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U-boat skipper recalls good hunting off East Coast

November 02, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

He sank two ships while on his way back to Germany for repairs.

"The artillery [on his submarine] was OK," he says. "The gun was OK."

Captain Hardegan's exploits have been chronicled by Michael Gannon, a University of Florida history professor, in a book called, appropriately enough, "Operation Drumbeat." As a boy, Mr. Gannon had watched the Gulf Atlantic burn off Jacksonville Beach.

In his book he calls the early U-boat campaign a disaster worse than Pearl Harbor for the United States. Captain Hardegan agrees.

"Here on the East Coast," the German says, "in the first six months we sank nearly 400 ships. There were more than 4,000 dead. It was double Pearl Harbor."

The civilian merchant marine had a far higher casualty rate than the armed forces in the first year of the war. Eventually 6,000 would die.

Captain Hardegan agrees with Mr. Gannon that much of the VTC blame belongs to Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of U.S. naval operations in World War II.

"Adm. Ernest J. King, he knew that we came," Captain Hardegan says. "He got every day my position."

British intelligence had cracked the German naval code. The British knew all about Captain Hardegan, even that he was married and how many children he had.

"They plotted my position every day," he says. "And they gave this information to Adm. Ernest J. King. But he didn't like the British and he left this information on his desk and did nothing.

"He had 25 destroyers and he left them in port. He made no blackout of the coast, no dimming. All the light ships, the light buoys, full of light, all the ships with full navigation lights, so it was very easy for us to navigate on the coast.

"He did nothing. And it was incredible, astonishing, for us. But it was true.

"The failures of Adm. Ernest J. King [are] the only reason I am sitting here and can answer your questions."

Lights of Coney Island

Even on his second patrol there was no real blackout. Some ships were blacked out, but not all. Coney Island was still alight. Ships were still silhouetted against the lights on shore.

Off Coney Island he operated in waters as shallow as 20 feet, his conning tower clearly visible.

"I saw all the pilot boats, the fishing boats, the tugboats. And they saw me! But they never noticed that I was a German submarine."

But by the end of 1942, the Allies were overcoming the U-boats with radar, aircraft and improved anti-submarine tactics. Losses mounted for the Germans. Of 1,171 U-boats, about 700 were sunk.

"About 42 [thousand] or 43,000 were on board the submarines, and about 30,000 died," he says. "That was the highest rate of all the [German] services."

But Captain Hardegan was out of the fighting by the middle of May 1942. After his second patrol, he had mainly training, research and staff assignments at U-boat bases on the Baltic Sea. He ended the war as an infantry battalion commander fighting the British in southern Germany.

"My work in the Baltic Sea was over. The Russians had come, and so I was unemployed," he says.

After the war he made money selling lubricants, chemicals and marine paints. He retired in 1982 here in Bremen where he was born.

During his U-boat campaigns, British intelligence had him pegged as an "aggressive commander." That conclusion clearly still pleases him. He took his work seriously, but he never enjoyed it.

"Enjoy is not the right expression," he says. "Enjoy? You see: War is not fun. It's not enjoyment. It's a very earnest, severe and hard thing. You cannot say a soldier will enjoy the war. That's impossible."

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