The Seaweed

USS Champlin DD-601  

Winter 2000


Hugh Baker recalls: "I had a front row view of it all. I had a damage control crew between the Galley and Crews Mess Hall, watched the charges go and saw the sub surface. The Champlin tried to ram the sub, it turned and we struck the tail fin of the sub and ripped a large hole at the water line in the bow area, left side."

Bob Maitre's remembrance of the sinking of the U-856 was: "I was a pointer in the crew of gun mount #2, which was my battle station for over three years. After the automatic firing was shut down, there was still a shell in the breech of gun # 2. In order to get rid of this shell I lined up the submarine in my sights. But, instead of firing by trigger, I had to fire the gun with my foot. Naturally, being a great shot, I missed. Afterwards, I remember being in the bucket brigade and then attending the burial of Capt. Shaffer."

The following article is taken from the April 10, 1994 issue of the Cape Coral News-Press under the headline: "U-boat goes down in history for vet"

"All water tender 3rd class Charles Boes wanted was to get a look at all the excitement.

From his battle station in the fire room of the destroyer Ordronaux, after all, he couldn't see much, and the ship was chasing a German U-boat off the coast of Nova Scotia on April 7, 1944.

But the ship's torpedo officer, Tommy Byrne, who would go on to a 13-year major league pitching career, didn't care whether the 28-year old Bronx native got to see anything or not.

"I sneaked up a couple of times, but all I could see was the rough seas - it was the roughest seas I ever remembered," say Boes, who now lives in Lehigh Acres (FL).

"But every time I came up, Tommy Byrne said, 'Get back down there where you belong' and closed the hatch on me."

The Ordronaux - known by her crew as the "Mighty O" - was on maneuvers off the coast of Maine on April 6, when she received word that a radio transmission had been picked up from U-856, under command of Capt. Fritz Wittenburg, operating near Nova Scotia.

According to chief quartermaster John Varga, an Ohioan now living in Punta Gorda, Wittenburg had more on his mind than destroying Allied shipping.

"This was before the Normandy landing, and the German captain later stated that the Germans knew something big was coming up, and the U-boats were sent to our East Coast to see if they could pick up anything on ship movements.

"At the same time, our powers that be sent all the anti-sub vessels and others ships that had that capacity to sea to try to catch their subs."

When the alarm was sounded that a U-boat actually was prowling around the coast, the destroyers Ordronaux, Champlin, Boyle and Nields were formed into Task Unit 27.2 and sent to the last known location of U-856.

"At dawn, one of our spotter planes sighted the periscope of a sub, " Varga says. "The four destroyers started a retiring search - like a big spiral, working outward. It was very rough out there - 20 to 25-foot seas.

"The search kept on all day, and finally, one of the other destroyers made a wrong turn in the pattern and picked up the sub."

The first destroyer to make contact was the Champlin, followed by the destroyer escort Huse, and the two vessels dropped depth charges and fired hedge-hogs - ballistic depth bombs - on the U-boat.

U-856 dived to 650 feet, and a depth charge exploded beneath her stern, destroying her rudders and propellers.

With the aft torpedo room flooding, Wittenberg had no choice but to surface.

Both American vessels on the scene opened fire on the submarine, and the Champlin rammed her.

Wittenberg decided to scuttle his vessel.

From his battle station as forward gun director, fire controlman 2nd class Otis Roberts saw everything clearly as Ordronaux rolled into the area.

"When we got there, there were German survivors in the water - a lot of them had already drowned," says Roberts, who live in North Fort Myers. "The worst storm I'd ever seen blew up. I mean, it was like a hurricane. It was so rough we couldn't put lifeboats over the side, so we circled around and went right through the middle of them.

"The ship was laid-to in the water, rolling and pitching fiercely. A destroyer is not a real big ship: In rough water, you go over two waves and through the third. So, as the ship rolled down, our people'd grab hold of 'em, and when the ship rolled up, they'd snake 'em in. Finally, the captain said we can't pick up any more of them, and we had to leave a bunch of them to drown."

Mighty O crewmen snaked 17 German sailors aboard, and the Nields picked up another 11. Twenty-eight Germans died in the bitterly cold water of the North Atlantic.

Meanwhile Boes still was trying to see what was happening.

"We were still at general quarters, but I could look out the hatch," he says. "It was cold, The temperature was only 25 to 30, and in that water you'd freeze to death right in a hurry. When the Germans got on board, they were all smiles, It was great. They were just regular guys, all young kids.

Even thought the Germans sailors were the enemy, and had been prowling pretty close to home, the American sailors let them take hot showers in the crew's quarters and gave them dry clothing.

The Americans felt no animosity toward the German sailors. "While those guys were in the water, we could have shot them to pieces with our 40-millimeter guns," Boes says. "But you don't do that to human beings."

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