Shipwreck enthusiasts plan hunt for first U-boat sunk by US Navy in WWII
There is a 95-year-old man living in Orange, Texas, who is the last living person to have seen the U-656, a World War II German submarine.
There is another man from Scanlon, 61 years old, who is a shipwreck hunter attempting to become the first person to find the U-656.
The two met earlier this year in Texas, where Truett Hawley and Jerry Eliason established a mutual admiration society of two on what amounts to the eve of Eliason’s upcoming July expedition to finally locate the WWII-era sub.
“The goal is to find U-656 this year, while Truett is still with us,” Eliason said. “Truett is the one surviving crew-member of the Lockheed Hudson, which sent U-656 to the bottom on March 1, 1942.
“It was an honor sitting in his living room.”
Hawley recalled the bombing from the Lockheed Hudson, an American-built light bomber. He was the mechanic on a four-man crew that also featured a pilot, copilot and radio man. They were flying home to Naval Air Station Argentia in Newfoundland, Canada, after a short 2½-hour reconnaissance.
“I learned that from my log,” Hawley said.
Flying west, they spotted a long ripple in the water and one of the crew members wondered aloud, “Isn’t that a submarine ahead of us?”
Following confirmation, they dropped one bomb, circled for another pass and dropped another. From a deck lowered 18 inches out into the wide blue open, Hawley shot a photo of the scene — the swirl of the sinking sub and two oil slicks resulting from the bombing. They radioed destroyers that came and dropped further depth charges on the U-boat. When it was all over, the United States had sunk its first U-boat of the war.
“I’ve never been acquainted with anyone interested in this before,” Hawley said of Eliason. “He’s the first person, and he’s really interested in finding this submarine.”
This will be Eliason’s third attempt to find the U-656.
The more he tries the more he learns. In the time between his first attempt in 2010 and now, he’s made contact with Hawley and, importantly to the search effort, he’s been privy to aerial magnetic surveying of the Newfoundland coast that indicates a magnetic anomaly.
“It’s a possibility it’s a surface ship,” Eliason said. “But not super likely because the shipping track between New York and Cape Race is about 20 miles offshore. This is closer.”
Eliason and his son, Jarrod, will lead the 10-man adventure. Together with fellow crew members and shipwreck enthusiasts Craig Smith and Ken Merryman, they’ve discovered 16 wrecks in their careers. Several of their finds have come on Lake Superior. But it’s the U-656 that’s in their craw now, stuck and requiring persistence that has seen them already locate one wreck (not the U-656) and fight through swells that caused Eliason’s grandson to lose his lunch 13 times in one day.
The best they can hope for is one day of work on the water out of every three days, as 3-foot waves on the North Atlantic are considered calm, Eliason said. He doesn’t dive anymore since an accident in 1989, but it allows him to focus his attention on the research and plotting the hunt. For this search, he’s got magnetic imaging technology, Hawley’s log books, and the logs from the two destroyers sent to finish off the U-656 years ago.
Why a third try?
“We’re only a loose coalition of shipwreck enthusiasts,” Eliason said. “And what we’ve found is that you don’t find a shipwreck unless you’re obsessed with finding it.”
Eliason puts the chances for success at a 30 percent possibility this time. They’ll start their two-week hunt July 18, searching in water 160 feet deep, which is unusually shallow for a wreck. They’re starting their search a mile north of anywhere they’ve searched before. They’ll be bouncing up and down on the waves, which will challenge their side-scan sonar efforts. On a perfectly calm day, the sonar can take images as strong as a camera picture, but not on the North Atlantic. Fortunately, the water is crystal clear off Newfoundland, a sparsely populated place that Eliason described as “bypassed by civilization.”
That the wreck is potentially so shallow is part of what makes locating the U-656 so appealing. It’s one of more than 700 U-boats that were destroyed during the war, but most of the others were sunk 2 to 3 miles deep into the ocean.
But for now, the main reason why the U-656 appeals so strongly to Eliason is Hawley.
“It would be a historical event,” Hawley said.
“Hitler did not allow work on this side of the Atlantic ’til after Pearl Harbor,” Eliason noted. “The fact this is the first one sunk by Americans, the fact it’s findable and shallow enough, and the fact we know the guys who sank it make this kind of special.”
Wreck hunters seek help
Jerry Eliason and his crew fund their own adventures. But they did start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a more detailed aerial magnetic survey. A more detailed survey could increase odds of finding the U-656 from 30 percent to 90-plus. To read more about their effort, visit Kickstarter at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/362879869/the-search-for-u-656