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Shipmate

The Second World War ended five years before I was born, so when I literally stumbled over this gravestone I was both mystified and intrigued. How did a German U-boat sailor find his eternal rest behind a gas station at the corner of Farewell Street and Van Zant Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island?

This was in the summer of 1972 when I was young and newly enlisted in the US Coast Guard. I never would have noticed the grave in the small military cemetery had I been travelling back to my ship by automobile, but in those carefree days my friends and I got around quite handily by walking and hitchhiking. And since there was no internet, I had to ask some of my older shipmates to learn that, yes, a U-boat had indeed been sunk near Block Island in the closing days of the war.

Some years later I was steering a Coast Guard 40 foot utility boat across Rhode Island Sound when I noticed a magenta warning on the chart, “UNEXPODED ORDINANCE, MAY 1945.” Some of the saltier fishermen in Point Judith remembered the two day bombardment which had sunk the U-853. Others had tales of U-boat sightings close to shore on misty mornings, and even of being approached by German sailors looking for any fresh bread, milk or eggs that the Rhode Island men might have aboard their trawlers. There were also two huge bronze propellers, said to come from the fabled U-boat, on display in front of a dive shop on Thames Street in Newport.

The U-853 was calling to me.

When I finally dove to the sunken wreck, it was with a group of divers from Connecticut who claimed to have abundant deep diving experience. But when we got down to the U-853 in about one hundred feet of water, it was little more than an eerie pile of rusty steel melting into the bottom, where men had died and were still entombed. My not-so-experienced companions quickly gulped most of the air out of their dive bottles by blowing giant bubbles from their regulators while rooting around for souvenirs on a former mother lode of relics which had long ago been stripped clean. It was almost immediately time to go up, which was fine with me even though I still had plenty of air, since my overwhelming impression of the experience was, I shouldn’t be here.

Still years later I was a crewmember on the US Coast Guard’s sail training ship Eagle for a port call in Hamburg, Germany, which coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Eagle’s launching there as the Segelschulshiff Horst Wessel. We were graciously received by the City of Hamburg and many people were delighted to see “their” ship once again. Of course everyone in the Coast Guard knows that the Eagle once sailed under the Nazi flag and that it was taken from the Kriegsmarine as a war prize after WWII. Many of the Eagle’s current crew are familiar with the subtle reminders of the Horst Wessel which have been covered, painted over or redesigned — like a bad tattoo — to fit the ship’s new American image. But when we were shown a long-lost newsreel of the Horst Wessel being launched, and then stood at the very spot in the Blohm&Voss shipyard where Adolph Hitler and Rudolf Hess had stood in 1936 to cheers of “Zeig Heil!” as our ship slid down the ways … that made the hair on our necks stand up.

We were also privileged to meet several old men who had sailed on Horst Wessel, back in the day. Most of them had volunteered for the Kriegsmarine late in the war, when Horst Wessel was armed with anti-aircraft guns and sent into the Baltic with a crew of raw recruits. Few survived the war, but they felt young again to stand on the decks as our shipmates, as surely as if our service to the ship was not separated by six decades. This is the way of a square-rigger, after all, where tradition and the lore of the sea dictate a common bond among all who have served under sail, everywhere and always.

So for many years I have considered the entombed sailors in the U-853 to be my unknown shipmates. Nearly all of them had trained aboard Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel. They had stood watches on the same decks, climbed the same masts to set the sails, and had held the spokes of the same ship’s wheel in their hands, as had I aboard the Eagle.

Which is why I sat down and wrote The Sailmaster as my therapy.