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This Day in History: U.S. Coast Guard sinks a German submarine

On this day in 1942, a United States Coast Guard cutter sinks a German submarine just off the coast of North Carolina. Dozens of Germans are captured.

Yes, you read that correctly. A German submarine was patrolling the east coast of the United States during the early months of World War II. The Germans captured that day were among the first foreign prisoners of war to be held on American soil since the War of 1812.

Trouble began on the afternoon of May 9.

U.S.C.G. Icarus was then traveling from Staten Island, New York, to Key West, Florida. She was equipped with relatively obsolete sound detection gear. Nevertheless, at about 4:20 p.m., she picked up a “mushy” sound contact off her port bow.

A watercolor painted by Rathke during his time at Fort Bragg. It depicts U-352’s final moments.

A few minutes later, an explosion rocked the water. German submarine U-352 was lurking just below the surface. Its commander, Kapitänleutnant Hellmut Rathke, at first thought he’d struck the American ship.

But he hadn’t.

Rathke took his submarine down, hoping to hide, but the water was only 120 feet deep—and Icarus’s commander, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Maurice Jester, wasn’t messing around!  By then, Icarus had picked up propeller noises. Jester turned Icarus toward the Germans before ordering five depth-charges dropped in a diamond pattern.  

More depth charges followed. Jester was following U-352’s sonar trail.

Explosions from the depth-charges wreaked havoc below. The German submarine was rocked violently, killing at least one crew member. Rathke apparently came to the conclusion that his vessel was too damaged to survive, so he brought U-352 to the surface: The German crew was ordered to abandon ship. Rathke would later bemoan the fact that his men were fired upon as his submarine surfaced and his men came spilling out of the conning tower—but Americans didn’t know what was coming! Were the submarine’s deck guns functional?

U-352 couldn’t stay afloat for more than a few minutes. As it sank out of sight, Icarus could still make out propeller noises, so Jester ordered one last charge dropped. A huge air bubble rose to the surface, then all noises ceased.  The submarine was gone.

Jester turned Icarus to leave.

The Germans in the water couldn’t believe it. Americans had shot at them as they abandoned ship and now they were being left to drown? But Jester had other problems on his hands: He didn’t know if more German submarines were in the area, and he didn’t know if he was authorized to take Germans aboard his cutter.

Jester radioed for guidance, finally receiving an answer half an hour later. Icarus was to turn around and retrieve the survivors from the water.

In the end, Icarus returned to shore with 32 prisoners of war. Several crew had gone down with the German submarine. Others died in the water. One man died of his wounds after he was pulled aboard the American ship.

The Germans would remain POWs for the duration of the war.

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