From War Engine to Museum Exhibit: Science & Industry’s U-505 Submarine
By Jennifer Young
In June 2019, the Museum of Science and Industry celebrated the 75th anniversary of the historic capture of U-505, a World War II German submarine. Before U-505—one of only two Type IXCs left in existence—became a popular museum attraction, it served in Germany’s Kriegsmarine—the Nazis’ naval force. During its tenure hunting Allied ships at sea, U-505 sank eight vessels, including three U.S. ships.
U-505’s 12th patrol in the waters off the northwest coast of Africa would be its last. The U.S. Navy’s Task Group 22.3, known as a “hunter-killer” group, was tipped off to U-boat activity in the area: at 11:09 on June 4, 1944, the group detected U-505 just 170 miles off the coast of Rio de Oro (located in present-day Morocco and Mauritania).
The U.S. ship Chatelain pursued the U-boat with depth charges but the chase proved so close that the charges couldn’t sink quickly enough to damage the fleeing submarine. The Chatelain, instead, turned to its Hedgehog mortars and ultimately disabled U-505.
When faced with imminent capture, it was the duty of U-boat captains to scuttle their vessels and all the intelligence material they contained. When heavy mortar damage forced U-505 to surface quickly, the crew attempted to sink the sub by opening scuttling valves and setting explosive charges before abandoning the U-boat. However, U.S. Naval crews were close enough to quickly board U-505.
As ships from the Task Force picked up members of U-505’s crew as they abandoned the sub, U.S. forces were able to close the U-boat’s valves and disarm its demolition charges. This selfless act would earn the leader of this boarding party, Lieutenant Albert David, the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945. They also captured U-505’s charts, codebooks, and an infamous Enigma machine, an encryption device that was integral to all branches of the Nazi military. Moreover, the U.S. was able to complete the successful capture without revealing the event to the Nazis, who mistakenly believed the U-boat to be sunk.
U-505’s legendary “secret capture” had an incalculable impact on the course of the war. Had the Nazis learned of the sub’s capture and its compromised encryption materials, they would surely have changed their codes. Instead, the Allied codebreakers were able to puzzle out the Enigma machine, break the codes, and determine the German navy’s positions and plans for attack.
The U-boat also yielded two perfectly intact G7es acoustic homing torpedoes, innovative weaponry that the Allies were able to analyze. The U.S. did not reveal its capture of U-505 until the war was over.
After the war, the U.S. studied and harbored the disabled U-boat until it donated it to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1954. The city raised $250,000 to transport the sub to the museum where its exhibit would commemorate sailors who lost their lives during the Battle of the Atlantic. Transporting the U-boat was a difficult process, owing to its condition and bulk (three times that of the Statue of Liberty and as long as a city block).
A team of engineers and their crews were tasked with towing the U-boat from Lake Michigan to the museum on the lake’s South Shore. The restoration process was equally challenging. The museum relied on German manufacturers that originally supplied the U-boat to help replace missing or damaged parts.
Until 2004, the captured submarine sat outdoors, exposed to the element, but with the help of donations and Chicago, the U-505 now resides in its own climate-controlled exhibit. The public has access to the exterior of the submarine as well as a myriad of exhibits related to the U-boat. For instance, there’s a recreated U-boat kitchen where visitors can marvel at how a naval cook could fed a crew of nearly 50 sailors from such a tiny space. There’s also a periscope exhibit that is always a big hit with visitors of all ages.
Even the most seasoned Chicago museum-goers should plan another trip to witness the museum’s updates to the exhibit, specifically its U-505 Submarine: 75 Stories presentation. If you’ve never witnessed the hulking marvel displayed in its own underground wing of the museum, you’re in for a remarkable historic experience complemented by a U-boat tour, video footage, and hundreds of related period artifacts.
Touring the interior of U-505 requires an additional fee that’s not included with the cost of general admission. However, if you’re a history enthusiast, you might want to keep in mind that U-505 is only one of four German WWII U-boats in survival as museum ships. The On-Board Tour costs $18 for adults and $14 for children.
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PSA: This weekend we’ll be publishing the tragic story of U-505’s second captain, Peter Zschech, whose suicide-at-sea inspired 1981’s legendary German war epic Das Boot.
Watch the Department of Defense’s 1953 short film “Away Boarders” featuring video footage of the capture of the U-505 in 1944.