U-505 German Submarine at Museum of Science & Industry  Chicago

Just like many of you – in fact, many thousands of you – I first paid a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I was a kid. I don’t remember whether I was in Mrs. Carter’s 4th-grade class or Mr. Johnson’s 6th grade class or whether I went with my Cub Scout Pack.

J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

And it doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference… what matters most is the impact it had on all of us. Interestingly enough, the impact was felt immediately by some, and for the rest of us, well, let’s just say that it took a little longer. But what is important to know – and especially for those of you who are teachers, or Cub Scout leaders, or even… gulp… parents, the impact is undeniable. It does take place. And its impact is forever.

For me, the impact of the Museum was like a charcoal briquette, smoldering unnoticed for, ahem… about 40 years. The exhibits I remember most from my youth – although it is hardly fair to choose but a few of the thousands of wonderful exhibits that are found there – were the Coal Mine, the Echo Chamber, and the Living Body, among others.

But when I first set eyes on the inside of the U-505 submarine, I had no idea of the tremendous impact that it would eventually have on the way I viewed history in general and museums in specific. I hated and had no interest in history – then – and only knew that my father (who was in the a Seabee in the Navy) wouldn’t talk much about the “War to End All Wars.”  

The U-505 on display at the Museum of Science & Industry

The briquette suddenly began to glow about 18 months ago when I visited the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and toured the USS Cobia submarine that is docked there (I can only encourage you to visit the museum yourself and tour the sub, and then see how you feel. It is a very cool place!).

I do know that the briquette burst into flame this past summer when I finally got a chance to read Shadow Divers, a true story about two deep wreck divers who discovered in 1990 – at a depth of about 240 feet – a German U-boat, some 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.

Then came the revelation that the old and rusting U505 in Chicago had been given another chance at “life” at the Museum of Science and Industry – she had been completely redone, and the Museum had provided a brand new home for her, some 40 feet underground, the exhibit encompassing some 35,000 square feet of space.

I had to see her once again, especially after reading a recent article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, telling the tale of her construction, history during the War, her final capture, and of the lives of several of her ill-fated crew, some of whom are still around to tell the story.

I scheduled a trip to the Museum on a Monday – after Labor Day – so that the crowds would be a bit smaller. The trip downtown however, was agonizingly slow. It was raining that particular morning (one of the few storms that we had experienced all season long) and it took over two hours to make the 45-mile trip.

The Zephyr on display at the Museum of Science & Industry

Arriving at the Museum, it was easy to see the spot where the sub was hidden underground on the north side of the building, for the grassy area was verdant and nothing else was on the site above-ground. 

Parking was easy – albeit expensive ($12) – and we entered from the ground floor where the restored Zephyr was on exhibit, secured our tickets and headed up the stairs to the main floor. 

The airplanes were still attached and hanging from the high ceilings, the ever-popular coal mine exhibit was still there, and several other, memorable exhibits still graced the halls.  Other exhibits beckoned, but my desire was to go straight to the sub. 

Our journey to the sub’s underground resting place was loaded with information for visitors to read and listen to, as well as watch: several hologram presentations reenacted a few of the more memorable moments in the sub’s capture; famous Chicago newsman Bill Curtis’s voice behind video clips detailed the history of how submarine warfare and our relentless pursuit of German submarine “wolf packs” impacted the outcome of World War II in the Atlantic.

A look at the U-505's resting place - the conning tower and periscope have been removed

Finally arriving at the sub herself was very cool since she had been given an extensive facelift after many years of degradation due to infamous Chicago winters, and she looked almost new; paint chips had been analyzed in order to match the original paint job. 

The conning tower had to be removed in order to keep from requiring another 30-40 feet of depth for the sub to fit.  The conning tower and periscope were displayed off to one side of the boat. 

A chill went through me as I gazed upon the four bow torpedo tubes and one of the infamous and secret T5 acoustic torpedoes displayed hanging in front of the sub; I tried to imagine the horror felt by American seamen observing – too late – the telltale trail of bubbles just before the torpedo made its fateful impact. 

Heidi reminded me that certainly it was no less horrifying for the German sailors who would hear the fateful “click” just prior to a depth charge detonating at a depth of over 200 feet and wonder whether or not they would soon find themselves entombed forever in the icy cold at the bottom of the ocean. 

I also tried to imagine the thoughts of the deep wreck divers as they fought deepening narcosis from nitrogen inhaled at great depth and pressure, trying to enter a silt-filled mass of twisted pipes, wires and other dangers that lurked on a sunken German submarine lying on her side, as they attempted to determine the identity of the sub at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of New Jersey.

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Ignoring the cameraman offering what I knew to be souvenir photo opp's, Heidi and I headed down the ramp and to a doorway cut into the port side of the sub where the tour was to begin. Less easy to ignore were the other dozen bodies crammed into a space on the sub that would otherwise have comfortably accommodated about eight.

The tour lasted only about 15 minutes, and another tour group was pretty much right behind us. Also, we were told that we were not to ask any questions on the tour. I assumed that was because the whole tour was choreographed so that the descriptions by the tour guide could be matched to the background sounds that were piped in to make one feel as if he/she were actually on a real sub.

Though the tour was over-crowded, too short and time-constrained, it was nonetheless interesting – if for no other reason than to actually be inside a German U-boat. That part is worth the additional $5 apiece beyond admission to the museum that is charged just to get to the boat.

We were surprised at the cramped quarters and tiny kitchen area (I’m not sure if someone could prepare meals for 6 there on what appeared to be nothing more than two hot-plates – let alone 59 hungry submariners!).

Not only was the boat much smaller than its American counterpart, the inside seemed even more austere, although we were amazed at the amount and quality of woodwork, which seemed to give the boat a very comfortable atmosphere… if that is possible on a machine such as this.

Close quarters in the aft torpedo room

A look at the aft torpedo room – where one of only two internal hatches had been left intact (to allow for easier passage between compartments) – was followed by our exit from the boat on what was a much-too-short tour.  But outside was a wealth of artifacts and additional information to read. 

Standing next to the U-505, I could almost feel the tension that must have existed – not only while the boat was on patrol, but during her capture toward what ultimately became the final months of the War.  Because without the capture of the boat and a German Enigma machine, along with a mountain of secret documents, the War could have dragged on for many more months, perhaps years.

As we exited the exhibit, we entered a small room with a video and plenty of pictures that showed how the sub was moved to its new location, followed by another room that housed one of the anchors from the boat, and also a listing of contributors and contributions allowing the sub to be placed into its new home. It was immediately obvious that no expense was spared in what had to have been a Herculean effort to relocate the U-505.

J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

My feelings of wonderment, nostalgia, awe and respect – for both sides of the conflict, as well as for the efforts of those who got the sub moved and re-conditioned – were suddenly sucked away as we were confronted by first a gift shop, and then by the walls full of pictures (obviously for sale) of those who had been photographed prior to touring the sub. I know all this is simply marketing strategy, but I don’t like the feeling that I will need to buy something to remember my visit to the U-505.

For anyone at all interested in history in general or in the history of WW II, the sub is a must-see – for many reasons. And it was incredible to view engineering marvel of moving a 252-foot long, 37-foot wide, 700-ton vessel almost a half-mile from her original “berth” on the south side of the Museum to the new exhibit hall: a 35 million dollar project.  

More than 24 million people have visited her since she was first brought to the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan back in 1954, and up to two million a year can enjoy her in her new digs.  And if by chance you have read or may be interested in reading the book I mentioned earlier (Shadow Divers), then you will really want to take a tour of the U-505. I’d like to tell you more about the book, but I’m afraid that I would ruin at least part of the true story that begins in 1990.


R. Karl

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