Diver Magazine, May
Reprinted with permission
LOST FOR 82 YEARS, WWI GERMAN U-BOAT
FOUND IN SAN PEDRO BAY CALIFORNIA
‘TERRIFYING’ NEW THREAT BENEATH THE SEA
BY BRENDAN COYLE
The First World War was a catalyst for the development of new and terrifying weapons and the war at sea was no exception. By 1916 trench warfare had stalled the bloody conflict. Britannia’s invincible navy was squeezing Germany of the vital resources she needed from her colonies to continue the fight. Comparatively, Great Britain’s supply line was unimpeded. Allied convoys from North America were successfully crossing the Atlantic. The German high command saw the Unterseeboot – the submarine – as a means of blockading England, effectively starving her, an action they believed ultimately would cause Britain to sue for peace.
Until this time submarines were largely untested in war. Prevailing opinion was that they were too small to carry the crew necessary to man captured ships or to take prisoners aboard. As a weapon against civilian shipping, they had been dismissed as ineffective. This thinking changed and in February of 1915, Germany declared its solution to the problem: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. Merchant ships would be fired upon and sunk, crew and all, no capture necessary. The declaration defined a war zone around the British Isles within which Germany would sink any allied merchant vessel on sight. In the ensuing eight months 50 ships fell victim to the Imperial Navy’s Unterseeboot, including the liner Lusitania, with the loss of 1,198 lives, of which 198 were Americans. The world was shocked and America outraged. Fearing America’s entry into the war the German’s backed off, but only for a while. With a strong fleet of submarines in service by February 1917, Germany again declared its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare only this time all ships, allied and neutral would be game. By April the United States had entered the war.
The German submarine was viewed as sinister by the allies, their tactics ungentlemanly and it was argued the enemy submariners should be tried as war criminals when captured. Submarine warfare had been given priority by the Germans and their success was far greater than that of allied countries. In May 1916, orders were given to construct a new class of U-boat, the UB-III. While earlier submarines were designed mainly for coastal operations the new UB-III was bigger, faster, carried more crew and armaments. With a range of 9,942 miles (16,000 km) plus, the 34-man crew could take the war farther out in the Atlantic to intercept vital shipping. These boats carried 10 torpedoes and an 88mm deck gun. Six of the new UB-III class boats were built at Vulcan Werks in Hamburg and were the forerunner of Germany’s deadly WW II U-boats.
The UB-88 was placed in commission 26 January 1918, under Oberleutnant zur See Johannes Ries with the 1st Submarine Flotilla based at Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast. In short order Ries sank the 1,555-ton (1,580 tonnes) Swedish steamer SS Dora and subsequently survived a depth charge attack. Steamships Avance, Afrikan Transport, Moorlands, Sixth Six, Florentia, Lake Portage, Berwind, Hundvaago, Philomel, Fanny, Polesley were all sent to the bottom by UB-88 for a total of 32,340 tons (32,850 tonnes) over her short war service of five patrols. She survived five known counter-attacks. The sub damaged the freighter Anselma and was partially responsible for damage inflicted to the British steamer Bayronto when a torpedo fired from a French destroyer missed the U-boat and struck the allied ship. Following the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918, UB-88 surrendered at Harwich, England, on November 27, 1918, where she was moored and her crew interned. On March 13, 1919, six German U-boats of various classes, among them UB-88, were allocated to the United States Navy by the British Admiralty for research and use in the ‘Victory War Bond’ drive. Under the American flag and manned by a U.S. navy crew, UB-88 departed Harwich on April 3 and arrived in New York April 27, 1919. During her extensive tour of the United States UB-88 made calls to ports along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, the coast of Panama while transiting the canal, and along the U.S. west coast as far north as Seattle, Washington, steaming a total of 15,361 miles (24,720km). Forty-five cities were visited, and over 400,000 visitors were shown through the boat before she made her final destination November 9, the San Pedro Naval Yard in California. The once formidable hunter was decommissioned November 1, 1920, and stripped of most machinery and fittings. On January 3, 1921, UB-88 was towed to an area off Los Angeles in San Pedro Bay and (in accordance with WWI peace treaty terms) was sunk by gunfire from the destroyer USS Wickes, whereupon she disappeared for 82 years.
Long the dream of many Los Angeles-area divers to find UB-88, the antique submarine eluded discovery until local sport fisherman Gary Fabian took an interest. A non-diver, Fabian partnered with long time dive boat operator Ray Arntz, who had also been searching for the elusive sub. The pair had completely differing views on where the sub might be located. Fourteen months of weekend searches culminated July 9, 2003, when Fabian registered a positive ‘hit’ with his fish-finding sonar. (((the high-resolution digital imagery provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (see sidebar))) When drop camera video footage confirmed the hit was, indeed, a wreck, the search team expanded, initially to include technical divers Kendall Raine and John Walker, and later Scott Brooks and Fred Colburn.
Sonar indicated the wreck was reasonably intact and on August 27, Raine and Walker made the initial dive, becoming the first to lay eyes on UB-88 (to the best of everyone’s knowledge) since her sinking 82 years earlier. A slender, preserved hull, diving planes, torpedo tubes conning tower, two shell holes from the USS Wickes’ four-inch deck gun and a measured length of 190 feet (58m) and 19-foot (5.75m) beam confirmed the wreck to be the elusive UB-88 (see accompanying story). Fabian has not revealed the location or depth of UB-88 but says she is well beyond the range of sport diving.
Before being scuttled, the submarine was stripped of most fixtures. Much of the nautical brass fittings usual on a wreck of this vintage were manufactured from steel out of wartime necessity. The brass props were removed before her sinking (see sidebar). Inside the wreck is a 25-pound cache of TNT intended to sink UB-88 had the shellfire proved ineffective. The shells did the job, however, one of them severing the cable link between the submarine and a stand-by vessel, preventing detonation of the high explosives had it been necessary.
UB-88 was an advanced weapon in mankind’s first ‘global’ conflict. The U.S. Navy learned a great deal about German submarine technology from her and much of that knowledge played an important, perhaps decisive, role in the development of the highly successful American submarine force of the Second World War. Meanwhile, UB-88 lies in state – her gray wartime paint replaced by orange and strawberry anemones, rockfish lulling in and out of the torpedo tubes that wrought the death of 13 merchant steamers – a haunting relic of the Great War.
The author and Diver Magazine thank Gary Fabian and Kendall Raine for their assistance in presenting this story.
TEXT AND UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHS BY KENDALL RAINE
Approaching target depth, I searched in the gloom for any sign of wreckage. As the sand bottom came up, I broke out a spool, tied into the up line and headed in the direction of what looked like the shadow of a hulk. Ambient light was very low at this depth and I was really hoping to avoid a protracted search; that would kill our gas and up the bubble count. It took, perhaps, a 30-foot (9m) swim before she came into view. Our initial impression was of a cylindrical hull and it seemed every inch of her curved surface was covered with strawberry anemones (Corynactus). She was an imposing sight and what really caught our attention were the tears in her metal skin that revealed a second, inner hull.
Again, I tied in the spool and headed left, leading the dive. Behind me, Johnny’s twin 24-watt HIDs (High Intensity Discharge lights) illuminated what has now become a spectacular artificial reef. The glow of his video lights added to the experience as we moved down her length and over a large flat surface extending from the side of the hull. Sure enough it was a plane, within a plane, the inner surface being connected to the hull at its center and, clearly, designed to pivot. No question, this was a diving plane with a guard around it. My excitement level was growing. Not too many surface ships had diving planes.
Shortly after we came to the end of the hull where heavy damage was apparent. Swimming around (what proved to be the bow) to the other side, I estimated her beam at approximately 10 feet (3m). Proceeding back along the other side we soon came to the opposing dive plane, resting in the sand and right where it should be. Here we also found a large opening in the outer hull. It was the anchor housing. This was getting to be more fun all the time! Continuing along the hull, I kept looking up hoping to see the conning tower. That would clinch it, in my view. Less than a minute later, there it was rising 15 feet (4.5m) above the main hull. It was smothered in the little crimson anemones, too, and was an impressive structure looming up as it did against the green backlight. That nails it, I said to myself. We’ve found her!
This extraordinary day began six weeks earlier with an e-mail from Captain Ray Arntz whose intriguing note had said: “Give me a call, I think I’ve got a project.” A ‘project’ with Captain Ray usually means one thing, there’s a newfound wreck to be explored.
The news was better than I could have imagined. The wreck that Ray and his partner Gary Fabian believed they had located was not only newly discovered, but of the only German U-boat known to be in California waters – the famed First World War UB-88. They even had drop-camera and digital sonar images of her. Wow! Ray and I had been discussing the UB-88 for a long time and I’d dived on several deep rock piles in search of this elusive war machine. Now, unexpectedly, pay dirt! For years rumors circulated that someone had coordinates for the sub and even that it had been found. But rumours they were; nothing definitive had ever surfaced. As far as I could tell, we’d be the first to dive this historic wreck.
The UB-88 was a Type UB III German submarine built in Hamburg, Germany and commissioned in January 1918. Despite her late entry to the war, UB-88 managed to sink 13 ships and damage two more during 10 months of service. She was one of six WWI U-boats presented to the U.S. by Great Britain when hostilities ended. Sailed back to the States by an American crew, UB-88 was paraded around the eastern seaboard as part of the Victory Bond drive before departing for California via the Panama Canal. Based at the San Pedro naval yard in southern California, UB-88 also cruised the west coast raising money needed to help pay for the war until 1921, when she was stripped and sunk in a live fire exercise.
The fact Captain Ray had contacted me was a clue that the wreck was deep. I’ve been technical diving for years and Ray was looking for divers who could get the job done and keep a lid on the project until it was time to go public. “We need some video to nail it as the UB-88. Can you do it?” Ray asked. Hmm, let me think about that...split second pause...“Of course!” I responded. “This is top secret,” he said. “My partner Gary and I have worked too long and too hard to have this get out. No screw-ups and no show boating.” He asked who I’d dive with so I told him my friend Johnny Walker and I would be cave diving in Mexico until August 23. We set a date for the (27th) Wednesday following our return.
“We’ll use my partner’s boat,” Ray had said, “Gary (Fabian) actually found the wreck and if you think I’m good at finding stuff, you should see this guy!” Gary’s boat is moored at Long Beach (just south of Los Angeles) and a few weeks later it was there we met other members of the project team, Mike Lapinski and Harry Davis. Mike was to assist Ray in the hooking and gearing-up process. Harry would shoot topside video and Gary, topside stills, when he wasn’t running the boat. We loaded our gear quickly and headed out to sea. We’d be diving double 104s with a15/50 mix and the deco gas necessary for a 25-minute dive at the target depth. Running at 15 knots, the trip would take us under an hour on our southeasterly heading to the wreck site.
Gary had been tenacious searching for UB-88 and Ray was quick to give him credit as the driving force on the project. Their combined enthusiasm coupled with the air of anticipation on the boat that day was downright infectious. Reviewing the drop-camera footage shot the month before, I could see why their confidence about this site was so high. The images were definitely not of a rock pile! The structure we saw in a few clear frames bore resemblance to deck plans of a Type UB III World War I German submarine. Sonar readings suggested the target was largely intact and about 175 feet (53m) in length. The UB-88 was 182 feet long (55m) with a 19-foot (6m) beam.
Gary found the wreck on the first pass and Ray marked it with a float. Our dive plan was to tie the up line into the wreck and swim both sides using the video recorder to capture signifying marks along the way. I would lead, run lines and spot the video targets. John would operate the camera and use his new Halcyon lights to ensure the fidelity of our photographic recon.
If the conning tower was intact we especially wanted a clear video record of that but we weren’t sure what to expect because action reports from the day she was sunk suggested her ‘sail’ might have been destroyed during the live fire exercise. Now we knew the truth. That didn’t happen! While Johnny got busy I needed to answer a nagging question so I ascended the side of the conning tower to inspect its top and there, to my great pleasure, was what I had hoped to see: two holes about four inches (10cm) in diameter and three feet (.9m) apart – periscope wells! Bingo. If I harboured any doubts about this being UB-88, they were gone now. Suddenly, the gloom around me blazed into colour. Heeeeere’s Johnny. I pointed at the periscope wells with my light and then moved out of the shot. In front of these appeared to be the hand wheel of a hatch cover.
With that important goal accomplished, we swam back down to the hull and continued heading aft. Behind the conning tower were two hatches, their hand wheels heavily encrusted but still clearly identifiable. Here, we could clearly see the groove formed by the junction of the pressure hull and ballast tanks. We also found a hole penetrating the pressure hull. Cool! I shined my light into the interior of the sub but couldn’t really see anything. Further back I came upon a large net caught in the wreckage but hanging off the hull by its fl oats. It must have been there a long time because it was very old. Dropping behind the net I found myself at the stern. A steel rail originally attached here now lay in the sand and was further evidence our find was the UB-88. The rail appears in the deck plans and is unique to Type UB III boats.
Swimming around to the port side of the wreck, I was able to make out propeller shaft struts and the flange into the hull. The shafts and propellers had been removed in San Pedro Navy Yard prior to sinking. Johnny was right behind me recording for the guys topside everything our eyes were taking in. I just knew Ray and Gary would be happy with this video. I continued forward and examined various places where the outer hull had been breached, exposing the pressure hull. Finally, my submarine circumnavigation brought me back to our starting point and the bow plane. Now, for the first time, I noticed a torpedo tube exiting the pressure hull. I motioned to Johnny to film it and not too soon because our time was up.
After an hour of deco John and I surfaced. An eager ‘Gary & Co.’ picked us up and we wasted little time playing the video. It was spectacular and a confirmation for all that the object of a two-year search in archives and across miles/kilometers off San Pedro Bay had ended in success. Without doubt it was a submarine and we’d identified enough design features to say, unequivocally, she was a Type UB III boat.
We were an excited bunch! The ride in was spent discussing many aspects of what we’d seen and also plans to document the find. Since that day of discovery additional dives have been made to further document the wreck. Gary and Ray will not disclose the location because the possibility of unexploded satchel charges (ordnance) remaining inside the wreck, coupled with her depth and entanglement hazards, make the UB-88 a very hazardous proposition even for experienced technical divers. In 1921, preparations to sink her took four months so it’s unlikely that many interesting artifacts remain. Nevertheless, I was honoured to make this exploratory dive confirming her location; it’s a treasured memory and I’ve told that to Gary and Ray. There’s just nothing like being the first to touch a lost wreck.
THE HUNT FOR UB-88
Gary Fabian loves to fish and you might even say that the discovery of UB-88 is one heck of a fish story.
“Fish are attracted to underwater structures that support a food chain,” Fabian says. Over the years he’s built a large database of natural rock and reef fishing spots, and of artificial reefs, including shipwrecks.
UB-88 first came to Fabian’s attention while reading about wrecks in his fishing grounds off Long Beach, California. He was fascinated. “An actual German U- boat in local waters. I’d never heard of such a thing and, amazingly, no one had been able to locate her,” he recalls. Long story short, finding the sub became something of an obsession for Fabian.
His search began with logbooks of the three navy ships present at the sinking of the sub on January 3, 1921, but those reports were vague and conflicting about an exact position. Still, he was able to come up with a broad search box that he believed contained the submarine. At this time Fabian was using his fishing spot database to develop a saleable map for sport fishermen. The objective was to plot his list of GPS coordinates graphically, a challenging task that made him aware of an underwater mapping project then recently completed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). “They’d been using some very sophisticated multi-beam sonar equipment to generate high-resolution 3D images of the seafloor. Their results were truly spectacular,” Fabian recalls. The hunt for UB-88 was based on this survey information.
To analyze the USGS data required special Geographic Information System (GIS) software that cost Fabian over $6,000 and learning curve time, after which he began to ID anomalies and their coordinates in his search box area. He then visited each of these sites in San Pedro Bay, inspecting targets with his Lowrance recording sonar (a fish finder) whose data he would later review on a home computer. Promising targets, whose relief or profile suggested something more than a rock pile would be visually inspected later using a color video drop camera.
Fabian had been aware all along that as a non-diver he would eventually need to ally himself with someone who could take the search underwater. It was through his fishing map project that he became acquainted with long time diver and dive charter boat captain, Ray Arntz, who has been plying the waters of Southern California for decades. A wreck diver and spear fisherman, Arntz has his own collection of underwater sites, secret and otherwise, too voluminous to describe. “Ray has over 7,000 targets on his database. When I look at the GPS/Chart plotter on his boat in the area off of LA/Long Beach, all you can see is a one large mass of icons overlapping each other. You can’t even see the underlying chart,” Fabian says. But as Arntz puts it, “collecting targets and identifying them are two vastly different things.” Turns out the veteran wreck hunter had also been looking for the elusive UB-88. The two became good friends and joined forces in the hunt.
On July 9, 2003, Fabian headed out on his own (he says his partner thought he had something more important to do that day) to look at a single target that he’d spotted during a fresh look at data already covered. “As soon as I drove over it I knew it wasn’t a rock pile and on the first camera pass I saw what looked like a shell hole in the hull,” Fabian remembers. He and Arntz returned to the site a week later to take a closer look with the camera and that led to the dive expedition and positive identification of UB-88 the following month.
Success followed 14 months of weekend searches and investigation of over two-dozen targets, most of which proved to be rock piles. The hunt for UB-88 has been tremendously rewarding for Fabian. “Through it all my only motivation has been to find a WW I German U-boat,” he says. “There aren’t many challenges like that around anymore.” Of the accomplishment, he says: “it’s proved to be one of the most satisfying of my life.” Editor