Modern submarines are amazing technological marvels that can dive to astonishing depths, run on nuclear power and stay underwater for months at a time. But a hundred years ago, the diesel-powered U-boats that terrorized Atlantic shipping were far less advanced.
The quarters of a German submarine were a cramped, hellish space that reeked of sweat, mildew, and diesel fumes. The crew members wore a variety of leather outfits and nonconventional uniforms that typically did not allow their skin to breathe. Most vessels had no shower and only one toilet, which they could flush only when near the surface. The stench was nearly unbearable.
Not only was the sub uncomfortable, its crew was in constant danger. Mines, Allied ships and the very real possibility of mechanical or structural failure could result in the immediate demise of everyone on board at any time.
Few Americans ever got to see a World War I-era U-boat from the inside. But one Naval gun captain — James Delaney — got to experience the horrors of a submarine voyage firsthand when he became one of the conflict’s first American prisoners of war.
In an earlier article, I recounted the story of how Delaney had been commanding the Navy gun crew assigned to protect the commercial vessel Campana. Germany’s U-61 attacked, and Delaney fought back in a two-hour running gun battle that ultimately ended with the capture of the American gun crew.
The story of Delaney’s voyage aboard U-61 is told for the first time in my new best-selling book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. Released in May, The Unknowns follows eight American heroes who accomplished extraordinary feats in some of the war’s most important battles. As a result of their bravery, these eight men were selected to serve as Body Bearers at the ceremony where the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery.
One of those Body Bearers was James Delaney, a lifelong mariner who had both the tattoos and the attitude common to New England sailors.
His initial descent into the bowels of U-61 was like a plunge into Hades. Temperatures inside German U-boats regularly climbed above 100 degrees, and the smell of diesel and unwashed bodies permeated everything, even the food. The heat led to an oily condensation the crew called “U-boat sweat.” It dripped from the ceiling and created the perfect petri dish for mold to grow.
Shortly after Delaney came aboard, the sub captain, Victor Dieckmann, began his questioning. At first the two men merely swapped tales about their experiences at sea, but soon the Kapitänleutnant began pressing the chief gunners mate for details about American war plans and how U.S. Navy gun crews operated.
Delaney did his best to feed him misinformation, telling him that Campana had been bound for New York (when actually it had been headed to Spain) and that he had only been in the Navy for a year. But when Dieckmann asked about the whereabouts of the U.S. fleet, Delaney warned, “You better not go looking for them!”
Exasperated, the German told the gunners mate not to be so sarcastic and sent him back to his quarters.
Later that day, the U-boat encountered another Allied boat, which gave the Americans the opportunity to experience a naval battle from inside an enemy sub. But this ship was not as easy to sink as Campana had been. U-61 had found a Q ship, a decoy ship that Allies camouflaged to look like a harmless Spanish merchant vessel. Sighting the sub, the Q ship launched three life boats to make it look like the crew had abandoned ship. But when the German vessel approached to within two hundred yards, the crew members still on board dropped the panels which had hidden their guns and began blasting away at Dieckmann’s boat.
The Kapitänleutnant immediately ordered an emergency dive. The floor tilted down sharply and trickles of water came in through the hatches as the sub fled to a depth of two hundred feet.
But the captain of the Q ship had more tricks up his sleeve. He began dropping depth charges, and the entire sub shuddered from the powerful explosions of the near misses. Knowing that a direct hit would crack the U-boat, drowning everyone aboard, the Americans and Germans waited in terror.
Dieckman fired one torpedo, which missed, but then he chose to sit quiet. The Allies eventually decided that they must have sunk the sub and left the area. The Navy even put out a press release about the sinking of U-61, and The New York Times ran a story about the death of Delaney and the other prisoners.
Meanwhile, Delaney, still very much alive, was headed for Germany. Along the way, Dieckmann successfully attacked an Italian ship, adding its captain to his haul of prisoners.
As the days passed, the German sub captain frequently called Delaney in for more interrogation, which often led to verbal sparring matches. Dieckman sometimes seemed amused by Delaney’s cheeky comments.
“What do the American people think about President Wilson?” the German asked.
“Everybody thinks President Wilson is a fine man, or he would not be president of the United States,” Delaney replied.
“The people of the United States will find out different later on,” Dieckmann asserted.
Delaney couldn’t let that comment go by. “Germany will find out later on that she will have to take her hat off to us.”
As the sub drew closer to German port, those conversations ended when the Kapitänleutnant turned all his attention to navigating the minefield near the German coast. Striking a mine would result in immediate death, so the captain ordered the sub to dive as low as possible. But that put it in danger of impacting the ocean floor, something it did with alarming frequency. “Every little while the submarine hit bottom and then would come up to a higher level,” Delaney recalled.
Even traveling so far below the surface, U-61 scraped mine anchor cables at least three times. Each time, the German crews’ faces paled as they waited to see whether their vessel would explode.
Nine and a half hours later, the sub cleared the field and headed to port to offload the prisoners.
It must not have seemed like it at the time, but the Allied captives were actually the lucky ones. Seven months later, U-61 sank during another depth charge attack; all hands were lost.
That’s not to say that Delaney’s life as a prisoner was easy. He spent the next year in a spartan POW camp. Salt sandwiches and coffee made from acorns were the standard fare, and many died of starvation. The prisoners slept on straw and sawdust in tar paper shacks, and they received only enough firewood to provide about 20 minutes of warmth each day. They performed hard labor thirteen hours a day, and those who didn’t work fast enough were sometimes shot or bayoneted.
Despite having lost a significant portion of his body weight, Delaney survived through the armistice. Nearly a month later, he was finally released and sent to Denmark, then on to the United States.
Delaney stayed in the Navy, serving as a recruiter before being recruited himself to serve as a Body Bearer for the Unknown Soldier. He retired from military life in 1933, but his retirement didn’t last long. When World War II broke out, Delaney, like so many of his fellow Doughboys, once again answered the call of his country to serve. A consummate survivor, he returned from that conflict as well and came home to live in Massachusetts where he died of lung cancer in 1954.
His life and sacrifice are a reminder to all of us of the cost — and value — of freedom, and of the debt we owe to those who willingly gave all they had for their country.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books. The Unknowns is his newest, and it is featured in Barnes & Noble stores nationwide for Father’s Day. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian