When the phone rang and I heard Joe’s voice, I was surprised – I thought we’d already had this conversation, and the issue was settled.
“We’ve had a cancellation Chris; so if you still want to dive the U-853, you’re on the team.”
I was stunned and incredulous from what I just heard… “Do I still want to dive the U-853?!” I almost shouted back into the phone. “Of course I still want to dive the U-853!”
“Well then good, because you’re going to make the dive, Chris.” replied Joe, calmly.
“Thank you!” I shouted back!
“We’ll talk more about it later, Chris. Have a good night.”
“Yeah, you too, Joe. You too!”
As I hung up the phone I was elated! Yes, I was really going! I was going on a dive to explore the wreck of a World War II German U-Boat, with the New England Aquarium Dive Club.
In 1988 after my first two seasons of club dives, I saw something very different and exciting on the upcoming dive club schedule. The dive club was planning to dive a sunken World War II German U-Boat off the coast of Rhode Island, for the first time, as an official NEADC dive.
There were some veteran divers in the club who had dived this wreck before, but only from private charter boats that they had arranged for themselves, independent of the dive club. This would be the first time that the dive club would officially plan and make this dive, and take responsibility for the safety of the divers involved.
Why was this a big deal? Because the sunken German U-Boat wreck had a reputation as a deep and dangerous dive, and there had been several serious diving injuries and fatalities during dives on the wreck of the U-853 in the past. It was known in the diving community as an advanced dive that should be undertaken only by skilled and experienced divers.
So the dive club was restricting the dive to only ten club divers, who had to be approved in advance by the club Dive Master, Joe Branzini. Any club member could apply for a spot on the dive, but the Dive Master would review the applications and have the final say on the ten divers who would be chosen for the dive.
I eagerly applied for a spot on the U-853 club dive, and I really hoped that maybe I’d make the team. But even though I had two active seasons of club diving experience and a good diving reputation within the club, there were more than a few club divers with a lot more experience than I had, and I knew that I was still a long shot for being chosen to go.
At least the Dive Master knew me, since he had been my instructor for my Advanced Open Water Diver training course the previous summer, so I thought that might help me with my chances.
But when the results of the Dive Master’s decision came out, I was disappointed and frustrated, and even more so than I had expected to be, when I found out that I wasn’t going to be on the team. The reason why, was because although I had not been chosen as one of the ten divers to make the dive, I had been picked as the alternate, in case one of the ten divers chosen, needed to cancel going on the dive.
It was maddening to come so close, and not make it! I didn’t think that there was any way that any of the ten divers would cancel their spot, and there was no way I’d get to dive the U-853; at least not this time around.
Joe was decent enough to call me, and explain that while he thought that I was an excellent diver, he also felt that I still needed one more dive season of experience, before I was ready for the level of difficulty involved with the U-Boat dive. He mentioned that several divers had been killed attempting the dive, since recreational scuba divers began diving the U-Boat wreck in the 1950s. What he said made sense to me, but I was still somewhat frustrated to be the guy who was good enough to be the alternate, but not good enough to make the first club dive to the U-853.
But all that had changed now. I was going!
A brief history of the U-853: Many Americans today don’t realize that during World War II, German U-Boat submarines patrolled the entire east coast of the United States, and sank hundreds of American merchant marine ships, killing thousands of American seamen.
The American merchant marine ship convoys were a major part of the ocean going supply lines for vitally needed food, fuel, weaponry and everything else needed to support the Allied forces during the war. But at the start of US involvement of the war in 1941, US convoys were poorly organized and defended. American freighters and tankers became easy targets for Nazi torpedoes. During the first 6 months of the German U-Boat offensive on the US east coast, some 397 ships totaling over 2 million tons were sunk, costing roughly 5,000 lives.
The destruction of American shipping by German submarines in US waters was kept secret from the American public at the time, because the US government was concerned that there could be mass panic if Americans knew that Germany had brought the war so close to home.
But as the war progressed, American convoys became better organized and more effectively defended by US Navy destroyers and U-Boat hunting aircraft. US shipping losses steadily decreased, while from the coast of Florida to Maine, twenty German U-Boats were attacked and sunk from 1941 to 1945.
By April of 1945 Germany was on the verge of defeat and surrender, but the U-853 was still fighting. The U-Boat torpedoed and sank the USS Eagle near Portland, Maine on April 23rd, 1945. The next day, the USS Muskegon found and attacked U-853 but failed to destroy the submarine, which escaped and continued to head south along the New England coast.
The U-853 on the surface in a German port.
Officers and crew of the U-853 on deck.
On May 5th, 1945, U-853 torpedoed and sank the SS Black Point off Point Judith, Rhode Island. The Black Point was the last US merchant ship lost in World War II. The US Navy organized a “hunter-killer” group that included four American warships and two blimps, to find and destroy U-853.
On the morning of May 6th, the submarine was located by sonar while hiding on the bottom at a depth of 110 feet. The US Navy group attacked U-853 for the next 16 hours with depth charges, as the German U-Boat attempted to escape. But the submarine was sunk and destroyed by two large holes blown through it’s hull by depth charge blasts. All 55 German crew members were killed as they were trapped inside the flooded U-Boat and drowned.
A depth charge explodes underwater during the US Navy attack on the U-853.
The U-853 lies on the bottom seven miles east of Block Island at a depth of 126 feet. The U-Boat wreck sits upright with the periscope rising from the conning tower to a depth of 100 feet. Most of the 55 crew member bodies remain within the hull, which has been declared a war grave. Recreational divers first visited the wreck in 1953.
The night before the dive, I didn’t sleep very well. Not because I was nervous about the dive, but because I was too excited to calm down enough to stop thinking about what it would be like to dive the sunken wreck of a World War II German U-Boat. So I was a little bleary eyed early on the morning of the dive as I drove to Point Judith Rhode Island, where we would board our dive boat and then head out to the wreck.
But after our half hour long boat ride reached the site of the wreck, and it was time to gear up, any fatigue I felt from sleep deprivation was blown away by a rush of adrenalin and excitement. The Dive Master chose to buddy up with me, since I was the “rookie” on the team and he wanted to keep an eye on me, in case I got into trouble down at the wreck.
After a final review of our dive plan, and a very thorough gear check, we were ready to go in. The early June weather was sunny and bright, with blue skies and white fair weather clouds. There was a light sea breeze and the ocean was relatively calm with only small and rhythmic swells passing through and gently rocking our boat.
Striding off the platform on the stern of the dive boat, I plunged into the cold green ocean waters of the Atlantic. The initial shock of the cold water around my face and flooding into my wet suit actually felt good – it was exhilarating and heightened my excitement. Joe and I swam on the surface to a floating buoy attached to a rope that led down to the wreck. We exchanged OK signals and then thumbs down as we dumped the air out of our buoyancy vests and began to sink down beneath the sea.
We followed the rope down, and at about 60 feet of depth I was enjoying a unique sensation that divers often get on the deeper dives in New England waters. A perception of being suspended in an infinite sea of green, and feeling as if I was the only thing that existed in this green infinity. Unless I looked at my dive buddy, all I could see was myself – in sharply outlined contrast to the bright and perfectly uniform color of green in this undersea Atlantic green universe; devoid of any other shape or form, except for my own.
Some novice divers, when having this experience for the first time, become disoriented and anxious as they feel totally alone in the endlessly featureless green sea, and sometimes they are literally unable to tell which way is up or down. (A quick look at your own bubbles racing upwards will reveal the answer)
But I loved the feeling of being suspended in this green sea of infinity, because it was like nothing I had ever experienced anywhere else, and it created a very uniquely surreal visual perception.
It was something like this, only when you get the full effect by looking out into the void instead of up at other divers, the contrast between yourself and the sea of green is much more sharply defined.
But soon as we got deeper, the green of the Atlantic got increasingly darker, and I had a very powerful sense of being down much deeper than ever before. My deepest dive in New England before this was to 90 feet, but as I saw the needle of my depth gauge pushed over to the right side of the dial and just below 100 feet, this seemed like a much deeper dive, even though it actually wasn’t; at least not yet. This was because it was much colder and darker than my previous deep dive, and dark enough to make the luminescent dial of my depth gauge glow as the needle now pointed to 115 feet. Seeing my depth gauge glowing in the dark at 115 feet down was an awe inspiring sight.
But as soon as I looked away from my depth gauge, I saw something much more astounding that filled me with a far greater sense of awe – It was the huge and looming ghostly form of the sunken U-Boat. It was suddenly right there in front of me. I was hovering just above the top of the hull, with the sub’s conning tower to my left, and unmistakably recognizable.
All photographs of the U-853 wreck are by James Lee.
But where was my dive buddy? I was suddenly irritated with myself, because I knew that I had already made a mistake, by forgetting to maintain visual contact with Joe as we followed the rope down to the wreck. But we had already previously discussed as part of our dive plan, that if we got separated during our descent, that we would look for each other at the U-Boat’s conning tower. So I swam over to the conning tower to wait for Joe.
Looking up above me, I quickly found him. He was descending slowly by using his hands to grab the rope and lower himself down it, to make a more gradual descent. I was even more dismayed as I realized that I was supposed to do the same thing, but I had been so fascinated by my “sea of green” experience, that I had forgotten this as well.
I also realized that as a result, I had descended much faster than I should have on a deep dive like this one. A slow descent on a deep dive helps to make the effects of the increasing water pressure on a diver more gradual. My rapid descent didn’t mean that I was immediately in danger, but it could mean that I might be more susceptible to problems with mental impairment and physical coordination during the dive.
So here we had hardly begun our our dive, and I had already screwed up twice – by not staying close to my dive buddy, and then by making a rapid descent. ‘No wonder Joe thought that I wasn’t ready for this dive.’ I thought, as I watched him move down towards me.
Experienced divers can be very expressive with hand signals and eye contact to communicate with another diver, and as Joe hovered in front of me, he delivered a message that I got right away. I could see the irritation in his eyes inside his face mask as he pointed at me, then pointed up, followed by pointing down, and then with both his hands out with his palms down, he raised and lowered them a few times rapidly – the divers hand signal for “Slow down”. I knew that his underwater sign language meant “You were supposed to descend slowly!” I could only nod my head in agreement, and return him an OK sign to let him know that I got his message.
Then Joe glared at me again as he pointed at me, then back at himself, and then with both his index fingers held close together side by side, he pointed them forward. This meant “Stay close to me!” Again, I sheepishly returned him an OK sign, as I knew that I was getting chewed out in underwater sign language.
Joe then waved his arm forward in the direction of the bow of the U-boat, indicating that it was time to get going and move forward with our dive plan. The U-853 was 252 feet long, and we were going to swim a complete circle around the wreck from bow to stern, and then return to the conning tower and begin our ascent. Barring any unforeseen problems, our allowed time down at the wreck would be 15 minutes.
Although it was somewhat dark down at the wreck, we were both using powerful dive lights, and the visibility down at 120 feet was an unusually good 30 feet, so we could see the wreck of the U-Boat quite well. It was almost hard for me to comprehend that I was really seeing an actual World War II submarine sent on a mission from Nazi Germany, to bring the war to the US coast and sink American ships.
But within five minutes of our dive, I began to feel very strange. I felt like I was suddenly under the influence of a powerful sedative drug, as my mind struggled to think clearly and I felt increasingly uncoordinated physically. I began to feel like I didn’t know what I was doing, and the feeling was getting worse. I knew what the problem was, even though I’d never had it before. I was experiencing Nitrogen Narcosis; a mental and physical impairment caused by the nitrogen in my air supply being absorbed into my blood.
Nitrogen occurs naturally in the air we all breathe, and it normally has no effect on us. But while scuba diving at depths below 100 feet, nitrogen can cause a diver to feel drugged or drunk, and I was now obviously under the influence of Nitrogen Narcosis. This made me feel anxious, since I knew if it got any worse, that I wouldn’t be able to continue to dive at the depth of the wreck, because I’d be too out of it to dive safely. It was getting bad enough that I was almost ready to get Joe’s attention and signal to him that I was in trouble.
The only good thing about Nitrogen Narcosis, is that if a diver ascends to a lesser depth, like up from 100 to 80 feet, the effects will soon stop. But I also knew that if I had to swim back to the conning tower and follow the rope up to 80 feet, that Joe would abort our dive, and I hated that idea. I hated the thought of becoming the guy that everyone in the dive club would know, couldn’t handle diving the U-853.
But I wasn’t foolish enough to die for the sake of pride, so I decided to give myself a test to see if I could still safely function while diving the wreck. I tested myself by doing an underwater gear check. I looked at my depth gauge and understood that it read 122 feet. I checked my tank gauge and saw that my air supply was still plentiful. I checked to see if my alternate regulator was still in the pocket on my dive vest. I located the independent regulator that ran from my pony bottle; a small extra scuba tank attached to my regular tank, which was for use in an “out of air” emergency. My dive knife was in it’s sheath and strapped to my leg. The buckle on my weight belt was closed, and I knew where the power inflator was on my buoyancy vest.
I began to feel less anxious and more confident as I knew that even though I was feeling “narced”, I was still capable of continuing the dive safely, because I still knew what I was doing. I had passed the test.
I noticed Joe looking back at me, since I had fallen behind him while I stopped to do my gear check. He flashed me an “Are you OK?” sign, which I returned as a yes, and then I swam forward to catch up with him. I still felt the effects of narcosis, but I knew I could handle it, and that felt good. There would be no aborted dive today…
Once again, I was really enjoying the dive and still in a state of awe and amazement as we continued to explore the sunken U-Boat. But when I swam directly over a huge gaping hole in the top of the hull, I quickly realized that it was one of the blast holes from a depth charge explosion. It was one of the two blast holes that flooded the U-Boat, and resulted in the deaths of 55 men, who’s remains were still inside the wreck.
Suddenly my mood became solemn as I stared down into the blackness of that huge and fatal hole. I reflected upon the fact that this wasn’t just a sight seeing tour and a big adventure, but that a tragedy had occurred here. Even though they were the enemies of our country at the time, 55 men had died here while fighting for their country, their homeland and their families. And I was swimming over their underwater tomb. It was a very solemn realization for me, as I thought about them… and what had happened to them here.
Soon we reached the bow and we were headed around the other side of the wreck to the stern. As we passed the deck gun it was an impressive sight, and my solemn mood had passed. The deck gun was a reminder that the U-Boat’s crew had taken other lives before they also became the casualties of war.
Swimming towards the stern.
The stern torpedo tube of the U-853.
By now we had completed our circular route around the entire wreck, and Joe motioned to me that it was time to head back to the conning tower, so we could begin our ascent back up the rope to the surface.
Closer view of the conning tower.
Joe and I both grabbed the rope attached to the conning tower and we made a slow ascent upward towards the surface. I watched my rate of ascent very carefully, because now it was crucial to not ascend too quickly. A rapid ascent could cause an attack of decompression sickness, or “the bends” and be potentially fatal.
Due to the maximum depth of our dive at 124 feet, in combination with the 15 minutes of time we spent down at the wreck, we had to make a mandatory 15 minute decompression stop at 20 feet below the surface. Again, this would lessen our chances of an attack of decompression sickness after we were back on the surface again.
Soon our 15 minute decompression stop was over, and we rose up to the surface, as our heads were once again above the water and back in the atmosphere of unlimited air and bright sunshine sparkling in highlights upon the surface of the sea.
After exploring a dark and ghostly relic of war and death, it was good to be alive and back in the realm of the living.