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The Tragic Story of U-869, a.k.a. “U-Who?”

It started at a Brielle hole-in-the-wall dive called The Harbor Inn.  Or, as the locals lovingly knew it, back in 1991, “The Horrible Inn.”  In 2001, it was replaced by the fashionable Shipwreck Grill.  Most Monmouth County residents today would barely recognize this as the place that once served as the catalyst for resolving one of World War II’s longest unsolved mysteries.

Today, the Shipwreck offers a $16 porterhouse cheeseburger (add $2 for avocado), a far cry from late August 1991 when this rough-as-guts, bucket-of-blood saloon was the favored haunt for Bill Nagle, one of America’s most accomplished charter boat captains and a former world-class deep shipwreck diver.  It was Nagle, a wreck-site legend, who’d helped bring up from 200+ feet below the ocean’s surface the Andria Doria’s much sought-after ship’s bell.  He’d done that off of Nantucket Island in 1985.

But in downing a few Jim Beams that hot August night at the Horrible, the grizzled captain of The Seeker,a wiry man who no longer dove, found himself listening to an improbable mariner’s tale about a deep wreck roughly 65 miles offshore from Brielle.  The charter fishing boat captain next to him, draining the same bourbon shots, knew Nagle by reputation.  He was offering him Loran-C time differentials (“the numbers”) to an unexplored wreck, in exchange for Nagle sharing with him the location of another shipwreck that might be a good place to find fish.

That captain, “Skeets” Frink, was certain that someone, maybe the U.S. Navy or a garbage barge operator, had lost something big in a little depression along the edge of the continental shelf.  Out in the vicinity of 39°33’N, 73°20’W.  Out where 235 feet of cold-water currents quickly sealed a diver’s fate for the simplest of mistakes.  Like getting tangled in wires or mismanaging decompression.  That happened often enough when disoriented divers, still with plenty of air, panicked (or hallucinated) and bolted for “sunshine and seagulls.”

If anyone knew how to dive in this unforgiving setting, it would be Nagle, helming The Seeker.

Nagle guessed that whatever was down there… and the possibility existed it was nothing more than a few subway cars New Jersey authorities purposely sank to “promote marine life”…this ocean-floor sonar bump was a dark and dangerous place where only the most skilled wreck divers, with their 175-pounds of gear, would dare descend into the silt of a nautical mausoleum.

This was 1991 and a lot of bad things could easily happen 60+ miles from Brielle’s docks in 40 fathoms of water where seven atmospheres of hydrostatic pressure (roughly 100 pounds-force per square inch) could kill the unlucky (as it soon would).  As Robert Kurson wrote in his book Shadow Divers, “A diver lost inside a wreck is in grave danger.  He has a finite air supply.  If he cannot find his way out, he will drown.  If he finds his way out but breathes down his tanks in the process, he will not have enough air left for proper decompression.”

Nagle could get his daring divers out to the dive site.  But what was down there?  What secret lay in the depths of the Atlantic, six hours from shore?  On September 2, 1991, Nagle intended to take friend and diving professional John Chatterton and 12 others to find out.

John Chatterton was a professional commercial diver, handling jobs such as underwater welding.  He was raised on Long Island but lived most of his life in various places around New Jersey, including Millburn, Hoboken, Cape May, and, according to the Shadow Divers book, and other sources, “on the Jersey Shore.”  Monmouth Timeline reached out to Chatterton via author Robert Kurson to see if we could find out exactly where on the Jersey Shore Chatterton lived at that time.  Here is his response:

“For a while I lived in the Highlands, near the Twin Lights Lighthouse.  I was working across from Tower 1 on a construction project in the water under the World Financial Center, on 9/11.  When I finally got out of NY, I went to my home in the Highlands, and from the Lighthouse saw the smoke from the attack drift down past Sandy Hook.”

                                   John Chatterton, via email to Robert Kurson, via email to Rick Burton

In addition to being an accomplished professional diver by day, John Chatterton was also legendary for his ability to find his way around dangerous shipwrecks that thwarted other divers.

What Chatterton would find that day was a long-lost German WWII submarine that the authorities – both German and American – said did not exist in the New Jersey area.  Identifying which submarine it was proved to be a challenge.  Other questions included what it was doing off Brielle, and how did it meet its demise given no official records existed of any such engagement during the war in this area.  And perhaps the biggest question, how to safely dive this unknown graveyard and survive the challenge.

Bill Nagle’s alcoholism (which led to esophageal varices) would kill him in 1993, at age 41, before this, his last deep-sea wreck, was positively identified.  For four years after Nagle’s death, Chatterton and fellow diver Richie Kohler continued to courageously map out the shattered remains of the ghost sub, a setting Kurson’s publisher would call, “a macabre wasteland of twisted metal, tangled wires, and human bones – all buried under decades of accumulated sediment.”

In the process, three other divers (Steve Feldman, Chris Rouse, and Chris Rouse, Jr.,) affiliated with Nagle would die diving onto and into the sub.  Some felt the wreckage was cursed.  Eventually, other divers refused to join Chatterton and Kohler to drop onto the wreck due to its intense risks and the scarcity of valuable relics.

Chatterton and Kohler pressed on, mostly alone, until August 31 1997, when the two divers were finally able to solve, from three-inch long ship ID tags, dangling from a spare parts box in the electric motor room, the deadly mystery.  They had earlier found touching evidence in a silverware drawer that included a knife with a sailor’s name (Horenburg) carved into the handle. 

Searching the boat for positive identification had forced the two divers to confront the bones and remains of the crewmen who died so suddenly and violently.  Throughout the process, Chatterton and Kohler held two things sacred. They would not disturb the remains of the German sailors and they would not photograph settings where skulls and bones littered the cramped rooms where 48 brave Germans died.

The two men had finally succeeded in identifying U-869, a Type IX U-boat built for long-range cruising.  The official record held that U-869 had been sunk by allied ships, with its full crew aboard, off Gibraltar.  Confronted with the evidence provided by Chatterton and Kohler, experts deduced that German commanders had ordered U-869 to leave the coast of the U.S. and head to Gibraltar, but that message was never received by the ship.

Now that Chatterton and Kohler knew which U-boat they had discovered, the two former rivals, turned brothers from their years of perseverance, determined they would do all they could to learn the story of the ship, and honor the fallen men of U-869.  Kohler, to his credit, spent nearly a month in Germany tracking down relatives of the ship’s officers and crew to show them location maps and hard evidence from their many dives.  The Horenburg knife was given to the sailor’s daughter.

As for how U-869 ended up resting off the coast of New Jersey, Chatterton and Kohler, working with U-boat experts from around the world, and even Navy demolition experts from Naval Weapons Station Earle, determined that U-869 had accidentally sunk itself when one of its fired torpedoes circled back and struck the Bremen-built craft.  Others disagreed with this assessment, based on the damage to the ship and other evidence.  The U.S. Navy didn’t care for the Chatterton and Kohler’s evidence, and official credit for the sinking was given to the crews of the USS Howard D. Crow (DE-252) and USS Koiner (DE-331), two destroyer escorts patrolling the Atlantic the night the U-boat sank, on February 11, 1945.

Today, some 75 years after the sinking of U-869, little is left to the imagination.  Nagle is gone, Chatterton is retired, and WWII recedes faster than ever into history’s outbox.  But in August 1991, in a Monmouth County watering hole, two old sea captains shared drinks and numbers that led to solving one of WWII’s last mysteries.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and a certified diver. 

Sources:

Kurson, Robert.  (2004).  Shadow Divers: The True Adventures of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II.  Random House, New York, N.Y., 2004.

Gilliam, Bret.  (2012).  John Chatterton: Out of the shadows.  Scuba Diving International.  Available: https://www.tdisdi.com/diving-pioneers-and-innovators/john-chatterton/.

Museum Docents.  (2015).  The sinking of German U-boat y-869 {sic}.  The Asbury Park Press, December 24, 2015, P. 3A.

Shadow Diver / John Chatterton.  (2013).  Reflections from my underwater world.  Available: www.johnchatterton.com.

U-869 image, Dan Crowell sketch of U-869 and Richie Kohler side-scan image all courtesy New Jersey Scuba Diving: https://www.njscuba.net/sites/site_u869.php.

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