“It’s impossible for me to hate Germans ever since a U-boat captain saved my life," a former U.S. sailor said
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
(From the January 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)
Unrestricted submarine warfare was a significant issue in the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trial against German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander in chief of the German navy in World War II. But Lieutenant-Commander Gerhard Wiebe did not allow orders to limit his commitment to decency. Wiebe’s humanity has caused two former sailors of the U.S. merchant fleet to teach their children not to hate Germans.
In Café Mozart, a cozy German restaurant in downtown Washington, Robert Morrison unwraps one of the most treasured items he had inherited from his father, Leslie, who died in 1998. It is a bronze plaque showing the stylized outline of a U-boat. “German prisoners of war gave this to Pop when he served as an officer on a merchant vessel carrying them to the United States,” says Morrison, a senior fellow with Family Research Council, a Washington think tank. “This was their way of thanking him for treating them so well. A non-smoker, he gave them all his cigarette rations.”
As always in wartime episodes, there is a “story behind the story.” Why did Leslie Morrison who lost a brother in a German submarine attack on his ship tell his children over and over again that he could never hate Germans? Why has this become part of the Morrison family lore? It was because of the decency of one unsung hero of World War II, Lt. Cmdr. Gerhard Wiebe, who acted against the explicit order of his admiralty not to rescue sailors of vessels sunk by German submarines.
Little is known about Wiebe. “His file is astonishingly thin,” reports Horst Bredow, founding director of “Traditionsarchiv Unterseeboote” (U-boat archive) in Cuxhaven, which holds the records of most of Germany’s 41,500 World War II submariners. “We know that he was born in 1907. There’s nothing in his folder about any decorations he might have been awarded, even though U-516 sank 9 vessels while under his command from 12 May 1942 until 23 June 1943.”
One of these ships was S.S. Deer Lodge, an American freighter on which Leslie Morrison served as able-bodied seaman when it was torpedoed in the middle of the night 39 nautical miles off Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “We were carrying military trucks in the hold and four narrow-gage locomotives with their tenders on our deck; the brand-new locomotives, built in Baltimore, were destined for British-ruled Palestine,” recalls Manuel Dias, 88, of Milford, Mass., adding that Morrison, 10 years his senior, was his mentor on board.
On 17 February 1943, Dias had just finished his watch and was about to climb into his bunk when alarm was sounded. “I rushed up to the deck. It was pitch-dark, but I could spot the silhouette of a U-boat 300 to 400 yards across our bow,” says Dias. “Then the torpedo hit us portside. We had a crew of 55. Two were killed, but the Germans gave the rest of us plenty of time to leave our listing ship, even though we had some initial problems with our life boats.”
What happened next is a little hazy. According to Morrison’s son, the German skipper and his crew provided the Americans with food, water and charts. Dias can’t recall this detail but he agrees with Morrison that Lt. Cmdr. Wiebe deliberately held off firing a second torpedo for a quarter of an hour to make sure that all survivors were safe. The second torpedo sank the doomed S.S. Deer Lodge.
Seas were heavy. “I was in the water, certain that the Germans would shoot all of us,” Dias relates. “But when I caught up with our captain, Irving Jenson, he said that Wiebe had asked him in English, ‘Are any of you injured? Do you need first aid?’ I could hear the two officers’ voices. Jenson told me that before leaving the scene, Wiebe had directed him to safety; he advised us to head for Bird Island or Cape Recife. I thought that this was pretty decent of him. Six hours later, a South African warship rescued us.”
Reached in Cuxhaven by telephone, Horst Bredow, founding director of the “Traditionsarchiv Unterseebote” (U-boat archive) and a watch officer on a German surface ship in World War II, insisted that many German submarine commandants acted that in this manner. This so they violated the order from Berlin not to concern themselves with survivors but “only with the safety or your own boat and with efforts to achieve additional successes as soon as possible.”
“Unrestricted submarine warfare” practiced by the “Kriegsmarine” (German Navy) became a major issue in Grand Adm. Dönitz’ war crimes trial in Nuremberg, but his sentence did not assess this particular violation of international accords because of similar actions by the Allies.
Before the Nuremberg tribunal Dönitz’s defense attorney, Otto Kranzbühler, presented an interrogatory of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, the former commander-in-chief of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. Nimitz confirmed that on orders of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington he himself had conducted unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan.
Dönitz spent 10 years in Spandau Prison in Berlin. Manuel Dias and Leslie Morrison concluded from their wartime experience that Germans “are wonderful people, although Hitler was a of course a different matter,” according to Dias. Fort Elizabeth is now part of a metropolitan Municipality named after Nelson Mandela and home of a huge assembly plant of Volkswagen, the German carmaker.
Gerhard Wiebe was ultimately promoted to full commander. He left the submarine force soon after his encounter with the S.S. Deer Lodge for medical reasons, and spent the rest of World War II training junior officers and then more than two years in a British prisoner of war camp.
While not celebrated as an ace by his superiors, Wiebe was a champion in the eyes of Manuel Dias, Leslie Morrison, and now Morrison’s his son Robert. When Wiebe died in 1985, few of his fellow countrymen had even heard of this extraordinary representative of Germany’s small band of submariners whom U.S. historian Timothy P. Mulligan acclaimed as an elite corps of World War II, which killed most of them.