Warren J. Drell, 80, warrant officer in Navy, researcher on satellites

March 15, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Warren J. Drell, a retired Navy chief warrant officer whose actions contributed to the sinking of a German submarine in the early days of World War II, died of kidney failure Saturday at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He was 80 and had lived in Elkridge for many years.

After a lengthy career in the Navy, he worked in satellite research at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Mr. Drell lied about his age to join the Marine Corps at 15. About two years later, in 1939, he enlisted in the Navy and became a radio operator. He was assigned to the USS Roper, a World War I-vintage, four-stack Atlantic fleet destroyer.

"He was a warm, friendly, charitable man, thoughtful and reflective," said Jerry Pech, a friend and former Navy officer who lives in Columbia. "He had a tenacious memory of the events of World War II. He was a great teller of historically verifiable stories."

As a young radio operator, Mr. Drell was aboard the Roper off Cape Cod on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when he heard the Navy's message that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan. His ship returned to Norfolk, Va., for patrol and escort duty.

"Warren told me how futile the initial efforts were to counter the German submarine threat immediately off our coast," Mr. Pech said.

Just after midnight April 14, 1942, Mr. Drell and fellow crew members located a German sub operating in shallow waters about 17 miles from Nags Head, N.C. Once the Roper radar identified the sub - later determined to be the U-85 - it was spotted by searchlight.

In the fight that ensued, the U-boat captain fired a torpedo that narrowly missed the port side of the Roper. A gunner aboard the Roper fired artillery shells at the submarine and hit its conning tower. The Roper also dropped depth charges, and the U-85 was sunk.

"He told me the success against the U-85 was as much luck as skill," Mr. Pech, said. "It nevertheless gave allied naval forces hope that submarines could be defeated under the right conditions."

Mr. Drell was later assigned to Japan and the Panama Canal Zone and retired from the Navy in 1968. He then was hired by APL and worked on satellite testing for 10 years. After retiring, he took a once-a-week job in maintenance at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia.

A member of the Knights of Columbus, Mr. Drell made weekly visits to area nursing homes with his collie-mix dog, Buffy, to cheer up patients through the volunteer Pets on Wheels program. He also enjoyed fishing.

He took courses to be certified as a Howard County master gardener and liked planting and identifying trees. He was a member of the Fort Meade Garden Club.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. March 23 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, 4801 Ilchester Road in Ilchester, where he was a member.

Mr. Drell is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Shirley Eugene; two sons, Warren J. Drell Jr. of Woodlawn and Rene Drell of Ellicott City; three daughters, Diane Aldridge of Glen Rock, Pa., Virginia Hornberger of Westminster and Charlotte Lough of Ellicott City; two brothers, John G. Drell of Portland, Ore., and Lashley Drell of Sheridan, Wyo.; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

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