Navy veteran recalled his World War II experiences

Decades after the war, he befriended the German U-boat captain he had captured

November 11, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Whenever David R. Owen answered the phone, it was always with a crisp and enthusiastic "Bridge," no doubt a holdover from his World War II days when he was an executive officer and navigator serving aboard the destroyer USS Ordronaux.

Owen, who died last week, was my Riderwood neighbor for years, and I'd often go to his Thornton Road home for an evening of exquisite vintage port, Stilton and plenty of sea tales — and he had them to tell.

Owen had a great capacity for friendship and was a charming and engaging storyteller.

Owen's love of the sea began as a child growing up in Hawaii, where his father was an Army surgeon.

"I should say that through my entire life, dating back to my early years of growing up in the Hawaiian Islands, I had been fascinated with anything to do with the water, particularly salt water," Owen, who went on to become a highly regarded admiralty lawyer, said in a 1998 oral history.

When World War II came along, it was natural that he enlisted in the Navy, where he saw service in both the Atlantic and Pacific during his five-year naval career.

He loved talking about his beloved Ordronaux and its crew. The vessel was built and launched in 1942 at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s giant Fore River shipyard near Quincy, Mass.

There was also a Baltimore angle, I recall Owen telling me. The vessel had been sponsored by Mrs. J. Henry Judik, a member of a locally prominent business family. The ship was named for John Ordronaux, one of the most successful privateers of the War of 1812.

Owen told many compelling stories, none better than the Ordronaux's pursuit of U-boat 856 with a task force of other destroyers and destroyer escorts, on April 7, 1944 — Good Friday — in stormy waters off the coast of southern Nova Scotia.

After several depth-charge attacks, which brought the sub to the surface, and being rammed by the USS Champlin, U-boat 856 finally plunged to the bottom, leaving 17 crewmen and the captain, Fritz Whittenberg, bobbing in extremely rough seas.

The Ordronaux's commanding officer ordered the vessel stopped to pick up the German survivors.

"This was a very dangerous thing to do because we had been told there might be another U-boat in the area," Owen said in the 1998 interview.

"Nevertheless, it was a case of the brotherhood of the sea. I did not make the decision because I was not the commanding officer, but I was prepared for the worst, which had already happened several times in the North Atlantic when U-boat crews came aboard and tried to take over their saviors," he said.

Owen strapped on his .45-caliber pistol and went down to the quarterdeck to help take on the German prisoners. Just to make sure the operation was trouble-free, he ordered the first-class carpenter's mate to stand by the gangway with a tommy gun at the ready.

The first one to reach the Ordronaux's deck was the U-boat captain.

"He, like all the others, was full of water. He drew himself to attention on the quarterdeck, a tall, blond, handsome 26-year-old. As I pointed my pistol toward him, he pointed disdainfully back and said in perfect English, 'I don't think you'll be needing that today,'" recalled Owen. "It was, indeed, the perfect, ultimate put-down."

Throughout the evening, he interrogated his prisoners with the help of a ship's cook who spoke fluent German.

"I kept notes of what each one had said. … I made each one of them sign my log, which I still have. On the page signed by Fritz Whittenberg … are my words in pencil. 'Captain. Won't talk.' That was the ultimate compliment to a professional naval officer," he said in the oral history.

Years later, he wanted to locate Whittenberg and learn his fate. The German naval attache in Washington explained that they were unable to give out addresses for former U-boat captains for fear of reprisals, adding that many had moved to rural and rugged western Canada and even Alaska, to lessen that possibility and to live anonymously.

But Owen pressed on, and by 1990, he had located Whittenberg, who was a successful architect living in Bremen. Owen and his wife, Eleanor, traveled to Germany and spent three days visiting his former wartime adversary.

They struck up a lasting friendship and had maintained correspondence until recent years, when both became increasingly frail and Owen developed macular degeneration.

"I consider this one of the few nice stories to come out of World War II," said Owen in the 1998 interview.

In his study, he had a framed, worn and somewhat tattered American flag that had flown atop the Ordronaux from the "Aegean Sea to the East China Sea," he said, after the ship was repositioned from the North Atlantic to the Pacific for the end of the war.

On Aug. 15, 1945, as the ship patrolled "Kamikaze Alley" off the west coast of Okinawa, word came that the Japanese had surrendered.

"I went straight up to the signal bridge and took down the colors, these very colors, and kept them for an important occasion," Owen said in the interview.

"It has an emotional and historic significance to me because of the occasion on which I took possession of it," he said, adding: "It's the only article of government property that I ever purloined."

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