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German Submarine UC-97

German Submarine UC-97 docked In Racine, Wisconsin. (Racine Heritage Museum)

At the bottom of Lake Michigan lies the German Submarine UC-97.  It was fired upon and sunk 20 miles off the shore of Grant Park in Chicago as part of a naval exercise.  Before it was sunk, the submarine made multiple stops in ports along the Great Lakes to help promote the sale of Liberty Bonds after the end of World War 1.

The United States Receives German U-Boats

In accordance with the Peace Treaty of Versailles signed by Germany at the end of World War I,  The German army surrendered 160 U-boats, eight light cruisers, and six Dreadnoughts [7].  Six of these surrendered U-boats, UC-97, UC-5, U-117, UB-88, UB-148, UB-5, and U-111 were issued to the United States [6].  At this time, the Germans were the global leaders in submarine design and manufacturing.  The United States was eager to acquire the U-boats so they could study their design.

UC-97 and UC-5 were type-3 coastal mine laying submarines that could carry 14 UC200 mines.  Most UC class U-boats were equipped with an additional 88mm gun on its deck, but some had a 105mm.  UB-88 and UB-148 were type-3 coastal torpedo attack boats that could carry 10 torpedoes and had a 105mm deck gun.  U-117 and U-111 were ocean-going diesel-powered torpedo attack boats with six torpedo tubes, 42 mines, and either an 88mm deck gun or a 105mm deck gun.  When the United States completed their research into the U-boat’s construction, the government decided to display the submarines in ports all around the U.S. Having acquired a substantial debt during the war, these exhibitions would promote the sale of new Liberty Bonds.

The Promotion of Liberty Bonds

In 1919, UC-97 was assigned to the Great Lakes region and was put under the command of Lieutenant Commander Charles A. Lockwood, Jr.  Having graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1912, Lt.Cmdr. Lockwood, Jr. spent two years aboard battleships before a short tour in the in the Great Lakes Navel Training Station just north of Chicago.  It wasn’t until September of 1914 that Lieutenant Lockwood, Jr. was introduced to submarines.  He would gain experience in submarine command in both the Philippines (1914-1917) and World War I and would go on, after UC-97, to become a renowned submarine commanders of World War II [8].
The German U-boats arrived in New York on April 29, 1919.  An article in the New York Tribune printed the day after describes the submarines as an odd sight to be seen:

With the giant UB-88 leading the way, followed by the UP-148, U-177, and the UC-97, the quartette of low-hung craft made their way up the river from the Battery, passing within easy torpedo range of the newest dreadnoughts in the navy.  At a point opposite 170th Street the submersibles turned and steamed down again, ending the trip at their berths in the New York Navy Yard.  The German boats were a strange sight as they passed.  Instead of the hateful emblem of the imperial German navy, they flew the victory Loan banner and the Stars and Stripes [4, p.7].

Due to Engine problems, the UC-97 would be escorted from New York to Halifax, Canada by USS Bushnell (AS-2) and then handed off to the naval tugboat USS Iroquois (AT-46) for the remainder of its journey to the mouth of the Canadian controlled St. Lawrence canal system [2].  It is through this system that UC-97 would reach the Great Lakes.  On its way to the canal, the crew managed to get the engines running and it was able to make the rest of its trip under its own power.  As it made its way through the many towns and ports on its itinerary, the crew was instructed to notify the corresponding mayors of their approximate arrival time.  This provided time for the local war bond committees to be notified so they could provide the appropriate publicity.  After reaching Lake Michigan, the submarines journey was cut short due to ongoing complications with the engines.  Towards the end of August, Lockwood and his crew brought the sub to the Navy Pier in Chicago and handed it over to the 9th Navel District.  It spent a short time there before moving to a more permanent location at Grant Park.  It was here that UC-97 was put on display as a tourist attraction until a recalled clause in the armistice ordered all German vessels held by allied forces to be destroyed.

The Sinking of UC-97

In June 1921, the USS Hawk (IX-14) made its way from Milwaukee to Grant Park.  The Hawk was previously the yacht Hermione before being purchased by the U.S. Navy in 1898.  She was designated IX-14 on July 1, 1921.  Leaving the reserve fleet, she was recommissioned on April 16, 1922 and was assigned to the 9th Naval District where she operated in the Great Lakes region until she was decommissioned in 1940 [10].  Here she would tow UC-97 as part of a naval  gunnery exercise In which it was a target for naval reserve gunners on board the Wilmette (IX-29). The USS Wilmette was a gunboat that was converted from the SS Eastland after it was acquired by the navy in November 1917. The SS Eastland was known for its staring roll in the Eastland disaster in 1905 when the passenger ship rolled over in the Chicago River, killing 844 people [11].

Before UC-97 was towed out into Lake Michigan, the U.S. Navy removed equipment and machinery considered valuable.  Items included one of its two diesel engines and the periscope. The USS Wilmette set out at 08:17 on June 7 in search of the German U-boat [5].  After two hours of searching, the Wilmette located the sub and prepared to fire upon it.  Willard K. Jacques of Lake Forest, then 9 years old, was on the USS Wilmette with his father that day as guest of the ship’s captain.  He and his father stood no more than 30 feet from the guns.  Willard described the experience in an article published by the Chicago Tribune in 1998:

We’d stuffed our ears with all the cotton they’d given us and stood on a coil of large rope to cushion the guns’ concussion.  My father stood behind me and with each shot would lift me by the elbows.  The heat was intense because we were so close to the firing [1, p.2].

At 11:45am, the gunboat began firing its four-inch guns and with 14 hits, it sent UC-97 to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Recovery and Preservation UC-97

This wasn’t the last of UC-97.  In 1967, an amateur historian named David Meyers became interested in finding the wreck.  He obtained the help of U.S. Navy Capt. Alban Weber, the commodore of the 9th Naval District, destroyer division.  Capt. Weber offered to use his sonar-equipped ships to help locate the sunken U-boat but the ships only performing exercises one weekend a month.  Winter set in before the sub could be located.  Another problem that kept the ships from finding the wreck was the limitations of its sonar equipment.  Cold water currents at deep depths can cause the signal to bounce back before ever hitting the bottom.

The wreck of UC-97 would finally be found in August 1992 by Berwyn-based A&T Recovery owned by Taras Lyssenko and his partner, Al Olson.  They used side-scan sonar to locate the ship and had covered 140 square miles of the lake bed before locating the site.  The plan was to raise the sub from the bottom in order to restore it but the project never moved past the planning stages. The cost of the project would have been between $1.0-1.5 million just to raise it to the surface and additional money would be needed for preservation.  The Illinois Court of Claims also ruled in April of 1966 that the UC-97 belongs to the state and is thus controlled by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  If UC-97 can ever get the go-ahead to be raised from the bottom of Lake Michigan, Bob Morin, Chairman of the board for the USS Silversides and the Maritime Museum in Muskego, Michigan has indicated willingness to help restore the U-boat.

Promotional poster for the Victory Liberty Loan targeted towards the German Submarine exhibitions in the U.S. (National Archives and Records Administration)
German Submarine UC-97 docked in Chicago, waiting for visitors to come aboard. (A&T Recovery)

Primary Sources

  1. Bukowski, Doug. “Chicago’s Other U-boat.” Chicago Tribune 28 Jan. 1998: 2. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  2. (May 16, 1919). U-BOAT AT HALIFAX. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle New York Pg(2).
  3. The National Archives Experience Digital Vaults. A German sub raising money, 1921. 
  4. “Captured U-Boats Cruise in Harbor For Victory Loan.” New York Tribune [New York] 30 Apr. 1919: 7. Print.

Secondary Sources

  1.   Log of the USS Wilmette, dated june 1921. The National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  2. Mohl, Michael, and Aryeh Wetherhorn. “NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive.” Submarine Photo Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  3. Brigham Young University online library (2009). Peace Treaty of Versailles. Part V. Section I. Chapter I. Article 188.  
  4. Denger, Chief Warrant Officer Mark J. “Californians and the Military: Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Jr.” California Center for Military History, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  5. Naval History and Heritage Command (2015). UC-97 Former German Submarine.
  6. “Wawk (IX-14).” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  7. “What Happened.” Eastland Disaster – What Happened. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.