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

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

Coast Guard Cutter Argo on patrol displaying World War II armament and haze gray paint scheme. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Argo on patrol displaying World War II armament and haze gray paint scheme. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This is the tale of two combat captains. Each of them shared a love for the sea, the ability to command a crew under extreme conditions, and a loyalty to their nation and its wartime cause. But at the same time, they fought on opposing sides of World War II.

Described as a “lanky, hawk-faced man,” Charles Eliot Winslow was born in 1909 and grew up in the Boston area. He preferred using his middle name and, by 1940, he was a successful paint salesman and engaged to be married. Winslow had second thoughts about his fiancé, but instead of calling off the wedding, he chose to join the U.S. Navy.

LTJG Eliot Winslow. Photo courtesy of the Winslow Family.

LTJG Eliot Winslow. Photo courtesy of the Winslow Family.

In 1941, at the ripe age of 31, he found himself called to active duty with the enlisted rating of seaman 2nd class. In his first assignment, he served out of Boston on board USS Puffin, a Maine fishing boat converted into a minesweeper. In November 1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he decided to apply for an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard Reserve. Winslow passed the competitive examination and, by December, he accepted a commission in the Coast Guard.

Winslow rose through the ranks quickly. During 1942, he served as executive officer aboard the Coast Guard weather ship Menemsha, and then received an appointment to the anti-submarine warfare school in Miami, Florida. Following graduation, the Coast Guard promoted him to lieutenant junior grade and assigned him to the Coast Guard Cutter Argo, a 165-foot Coast Guard cutter originally built for offshore Prohibition enforcement. By February 1943, Winslow served as senior watch officer and navigation officer aboard Argo. He rose rapidly through the ship’s officer ranks and, in April, he received a promotion to executive officer and gunnery officer. After only two months as the cutter’s executive officer, the Coast Guard promoted him to commanding officer of Argo.

In June 1944, the senior member of a Navy inspection team reported, “The [Argo’s] commanding officer is an able and competent officer, forceful, decisive, military in conduct and bearing, maintaining discipline with a firm yet tactful hand . . .” Even though he enlisted to escape his fiancé, Winslow proved a solid leader and an excellent seaman, and the service would retain him as Argo’s commanding officer for the rest of the war.

Johann Heinrich Fehler followed a different career path than his American counterpart.

Kapitänleutnant Johann-Heinrich Fehler (left)

Kapitänleutnant Johann-Heinrich Fehler (left)

A handsome, blond, clean-cut man, Fehler was born a year later than Winslow. As a boy growing up near Berlin, he longed to go to sea. After completing high school, Fehler signed-on with a German sailing vessel plying the waters of the Baltic Sea and, after two years, he began serving on a German ocean-going freighter.

He next entered the German merchant marine academy and earned a mate’s certificate. In 1933, he joined Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party, which was recruiting new members throughout Germany. In 1936, he joined the German Navy as an officer cadet and he would remain a faithful Nazi Party member for the rest of his military career.

Fehler found within himself a natural, almost instinctive, predisposition for command at sea. He completed his cadet training and climbed the officer ranks on board German naval vessels, including the notorious commerce raider Atlantis. Configured to look like a merchantman, this auxiliary cruiser sank 22 Allied and neutral merchant vessels early in World War II.

Eventually, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Devonshire discovered the disguised raider and sank her. Rather than take Atlantis’s crew as prisoners, the British set them adrift in lifeboats. This tactic enabled German submarines to rescue the crew and return them to Germany. It was after this rescue that Fehler altered the course of his naval career from serving on surface warships, to joining the submarine corps and training to become a u-boat captain.

In the later years of the war, Fehler’s fate would be tied to the German submarine U-234. One of Germany’s oversized Type X-B u-boats, this 1,650-ton sub’s original mission was to lay mines rather than torpedo enemy shipping. However, after completing her trials and commissioning as a minelayer, she returned to the shipyard for conversion into a freight-carrying u-boat to transport vital cargoes through Allied patrolled waters.

The U.S. Navy assigned Cutter Argo and her sisterships to patrol and convoy escort duties. The cutter carried a crew of 75 men and supported radar and sonar equipment; an armament of three-inch and twenty-millimeter guns; and depth charges and other anti-submarine weapons. As escorts, Argo and her sisterships were typically assigned to coastal convoys, tracking underwater contacts and attacking anything that resembled the sonar signature of a submarine.

In December 1944, the German high command summoned Fehler to Berlin for meetings. There, he learned that his u-boat would serve as an undersea freighter to ship important cargo to Japan. The Nazi’s had sent u-boats to Japan before, but three out of four submarine freighters had been lost attempting the passage. However, toward the end of the war there was no alternative for shipping cargo to Germany’s last surviving ally. Fehler’s assignment to command a transport u-boat proved deeply disappointing, because he wanted to join the fight and command one of the attack subs. But Fehler stayed with U-234 since requesting another position meant postponing his deployment or, even worse, serving in a shore assignment.

Rare color photo of newly surrendered U-805, May 16th, 1945. The U-805, first submarine to surrender, was escorted by Argo at 12 knots for the last 50 miles to Portsmouth. According to Winslow, “Ten prisoners were stowed in the forward anchor chain locker, 23 aft over the screws, with 5 officers below decks, all under heavy guard. Modern conveniences at their disposal consisted solely of a 10-quart pail. Shower baths with smelling salts and sandwiches were omitted.” U.S. Navy photo.

Rare color photo of newly surrendered U-805, May 16th, 1945. The U-805, first submarine to surrender, was escorted by Argo at 12 knots for the last 50 miles to Portsmouth. According to Winslow, “Ten prisoners were stowed in the forward anchor chain locker, 23 aft over the screws, with 5 officers below decks, all under heavy guard. Modern conveniences at their disposal consisted solely of a 10-quart pail. Shower baths with smelling salts and sandwiches were omitted.” U.S. Navy photo.

Shipping space was limited in even the largest u-boats. To maximize U-234’s capacity, the Germans allocated every conceivable watertight compartment to critical war material. The 300 tons of cargo included many of Germany’s latest armaments and military technology, such as new radar, anti-tank and armor weapons, the latest explosives and ammunition and military aviation materials. U-234 also carried raw materials rarely found in Japan such as lead, mercury, optical glass and uranium oxide ore.

By 1945, lines of communication between Germany and Japan had become tenuous, so U-234 also carried mail and correspondence for German military, diplomatic and civilian personnel located in Japan.

Not only did Fehler have to transport vital cargo to Japan, his orders required him to ferry critical military personnel. His 12 passengers included two officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy, two civilian employees of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Company, and four German naval officers. U-234 also carried four German air force officers, including the Luftwaffe general, Ulrich Kessler.

Fully loaded with her top-secret cargo and passengers, U-234 departed Kiel, Germany, on March 25th on course for Kristiansand, Norway.

Curious what happens next? Stick around for the next installment of ‘The Long Blue Line’, set to publish right here on Coast Guard Compass Thursday, July 28, 2016.

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