this time, submerged while eluding detection from patrolling U. S. warships, that the unheard cease-fire order was issued.
On the morning of May 5, 1945, the merchant collier SS Black Point was sailing northwest off of Block Island, RI, en route to Boston. Cargo was 7000 tons of coal to be delivered to the Edison Power Plant in South Boston, MA. These waters had been void of U-boat attacks for quite some time, and the captain and crew of the Black Point had no reason to think that this trip would be any more dangerous than countless others they had made previously in this region. In fact, the captain was so confident of the ship's safe passage, that the U-boat lookouts weren't even posted.
At about 5:40 PM, the Black Point was approximately three miles south of the Point Judith lighthouse, and could be seen quite clearly by the lighthouse's lookout. As the lookout was entering the sighting within the lighthouse's logbook, he heard a large explosion. It was at that moment that the Black Point's stern was blown off by a torpedo fired by the U-853.
It took approximately 15 minutes for the Black Point, or what was left of her, to roll on its side and sink completely. Twelve of the Forty-one merchant seamen aboard the ship were killed. Lonnie Whitson Lloyd, a member of the Black Point's crew, was the last American sailor to die in WWII's Atlantic campaign.
Word of the Black Point's sinking spread rapidly. Not far away, the Yugoslavian freighter Kamen witnessed the explosion, and within two minutes a radio message was transported from the Kamen. Risking attack from the submarine, the Kamen immediately changed course and sped to the rescue of the surviving Black Point sailors.
Almost immediately after the explosion, a message was transmitted from the Point Judith Light Station to the 1st Naval District headquarters in Boston, which immediately passed the message on to Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters in New York City. The remnants of an anti-submarine task group, TG 60.7, had left New York at noon that day, headed to the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston for a complete overhaul. The remaining force consisted of destroyer Ericcson, destroyer-escorts Amick and Atherton, and the patrol frigate Moberly. All were diverted to the scene of the attack. Far to the southwest at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, two Navy blimps, K-16 and K-58, were ordered to move immediately toward the site of the Black Point sinking and join in the hunt. They were not to arrive at the scene until approximately 5:40 the next morning.
After patrolling the area and searching for the sub, it was determined that the U-853 had most probably headed south toward a steep shoal known as East Ground, which was approximately 12 miles south of Point Judith and 9 miles from the Black Point's sinking. It was here that many U-boats in the past had gone to in order to avoid detection from American sonar.
Just after 8:00PM, only 2 1/2 hours after the Black Point sinking, the sub was located by the Atherton's sonar operator. At 8:30PM, the captain of the Atherton ordered his crew to commence firing upon the sub. Thirteen magnetic depth charges were dropped into the sea. One explosion was detected, complete with air bubble and an oil slick. It was uncertain if the explosion was caused by a hit on the U-853, or had merely hit a wreck on the bottom of the ocean floor. The Atherton conducted two more attacks within the next three hours, and more explosions and oil and air bubbles were observed, along with some life jackets and pieces of wood and other debris.
Just after midnight on the 6th of May, the Atherton let loose one more barrage of depth charges, resulting in more explosions and debris. At just after 1:00AM, the captain of the Atherton radioed headquarters with confirmation of the kill. The reply from headquarters ordered him to continue the attack.
Perhaps no other warship ever took such a beating as U-853 got that day. The Atherton dropped another barrage of depth charges upon the U-boat, then the Moberly took a turn. Each barrage resulted in more explosions and debris, oil and air bubbles. For good measure, the Moberly dropped one more round of depth charges upon the dead sub.
At 5:30 AM, though no movement was detected, the Moberly delivered one more round of depth charges upon the U-boat's hull. Shortly thereafter, one of the blimps arrived from New Jersey. In order to mark the area, the blimp dropped dye markers and a smoke float. It also informed the warships that no movement was detected.
The Atherton moved in and picked up debris from the scene. Among the items collected were, "German escape lungs and life jackets, several life rafts, abandon-ship kits, and an officer's cap which was later judged to belong to the submarine's skipper."
Undeterred by the evidence, the attack continued. The Ericsson delivered another depth charge attack, followed by rocket bombs which were dropped by the two blimps.
At 6:40AM, the Atherton launched first one, then another attack, followed by yet another depth-charge attack by the Moberly. After a short respite, the Moberly dropped one more barrage upon the sub, followed by another by the Atherton.
At 7:45AM, the Atherton lowered a whaleboat in order to collect more of the debris floating to the surface. It was while lowering the whaleboat that the sole American casualty in the Battle of Point Judith occurred. TM3c Robert A. Griep fractured his left arm and was treated by the ship's medical officer.
At 8:00AM, the task group commander, Cdr. Francis C.B. McCune, radioed Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters that he believed that due to the nature and mass of the recovered debris, the U-boat was destroyed. Not receiving any orders from headquarters to cease and desist, McCune ordered the attack to continue.
The morning which ensued consisted of the warships dropping depth charge barrages, then picking up the scattered debris each round produced. Alternating turns, each ship ship was able to keep its crew in high form while waiting for orders from headquarters to stop the attacks.
Finally, at 12:25PM, the ships received a radio message from Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters to cease the bombing. A marker buoy was placed at a point bearing approximately 099° True, 14,000 yards east of Sandy Point Light on Block Island. The three ships which remained at the scene, the Atherton, the Ericcson, and the Mobley then departed the scene and headed to Boston, reverting back to their earlier mission. The blimps were also redeployed.
The Penguin, a submarine rescue vessel, arrived shortly thereafter to the marked area. Divers from the Penguin determined that the U-583 was indeed lying at the bottom of the ocean, and showed no signs of life. It was also determined that of the 465 depth charges, hedgehog projectiles, and rocket bombs which were launched at the sub, only two were direct hits.
The U-853 remains at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and is a popular site for divers. The crew, with one exception, remains on the boat. The body of one of the German sailors was found floating near the Rhode Island coast and was buried at the Rhode Island Cemetery Annex. On the third Sunday of November 2001, the traditional day upon which German military dead are honored, several German and American naval personnel gathered at the grave site to pay respects to the unknown sailor.
The Battle of Point Judith was the final incident of WWII in the Atlantic. In retrospect, it is a shame that so many lives were lost, including their own, due to the sole fact that a cease-fire radio message was unheard by the crew of the U-853.
*Most of the info for this article was obtained from "The Battle of Point Judith" by Ralph DiCarpio, which appears on the website DE History and Stories.

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