I was 18 years old in 1942, chomping at the
bit to do my part, practically camped out at the door of
the local draft board the morning I enlisted, and
itching to stick a rifle in Hitler's rear.
I'd been wanting to enlist for months, but ma asked me
to wait until I was 18 -- "you're too young for this
yet" she'd said. But Uncle Sam needed everybody's
help, and I knew it was my time to go.
Once inside the draft office, they sat me down at a desk
and asked me to fill out a card with some personal
information, gave me a physical, and asked me some more
"Bad leg? Broke it five years ago? Liked high school?
Good at math, huh? Good eyes?"
I got worried when they asked about the leg. Sure, I
have a little limp, but it doesn't bother me. I can
run with the other guys -- how'd I make it on the
school baseball team otherwise? They can't keep me out
because of that, can they? Damn it, I should have
"Oh we've got work for men like you. Know anything
I got sent to the Army base at Fort Dix, went through
basic training just like every other soldier, and learned
to handle a gun. But then they put me in these classes.
Trigonometry. Artillery. Ship identification. Ship
identification? Isn't this the Army? Six weeks
of that and I was on a troop transport to Delaware.
The Army had a new artillery base at the mouth of the
Delaware River, to protect the Philadelphia Navy Yard
from the Nazis, and that was gonna be my new home for the
What rotten luck! Friends of mine were sailing around
the world, shooting Nazis and Japs during the day and
hula dancing with
naked Polynesian girls
at night, and here I was headed for Delaware.
Still, they told us it was important work, and I guess
it was. The Resor and the
Jacob Jones were sunk
just a few months before I went to
the draft office -- it was all over the newspapers. Our
job would be to stop the bastards that did it from doing
it again. But still, it wasn't nearly as exciting to be
going to Delaware as, say, Algeria or
Hawaii. I kinda felt left out of the war.
I started dozing on the truck once we were south of
Wilmington, and barely woke up
until we got to this tiny town called
Lewes. Delaware wasn't anything but
corn fields and chicken farms mostly, so I didn't miss
much. The Army Air Corps had an airfield at
Dover, but I didn't see anything other
than a fence, a guard station, and an empty hangar.
And then Lewes -- it barely rated a dot on a map! A
few streets with small houses, a small dockyard, and more
cornfields! The only thing there that stood out was this
funny looking building, like a church or a weird house
or something. "Zwaanendael" it was called.
Zwaanendael -- sounded like the Nazis had
already landed, but I found out it was Dutch, not German.
The Dutch landed here in the 1600's and built a town
called Zwaanendael that got overrun by Indians within a
year. The place was built to look like a Dutch town hall
to commemorate the colony just a few years ago.
It didn't seem worth commemorating if they all died,
The truck kept going, over a bridge, down a long road
past fields that changed from corn to sea grass. We
pulled up to the gate, and the MP checked our ID's. Me
and the other guys mustered in front of our new barracks,
where the base commander was waiting. There was a cool
breeze coming from the east, off the ocean. I could smell
the salt in the air, and the diesel from the trucks
rumbling past. I thought this wasn't so bad.
"Gentlemen, welcome to Fort Miles and the
261st Coastal Artillery."
The next several months were busy, like basic training,
but more intense. Watch duty every day, and lots of
drills -- scramble to the fire control towers, find the
target buoy riding on the four foot seas, triangulate
with the other towers, order the direction and elevation
of the 16-inch guns, wait for our CO to check our range
finding to see if we'd score a hit or not. Once in a
while, they'd let us blow the crap out of the targets
just to remind us what the guns could do. One time, they
gave us an old wooden rowboat they'd towed out into
the bay and left adrift. There wasn't much
left after the first shot, but we put half a dozen shells
into the water anyway.
It was fun, but we'd rather be shooting at Nazis.
When we weren't training or on duty (which was most of
the time), we usually spent our time on the beach, or
down in Rehoboth. The local girls liked us, but the older
folks always looked at us funny, probably thinking "what
are you doing here? The war's over there,
I thought that a lot, too.
It was July of '44. We'd already gotten a
foothold in France, and we were on the way to
liberating Paris. We were kicking Tojo's
ass all the way back to the emperor's backyard,
I say we meaning the Allies. I was
polishing my boots, getting a suntan, and blowing up
rowboats in a backwater beach town. I wanted to be just
about anywhere else right then. I wanted to act. I wanted
to fight. I wanted Ernie Pyle to write a story about me
capturing a bunker full of Nazi generals all by myself,
that my parents could put in a scrapbook to show their
neighbors. I wanted to get kisses (and more) from pretty
French girls happy to be liberated. I was itching for war,
just as much as I was six months ago.
And then I got my wish.
A coastal patrol plane out of Dover spotted her first,
about ten miles south of Cape May,
just before sunrise. I was already on duty in a tower
north of Rehoboth. We picked
the U-boat up easily, its sail dark and angular against
a bright white and blue horizon.
Why she surfaced in broad daylight I'll never know, but I
didn't care why. God damn, this is what we've been
waiting for! We were overjoyed, yelling out fire
control orders to send down to the guns, screaming like
the world was ending and we were providing artillery
support for the four horsemen.
She realized she was in danger and tried to get back
out to sea, but it was too late. We hit her amidships,
and a geyser of smoke and flame erupted a hundred feet
in the air over the water. When we saw we'd hit her,
we all cheered like wild men -- we were ecstatic, like
we had personally landed a right hook on Adolf's jaw.
We saw her break in two, and she went down in 150 feet
Patrol boats went out to the area to pick up what they
could. Amazingly, they pulled five guys from U-692 out
of the water alive. Five out of 49. I didn't get much
of a look at them when they were at the Fort. The four
lightly injured ones were sent to
Fort Delaware upriver to sit out the
war. The fifth guy didn't last a day. He looked like he
was 19 or 20, like me. He'd been badly burned but
somehow managed to get out of the boat alive. One of
his shipmates helped him keep his head above water until
the rescuers fished them out.
I heard him crying in the infirmary that afternoon,
moaning and weeping through the haze of whatever they
gave him to numb the pain of his wounds. Mamma,
lassen mich nicht sterben hier! or something like
that. I was off duty and hanging around my barracks,
polishing my boots, and wondering whether to go for a
swim before dinner. The window by my bunk opened toward
the back of the infirmary, and so I sat and listened to
this kid's agonies for a good hour or so before I
couldn't stand sitting there anymore. I decided to stop
by the infirmary with the excuse I needed some ointment
for a sunburn (which I did often enough anyway), just
to get a look at him.
I walked around the front of the infirmary and went in.
I stood and waited for a moment, since the nurse was in
the ward rather than in the receiving room. While I stood
there, an elderly man came in behind me -- a minister from
Lewes I recognized from a service they had at the base one
"Excuse me, son, can you tell me where the nurse on duty--"
At that point, the nurse walked quickly into the office
from the ward and showed him right in, after giving me a
stern look that said "wait here."
I didn't, of course.
I stood there for a few seconds, and then got up the nerve
to walk over to the doorway and peek around the corner after
them. I nearly fainted at what I saw. There was a row of
clean, white, tube-framed beds, starched sheets stretched
tight across the mattresses, smelling like antiseptic and
gleaming pale yellow in the hazy, afternoon sun. On the
bed closest to the door was the sailor -- the boy. He was
a mass of wet, bloody bandages from head to toe. His
linen-wrapped arms and legs worked against the bedsheets,
and his head rolled slowly from side to side, as if he were
saying no, no to what he must have known was coming.
The minister sat down next to the bed, and said something
that seemed to calm him down, I guess it was in German.
The duty nurse caught me looking and shook her head with a
sad look on her face before drawing the curtain across the
I left and went to dinner, though I wasn't really hungry
When I came out of the mess hall about an hour later, I
saw the minister coming out of the infirmary, followed by
the duty nurse and the doctor. He shook hands with the
doctor while the nurse blotted her eyes with her
I thought of him being the same age as me. I thought of
my life being cut short like that, and how my ma would
feel getting that letter. I felt confused, and I felt
bad. But I remembered there were plenty of our boys
whose mammas had got that
letter. I took a deep breath of the salt air and the
I guess he's one less Nazi we have to fight. Isn't
I went back to my post.
They loaded his body onto a truck the next morning,
I don't know where it went.
The rest of the war was quiet. We kept watch, we
drilled, and we got sunburned. I met a girl in
Rehoboth -- she was nice, but neither of us were
looking to go steady. We went dancing on Saturday
nights when I wasn't on duty. Her parents didn't mind
-- they knew I'd be going home soon, and didn't think
I'd be very good farmer material, but they figured
I was harmless and they were right.
I didn't see another U-boat until U-858 surrendered
in May of '45. She steamed into our waters, broadcasting
"This is Kriegsmarine vessel U-858, we surrender,
we surrender" in the clearest English they could
manage on a boat full of Germans. She was boarded and
escorted into Lewes a few days later, and her crew was
sent to the POW camp at Fort Delaware. Most of these
guys were also my age, and even the commander was only
27. Compared to us, though, they looked like frail old
men -- pasty, thin and dirty. But they looked relieved,
not scared. I remember reading in the newspaper about
a week later that the U-boat's commander had told our
guys "we have been waiting for you
to finally win the war." The Navy sent U-858 to the Philly
Naval Yard before using her for target practice, and her
crew went home at the end of 1945.
We got sent home too, after they finally finished off the
Japanese in August. The Army kept us until October, until
Japan officially surrendered and until they could figure
out how they'd get us all home in one piece. I was in the
first group they discharged on October 15. They put us all
on a bus and sent us up to Wilmington, and from there I
took the train back to my parents in New Jersey. Mom and
pop met me at the train station -- no more scrapbooks or
letters for them, I was
I was 21 years old then. I was glad the war was over.
To my knowledge, Fort Miles never sank a U-boat during
World War II. U-692 didn't exist. U-858
was the first U-boat of the Kriegsmarine to surrender,
and was brought to port in Lewes.
The fire control towers of Fort Miles still stand along
the Delaware coast.