The Weather Conditions -
The night of April 13 was
exceptionally clear; the stars shone bright on a
calm, placid sea. The USS Roper's twin propellers
churned surface plankton into a bioluminescent wake.
The light on Bodie Island offered a bearing point
for the ship's navigation.
Urgent Mission Briefing...German U-boat U-85
zur See Eberhard Greger was the U-boat's first and
only captain. Greger and the U-85 made three war
patrols in the North Atlantic with very little
success. On September 9, 1941 he fired a spread of
torpedoes into Convoy SC-42 but made no hits. Still
dogging the convoy, the following day " the U-85
made two attacks. In the first, one hit was
observed, and one detonation heard beyond. In the
second attack, two detonations were heard, but these
must have been depth charges dropped by HMCS
Skeena." Greger reported three ships sunk and one
probably damaged, but only the 4,748-ton Thistleglen
went to the bottom.
After another attack, on January 21, 1942, "the U-85
heard two detonations and after 10 minutes observed
the damaged ship in sinking condition with a heavy
list." Greger tried to take credit for sinking a
9,000-ton vessel, but no allied ships were reported
lost. On February 9, Greger made his second
confirmed kill: the 5,408-ton Empire Fuselier.
March 21, 1942 found the U-85 on its way to the
American shooting gallery. The crossing took only
three weeks. Then the U-boat cruised offshore
between New York and North Carolina, reaching as far
south as Wimble Shoals. During this time it was
credited with sinking the 4,904-ton Chr. Knudsen,
which left New York on April 8, bound for Capetown,
South Africa, and which disappeared without a trace.
Constructed between 1936-1940.
218 feet long.
A type VIIB boat.
Maximum surface speed was 17.2-17.9 knots
and their maximum submerged speed was 8 knots.
Carried 14 torpedoes (4 in forward tubes, 8
in forward torpedo compartment, 1 in aft torpedo
tube and 1 aft torpedo compartment).
88mm deck gun mounted forward of conning
Designed to carry 48 men (4 officers and 44
Two diesel engines/two electric motors
Commander Howe's decision was to investigate.
Out there" The Roper
plowed the sea at a steady 18 knots, on a heading of
162. At six minutes past midnight, she made a radar
contact bearing 190 at a range of 2,700 yards.
" Immediately afterwards the sound man, echo
ranging from bow to bow, heard rapidly turning
propellers at a range and bearing that coincided
with those obtained by the Radar operator. Then
almost dead ahead, the lookout picked up what
appeared to be the wake of a small vessel running
away at high speed. Range decreased very slowly."
Assume the target is no threat. Maintain
current course and speed.
Investigate the target, come to bearing 192,
increase speed to 20 knots.
it be the enemy?"
Lieutenant Commander Howe's
suspicions were aroused. He decided to investigate
the contact, proceeding at 20 knots to overtake.
But now he had another decision to make. Should he
alert his already over worked crew?
Ring General Quarters.
Wait until a positive identification of the
suspicious target is made before alerting his tired
Pursuit" All duty
personnel raced to their combat stations. "Orders
were given to prepare the machine guns, the three
inch battery, the torpedoes and the depth charges
for action. As the chase began the Executive
Officer went to the flying bridge to keep the
Conning Officer informed of the movements of the
No recognition signals were sent by the unknown
vessel. Instead, it began a series of course
changes that were obviously evasive. Although no
one aboard the Roper knew it yet, they had a U-boat
on the run.
The U-boat turned to port in increments, testing the
Roper to determine if she had indeed spotted it.
Initiate hot pursuit to identify the target as
quickly as possible.
Carefully maneuver to minimize an unknown threat.
The Roper was not fooled, nor was Lieutenant
Commander Howe taking chances. With the fate of the
Jacob Jones so vividly on his mind, he kept his ship
slightly off the fleeing U-boat’s starboard quarter.
The Roper gradually overtook the U-boat. As the
range decreased to 700 yards and contact was
imminent, the U-boat captain reacted predictably,
like a cornered rabbit. He fired a torpedo from his
stern tube and tried to hit the destroyer "down the
throat." Howe’s prescience saved his ship. Sailors
held their breath as they watched the deadly fish
slide close past the port side and across the
The U-boat made a radical turn to starboard. Its
turning radius was tighter than the destroyer’s,
permitting it to turn inside the other’s circle.
Ensign Kenneth MacLean Tebo held a steady helm
throughout the battle, keeping a sharp eye on the
dark ghostly image.
Lieutenant William Winfield Vanous, Executive
Officer, directed the training of the 24-inch
searchlight and brightly illuminated the enemy’s
conning tower; already, German sailors were pouring
out of the hatch and preparing the deck gun for
After turning on the search light, do you:
Ask them to surrender.
Battle is On!"
Boatswain’s Mate Jack Edwin Wright spotted his
target, pulled the trigger of his 50-caliber machine
gun, and with deadly accuracy poured a steady stream
of tracers into the men on the deck of the U-boat.
Several German gunners were picked up physically by
the force of the bullets and hurled into the water.
As more men scrambled to take their place they were
cut down like stalks of wheat. The conning tower
became a charnel house of the dead and dying.
Moreover, at such close range the projectiles
penetrated the ballast tanks; the U-boat’s outer
skin was soon riddled with holes.
While the Germans were kept from loading and firing
their deck gun, the Roper's 3-inch gun came on line.
Coxswain Harry Hayman, "a gun captain who had never
before been in charge of a gun during firing,"
spotted his shots with such precision that he soon
landed an explosive shell at the water line below
the conning tower, breaching the hull and making it
impossible for the U-boat to dive.
rats deserting a sinking ship, German sailors poured
out of the conning tower hatch and cowered behind
The U-boat began to lose headway. The Roper turned
at her maximum rate and prepared to fire a torpedo.
The Germans jumped from the U-boat's bulbous tank on
the side away from the incoming shells. The U-boat
slowly came to a stop and settled by the stern, as
if scuttling ports had been opened aft. By the time
the Roper's turn brought her up behind the U-boat,
it had slipped beneath the sea.
The Roper must make sure the submarine
has been destroyed. Do you:
Move in over the spot she went down.
Hold your position to look for oil
slicks and debris.
Photos taken from the USS Rope
r of U-85 sinking.
Tough Decision" The
Roper had to be sure of the kill. If the submarine
was only slightly damaged, it could slip below the
surface, turn to face the Roper and fire from its
forward tubes and sink the Roper where she sat. Not
sure whether the slow settling from the stern was a
trick maneuver by the submarine, the Roper drove in
on the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. This
avoided the forward tubes of the U-boat if they were
As she drove in, screams for help from thirty-five
or forty German sailors were clearly audible (in
both German and English) to the men aboard the
Roper. Ignoring their cries would border on
inhumanity. Stopping for rescue would border on
insanity if the U-boat was preparing her forward
This is a tough call. What is your decision? Do you:
Move on in to the spot she went down.
Battle is Finished"
The cries of the men in the water were difficult to
ignore, but this was war and the Roper could not
afford to risk stopping for rescue when the U-boat
could still be turning under water to fire its
forward torpedos and sink her. For the safety of her
own crew, she had to first make sure that the U-boat
was going to go to the bottom.
She drove in on the spot where the U-85 went down.
The Roper's torpedos, which were ready to fire, were
secured by the crew. A barrage of eleven depth
charges was laid down "at a position determined upon
by an eye estimate and an excellent sound contact."
Each depth charge weighed three hundred pounds, and
was set to go off at fifty feet below the surface.
Racks, Y -guns, and K-guns delivered the attack.
Large air bubbles and oil slicks resulted indicating
the depth charges had done their job. Unavoidably,
the depth charges likely also killed or injured many
or all of the Germans in the water. But now she
could rescue the survivors. Or could she?
Continue hunting for other U-boats.
Night" U-boats were known
to work together at times and Lt Commander Howe of
the Roper wisely gave the order to continue sweeping
the area for other sonar or radar contacts.
The crew of the Roper was, by now, exhausted. The
U-boat was, hopefully, finished. But what about the
Germans in the water?
Could there still be survivors to be rescued? Could
there be a partner U-boat lurking nearby? What do
Continue hunting through the night.
Long Restless Night" The
Roper held a straight, steady course away from the
position of the sunken U-boat. Lt. Commander Howe
knew very well that U-boats were known to work in
consort, so there was the ever-present possibility
that another pack wolf lurked nearby and was
watching everything. This made the conduct of any
rescue work before daylight far too dangerous to
risk. With her antenna sweeping and sound gear
pinging continuously, the Roper searched throughout
the night for other signs of the enemy. No one got
Should the Roper call for help? Or could she begin
recovery on her own in the morning daylight? What do
Call for air support.
Handle it alone.
Arrives at Dawn" At dawn a
Navy PBY plane flown by Lieutenant C. V. Horrigan
swooped over the area to conduct a visual search. In
the light of day oil slicks and a large field of
debris could be seen. Horrigan dropped a depth
charge on a particularly suspicious area. Two more
planes appeared on the scene; they dropped smoke
floats to draw attention to bodies on the surface.
The Roper drove into the area just after 7 a.m.,
launched two lifeboats, "and commenced recovering
bodies and floating articles."
all times at least one plane circled the destroyer
for protection against other U-boats. At one time as
many as seven planes of various types flew cover for
recovery operations. An observation blimp arrived at
7:30. The potential situation was too serious to
leave anything to fate.
At 0750 the first boat returned with five bodies,
and at 0834 hoisting of fifteen more bodies by means
of a small davit was commenced. Suddenly, at 0850
the sound operator detected a sharp echo at a range
of 2700 yards.
Has she found another U-boat? Do you investigate the
Investigate the new target.
Contact" Was this another U-boat? The commander didn't hesitate. Leaving the
two lifeboats to continue their grisly task, the Roper took off at
high speed toward the target.
The contact was solid but didn't seem to be moving. Was it an old wreck?
Or maybe a new German trick?
Command Decision: Can you verify the contact with sonar? Or do you just depth charge it?
What do you do?:
Fire depth charges.
Identify the target with sonar.
More Depth Charges" Seven minutes later she dropped four depth-charges in a straight line at
seven second intervals, producing "one very large air bubble and one smaller
one together with fresh oil. The airship and one plane dropped flares on
the spot, and the airship reported the continuation of the air bubbles. The
anti-submarine action report stated, "This is believed to be same submarine
depth-charged after 0006 contact."
Should you continue hunting? Or should you return to the recovery operations?
What do you do?:
Return to recovery.
Battle is Finally Over"
The Roper returned to the recovery operation.
Altogether, "twenty-nine bodies were recovered.
Among other things six escape lungs were found. Two
bodies had mouth-piece tubing in their mouths,
indicating escape after the submarine sank. While
picking up the bodies, a number of empty life
jackets were noted. Two additional bodies were
permitted to sink after their clothing was searched
by an officer in the boat." No explanation was given
for why two bodies were let go; it is likely they
were so damaged by explosives that they were falling
apart or that very little was left of them.
Secret Burial" The
German bodies were transferred to the Naval tug VSS
Sciota (AT-30), which later delivered them to the
Naval Operating Base at Norfolk, Virginia. There
they were photographed, examined, and placed in
shrouds. All clothing and personal effects were
saved. The next afternoon the bodies, each in a
plain pine box, were trucked under escort to nearby
Hampton National Cemetery.
Twenty-nine graves were dug by prisoners from Fort
As dusk approached, a select group of military
personnel gathered at the gravesite. Not until after
dark, and in relative secrecy, were services
commenced. The coffins were lowered into the ground.
Two Navy chaplains officiated: Lieutenant Wilbur
Wheeler read Catholic services, Lieutenant U.G.
Rainus Lundquist read the Protestant version. In
strict military fashion the vanquished enemy was
saluted by three volleys while a bugler sounded
The German sailors received a finer peace than they
had offered to their victims.
Oddly, no mention of this decisive victory was
released to the press until three weeks after the
event. Even then the published account was meager
and garbled, not by newspaper reporters but in the
original Navy communiqué. By that time so many false
claims had been issued for the morale of the public
that the authentic account paled by comparison. The
story was spiced by the following falsity, "With the
action over as suddenly as it had begun, the
destroyer circled around and the crew, who minutes
before had been manning the guns, went to the rails
to help lift the surviving members of the submarine
crew out of the water."
By coincidence, two days later part of a U-boat crew
was captured off the North Carolina coast. No
mention of that incident was ever released to the
public because German spies had access to American
Not until July 23, 1942, after the U-boats had been
firmly trounced and forcibly beaten out of the
Eastern Sea Frontier, did the Navy announce the
truth of the secret burial. Still, no mention was
made of the U-boat's number; no names of deceased
were made known. Outside the highest Naval circles
the fate of the U-85 was couched in anonymity.
Citations were in the offing for the
alert and aggressive crew of the Roper. Admiral A.S.
Carpender, Commander Destroyers, U.S. Atlantic
Fleet, wrote, "The attack on an enemy submarine by
the USS Roper was conducted with courage, skill,
intelligence and determination, in the best
traditions of the Naval Service. Its successful
prosecution, which resulted in the destruction of
the submarine, reflects great credit on the
commanding officer, officers, and men of the Roper,
and on the commander of Destroyer Division 54, who
by his advice and guidance assisted, in the conduct
of the engagement."
In addition to the key figures already named, six
members of the gun crew received commendations; gun
captain Harry Heyman was put in for the Navy Cross.
The Roper's forward stack was emblazoned with a
large star on both port and starboard sides, to
"indicate the first attack made by the vessel which
resulted in positive evidence of destruction of an
enemy submarine." Furthermore, every crewman was
authorized to wear a distinctive sleeve device in
the form of a silver star.
operations on the U-85 began almost immediately. The
U.S. Navy's Experimental Diving Unit was brought in
to conduct a survey and learn what it could about
German submarines. Several days were spent dragging
for and grappeling the sunken U-boat, and
establishing mooring buoys. A diver actually
alighted upon the wooden deck on April 26; he
reported that the "submarine appeared to be lying on
its starboard side. Inspected submarine forward to
bow and returned to the descending line. No apparent
damage except to clearing lines noted."
The next day the USS Kewaydin (AT-25) fouled the
marker buoys and descending line in an increasing
wind and sea. The buoy was replaced by the end of
the day, but the seas were too rough to continue
April 28 dawned with bettering conditions. The USCGC
Cuyahoga relieved the British armed trawler as
guardship while the Kewaydin repeated the laborious
task of dragging, grappling, and setting mooring
lines. This time the first diver put down "made
descending line fast to cleat on port side of
submarine just forward of gun."
Six dives were made throughout the day, with the
following conditions noted: "(a) Submarine listed to
starboard practically on its side, angle of deck
with bottom about 80°. (b) Forward on port side
several stanchions torn away. Hull appeared intact.
(c) No other damage noted except clearing lines torn
loose. (d) Forward gun swung forward and to port
slightly elevated with tompion in place. (e) 20 mm.
AA gun aft of conning tower in place, lines and
wires fouled with it. (f) Conning tower apparently
undamaged. (g) Upper conning tower hatch open with
lubricating oil coming up through hatch below." The
Roper's shell damage could not be seen because the
U-boat lay on the ruptured ballast tank.
Furthermore, the wood deck was intact, the conning
tower showed no signs of damage by shell fire, vents
to all tanks were open, salvage air lines were
collapsed ("probably due to the effects of depth
charges"), numerous openings in the hull were open
or partially open, the lower conning tower hatch was
closed but not dogged, and all compartments were
flooded. The bow and stern planes and propellers
On April 29 the salvage tug USS Falcon arrived and
took over diving operations. The Cuyahoga remained
as guardship and quarters for observers. After the
Roper fought so assiduously to send the U-85 to the
bottom, divers spent the next week trying to bring
it back up. They closed the conning tower hatch,
traced salvage airlines, manufactured fittings, then
connected surface-supplied hoses and pumped air into
the hull. Most of the external piping was collapsed;
air that did pass spurted out of the compartments
"like sprinkling system."
The 20-mm anti-aircraft gun was removed and
recovered for study. Also brought up were the gun
sights for the 88-mm deck gun, and instruments from
the bridge: the night firing device, the gyro
pelorus repeater, and the gyro steering repeater.
One diver noted that the forward torpedo tube doors
were open and ready for action. On the other hand,
the ready ammunition stowage locker near the deck
gun was found empty. Disassembly of the deck gun was
begun but not completed.
Of historic interest was a painted picture on the
forward high part of the conning tower; it depicted
a "wild boar with rose in mouth."
was Made" And so
ends the story of the turning point in the US Navy's
fight to neutralize the German U-boat menace of
World War II. Since it was believed that stories and
pictures of German military personnel on American
soil (dead or alive) would result in a loss of
public morale and confidence, the U.S. government
chose to bury the bodies of the Germans in secret.
Those German sailors lie buried in Hampton National
Cemetary in numbered graves to this day.
And the U.S.S. Jesse Roper, DD-147, quietly slipped
into the history books by bravely doing her job in
killing a German U-boat ... the U-85 ... the first
U-boat sunk by the Americans in World War II.