U-boat would star in proposed underwater park in lower Potomac River

February 28, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

Sheathed in a layer of black rubber to avoid sonar detection, the German World War II U-boat known as the Black Panther served as a model of hit-and-run efficiency, always able to evade Allied counter strikes thanks to clever German engineering.

That same U-boat now sits dead on the floor of the Potomac River near Piney Point, a victim of U.S. experimentation and study that scuttled the submarine in 1949.

Yet efforts to bring life to the sunken U-1105 are under way as Maryland state officials work with the Navy to develop the country's first underwater diving park featuring a sunken WWII vessel.

Don't let the word "park" fool you. The actual 85-foot dive will be restricted to experienced divers because of the swift currents and low visibility in the Potomac River, said Maryland Historical Trust archaeologist Richard Hughes, who is responsible for the park's development.

Divers will not be allowed inside the vessel out of concerns about their safety and preservation of the vessel.

"Our job is to protect the Navy heritage," said William S. Dudley, senior historian at the Naval Historical Center. "We really are dealing here with elements of the past." The U-boat is the property of the federal government.

To appease history buffs who are not divers, a small visitors center probably will be created at a nearby lighthouse, featuring exhibits, historical information, artifacts, photos and diver-made videos of the submarine, Mr. Hughes said.

Launched on April 20, 1944, the Black Panther was one of only 10 U-boats with four-millimeter-thick synthetic rubber coating designed to absorb sonar instead of reflecting it back to Allied ships.

The U-1105 patrolled the west coast of Ireland on her only war patrol in April, 1945, engaging enemy destroyers several times in attacks that left one ship badly damaged.

To avoid detection, the U-boat descended to the ocean floor. Allied vessels engaged in a furious search, setting hundreds of depth charges, but the submarine survived.

At the war's end a month later, the U-boat surrendered to British forces and was eventually turned over to the United States for study.

The Black Panther was sunk twice, first by flooding it in the Chesapeake Bay off Point No Point in the fall of 1946.

Three years later, the boat was brought to the surface and towed to the Potomac River.

There, on Sept. 19, 1949, in a Navy test of a new 250-pound depth charge, the sub was sunk again, this time in 85 feet of water off Piney Point.

To create the park, the trust is seeking $100,000 from a Defense Department fund for preserving historical sites. A number of states already have underwater parks featuring shipwrecks caused by war or accidents. The trust is examining those parks as possible models for the U-boat park.

The dive probably would begin with a trip to the location, marked by a buoy, where divers would be able to follow a single line 85 feet down in muddy water to the sunken vessel, Mr. Hughes said.

Once there, divers would see the 50-year-old submarine's conning tower, still in good condition and the only portion of the U-boat not extensively covered in silt.

Sections of the submarine most likely will be marked off for easy identification, and there is a possibility of installing a surveillance system to protect the vessel from vandals and collectors.

If it weren't for a resourceful Virginia computer technician, the sub's location would remain a mystery.

Fredericksburg resident Uwe Lovas, who said he became interested in shipwrecks as a child, discovered the sunken sub after stumbling upon a Navy error in records of the vessel's location. Mr. Lovas happened upon the mistake in early 1985 while searching for a possible shipwreck that he and two other divers could explore.

Mr. Lovas wondered why the Black Panther would have been sunk in waters several hundred miles off the coast of Virginia, where the U.S. Naval Ordinance Disposal Unit and School recorded it.

To Mr. Lovas' excitement, he determined that the report had transposed the longitude figures from 76 degrees to 67 degrees. The U-boat, he found, was actually just 70 miles from his home.

Mr. Lovas, his brother, Ron, and a friend, Alan Russell, searched in the area three times before being able to tie a line onto the wreck and explore it.

"Most shipwrecks decay rapidly, but this has not suffered that kind of decay," Mr. Lovas said, noting that the fresh waters of the Potomac have been gentler than the seawater enveloping most wrecks.

The divers kept quiet about the discovery for five years before inviting U-boat historian Henry Keatts and a photographer to explore it with them. Mr. Keatts then documented the find in a diving magazine article.

That article subsequently found its way to Maryland state officials, who began working with the Navy to establish the park.

To enlist the support of sport divers, the state is sponsoring a public workshop about the Black Panther in Crownsville March 19.

No date has been set for the park's opening, although Mr. Hughes said it could occur sometime over the next 18 months.

"Ultimately, we see this as an experiment," said Mr. Hughes. It will test whether "the sport diving community will treat this as their site and take an interest in preserving it -- self-regulation, in other words."

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