The Long Blue Line: Coast Guardsman Eliot Winslow, Nazi Johann-Heinrich Fehler and the surrender of U-234 (Part 2)

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Argo enlisted man and Coast Guard artist John Floyd Morris, who served on board Argo, made a series of sketches showing mem¬bers of U-234’s passengers and crew. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Argo enlisted man and Coast Guard artist John Floyd Morris, who served on board Argo, made a series of sketches showing mem¬bers of U-234’s passengers and crew. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Today we continue the story U.S. Coast Guardsman Eliot Winslow and Nazi Johann-Heinrich Fehler. To learn what happened first, read Part One.

On April 15, Fehler departed Norway with the U-234’s top-secret cargo and passengers, uncertain of his mission’s chances of success.

Using the u-boat’s advanced schnorkel system, he cruised without surfacing for over two weeks. He finally reached the open ocean in early May. In the meantime, the Nazi war machine had collapsed, Adolph Hitler had killed himself and other Nazi leaders had fled Berlin.

Using the schnorkel mast, shown here next to the conning tower, u-boats could run their diesel engines while submerged by sucking air through an intake at the top of the mast while blowing diesel fumes out of the schnorkel’s exhaust manifold. U.S. Navy photo.

Using the schnorkel mast, shown here next to the conning tower, u-boats could run their diesel engines while submerged by sucking air through an intake at the top of the mast while blowing diesel fumes out of the schnorkel’s exhaust manifold. U.S. Navy photo.

The surrender of German military forces fell to Admiral Karl Dönitz, former head of the German submarine fleet. On May 8, 1945, Dönitz broadcasted the order for all deployed u-boats to surrender to Allied naval forces. However, by the time he received the order, Fehler was halfway across the Atlantic.

He decided to surrender to the Americans and began steaming westward. Meantime, his two Japanese passengers chose to commit suicide to avoid capture and Fehler buried their bodies at sea. In addition to U-234, four other u-boats chose to surrender to American forces, including U-805, U-873, U-1228 and U-858, which surrendered near Cape May, New Jersey, and was brought to anchor in Delaware. The U.S. Navy decided to escort the four other u-boats to the Portsmouth Navy Yard, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Coast Guard played an important role in taking the last four enemy vessels of the war, just as it had when it captured the first German vessel of World War II. The Navy selected six patrol vessels as its “surrender group,” including the three 165-foot Coast Guard cutters Dione, Nemesis and Argo. The Navy selected Argo captain Eliot Winslow on as the unit’s leader.

Within 10 days of Dönitz’s surrender order, Argo began a busy routine of ferrying u-boats to Portsmouth from a prearranged offshore rendezvous point. For the first u-boat, Winslow kept Argo on station at the appointed location despite heavy seas and 65 mile per hour winds.

The youth and naiveté of one of the u-boat’s enlisted crews left a strong impression on Cmdr. Alexander Moffat, the senior Navy representative aboard Argo. Most of them were little more than boys and their officers had denied them any information about the war and the enemy they were fighting. Some of the u-boat officers, such as U-873’s Kapitanleutnant Fritz Steinhoff, proved fervent Nazis. Steinhoff’s only response to questions was “I am a Nazi. I will always be a Nazi.” Within days of his surrender, he committed suicide in his jail cell.

This image shows Argo moored at Portsmouth Navy Yard on May 19, 1945, with U-234 crewmembers assembled on the fantail and Coast Guard officers and men looking on. U.S. Navy photo.

This image shows Argo moored at Portsmouth Navy Yard on May 19, 1945, with U-234 crewmembers assembled on the fantail and Coast Guard officers and men looking on. U.S. Navy photo.

On Saturday, May 19, Argo rendezvoused with U-234 and its escort, USS Sutton. Sutton’s whaleboat ferried Fehler, his officers and his passengers, to the cutter. According to Moffat, Fehler climbed over the cutter’s rail and cheerfully introduced himself. Fehler extended his hand in greeting, but Moffat did not return the German’s proffer of a handshake. Denied a warm greeting by the American, Fehler went on to remark: “Come now, commander, let’s not do this the hard way. Who knows but that one of these days you’ll be surrendering to me? In a few years, you will see Germany reborn. In the meantime, I shall have a welcome rest at one of your prisoner of war camps with better food, I am sure, than I have had for months. Then I’ll be repatriated ready to work for a new economic empire.” While Moffat recorded the event in detail in his published autobiography, Argo’s logbook for this day shows no sign of the Navy commander aboard the cutter adding greater mystery to the actual case.

Regardless of his reception by the Americans, Fehler proceeded below decks with his officers and passengers. Argo’s Coast Guardsmen, ordered the prisoners to sit still with their arms folded, which prompted Fehler to complain bitterly to the American interpreter about their treatment. After learning about Fehler’s behavior, Winslow went below and ordered the guards to “shoot any prisoner who as much as scratches his head without permission.”

Later, the Germans were disembarked while journalists looked on from the dock. Luftwaffe General Kessler saluted Winslow and politely asked permission to depart the ship, to which Winslow silently pointed the way. Fehler left the cutter protesting to Winslow “Your men treated me like a gangster.”

In his personal collection of photos from the event (below), LTJG Eliot Winslow’s hand-written captions included: “The Finger: May 19, 1945, Kapitanen Leutnaut [sic] Jahann Heinrich Fehler was captain of the 1600 ton submarine U-234 bound for Japan with a $5,000,000 cargo of mercury and tons of blue prints of the latest robot bombs and jet-propelled planes. He complained bitterly when ordered with 4 of his officers to sit on the deck with arms folded. Informed by the interpreter of the situation, I went below and ordered the guards to ‘shoot any prisoner who as much as scratched his head without permission.’ An apology must accompany every shooting. When Fehler was about to disembark, he was still growling. He was informed to save his grumbling for the captain, who would be at the gangway. When asked by the interpreter what were his troubles, he replied first in German. Then turning to me, he said in good English, ‘Ach—my men have been treated like gang¬sters.’ I had been simmering for an hour but that remark brought me to a boil. With eyes meeting head on, I barked ‘that’s what you are GET OFF!’ My outstretched arm point¬ed to the gangway. Strange as it may seem, there was no profanity for the moment, but I must confess the air was blue for 5 minutes while I muttered to myself.” Photo courtesy of the Winslow Family.

In his personal collection of photos from the event (below), Lt. j.g. Eliot Winslow’s hand-written captions included: “The Finger: May 19, 1945, Kapitanen Leutnaut [sic] Jahann Heinrich Fehler was captain of the 1,600 ton submarine U-234 bound for Japan with a $5,000,000 cargo of mercury and tons of blue prints of the latest robot bombs and jet-propelled planes.  Photo courtesy of the Winslow Family.

Already simmering over Fehler’s hubris and loud behavior, Winslow pointed to the gangway and barked, “That’s what you are. Get the hell off my ship!”

After they disembarked, an armed guard escorted U-234’s personnel to the brig at the Navy Yard. Meanwhile, the Navy disbanded the surrender group.

Most of U-234’s prisoners were held at Portsmouth for a few days before the Navy bussed them to a larger prison in Boston. Later, the authorities dispersed most of the enlisted men among internment camps on the East Coast, but a few returned to the Portsmouth Navy Yard to assist in unloading U-234’s cargo.

Navy officials deemed Fehler, his passengers and officers of significant intelligence value and flew them from Boston to Washington, D.C., for further interrogation and processing.

To determine the contents of U-234’s cargo, the Navy surrounded the submarine with a shroud to shield the sensitive unloading activities. The Navy Department sent much of U-234’s cargo to its research facility at Indian Head, Maryland, distributing the German technology, including the Messerschmitt plans and instruments, to appropriate government offices for research and analysis. The Navy handed over the uranium oxide to the U.S. Army to support the Manhattan Project and development of the atomic bomb.

With U-234’s surrender, the sub’s operational days were over, but the Navy continued to analyze her design and construction. The Navy subjected the u-boat to numerous tests to compare the durability and performance of German submarines to the latest American sub technology. By the spring of 1946, extensive dockside inspections and sea tests were complete and the Navy formally declared the u-boat “out of service.” Finally, on November 20, 1947, the Navy used the u-boat as a torpedo target for the American submarine, USS Greenfish, 40 miles off Cape Cod.

Ultimately, U-234 was used for tar¬get practice by the U.S. Navy. On Novem¬ber 20, 1947, USS Greenfish shot a torpedo at her as she lay on the surface, approximately 40 miles off Cape Cod. U.S. Navy photo.

Ultimately, U-234 was used for tar¬get practice by the U.S. Navy. On Novem¬ber 20, 1947, USS Greenfish shot a torpedo at her as she lay on the surface, approximately 40 miles off Cape Cod. U.S. Navy photo.

Navy intelligence officials processed Fehler and the other U-234 officers and sent them to internment camps along the East Coast. Fehler went to a facility reserved for fervent Nazi officers and, in 1946, he returned home by sea along with other repatriated Germans. While Fehler sank no ships as a submarine commander, his association with U-234 made him the subject of journalists, writers and researchers, and one of the better-known u-boat captains. After returning to Germany, he settled in Hamburg and passed away in 1993 at the age of 82.

After the war, the Coast Guard experienced a dramatic decrease in personnel levels, forcing the service to retire cutters such as the Argo. The Argo was decommissioned in 1948. In 1959, a New York sightseeing business acquired Argo, beginning a second career as a city tour boat.

After his wartime responsibilities ended, Winslow was ready to go home. In a letter to his command, he wrote, “If the Argo . . . is scheduled to fight the wintry blasts alone all winter, my answer is ‘Get me off.’ One winter upside down was enough for me. It took me three weeks [on shore] to regain the full use of my feet!” After retiring from active duty, he settled in Southport, Maine, where he started a business running tugs and local tour boats. For years, Winslow gave summertime tours of the southern Maine coast aboard the sightseeing vessel he named for his old cutter, the Argo. Winslow lived at his home in Southport till his 90’s.

Winslow and Fehler fought on opposite sides of World War II and took very different paths in their wartime journeys. Both men found a unique role to play in the conflict, one as a German u-boat commander and the other as a Coast Guard cutter captain. Neither officer could have imagined the role they would play in the war, nor how their paths would cross in the last days of the European conflict. This was the final episode of World War II, for Coast Guardsmen of the long blue line who served in North Atlantic combat operations.

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