U-801 SURVIVOR
ERICH WAGNER'S FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT
OF THE SINKING OF THE U-801

     
U-801 Survivor Erich Wagner

The sinking of our boat 801 is a long and heavy story. With my following account I am trying to give you an overview of the terrible incident of war that 10 of my comrades unfortunately didnít survive.

We left the base in Loreant (France) on 26 February 1944; the aim was Sierra Leone in Africa, a harbor named "Freedom". After traveling many days through Biskaya, on 15 March we got the order to clean the weapons on board and to freshen up our stuff with water. As a central mate, I had to be on guard duty. Men dismantled the weapons and a big part of the crew was on deck. We didn't know about the aircraft carrier [USS Block Island] that had been near our location so we didn't await any airplanes.

Between 10 and 11 o'clock in the morning I heard at once the guard-officer on the bridge screaming, "Fliegeralarm!" which means airplane alarm. Almost the whole seaman crew was busy cleaning the weapons on deck. It took too long to get the crew into the boat and the airplane came nearer and began to attack the boat. All of a sudden, shooting explosions were heard. The airplane attack occurred on 15 March 1944 about 10 o'clock in the morning and not like often written on 16 March 1944.

It was my job to open degass 5 and 7 at alarm. The leading engineer came into the central area and gave the order: "Blow on!" But because there were still seamen on the tower and the wintergarden, they broke off the blow on, and the boat came back to horizontal position. The mates and sailors situated on the overdeck climbed into the boat along with some comrades that had been wounded in the attack. 

Unfortunately we didnít have any doctor on board, only an ambulance mate. We did everything we could for the wounded under the circumstances. One of the men was badly wounded with an injury to the right knee joint from an explosive projectile. Unfortunately we couldnít save his life, and he died the night of 15 March 1944. We didnít have any chance for bedding him to his last rest with seamen honors.

After alarm diving, during the following hours the waterbombing persecution [depth charge attack] began -- two days and nights of it. We couldnít surface to charge our batteries. In these two days and nights we were attacked with about 200 waterbombs.

From the bomb explosions the flange of the diesel motor's incoming air vent broke, and water flooded into the diesel chamber. The men tried to pump out the water with the mobile lenz-pumps. But due to the waterbomb explosions the lenz-, ancillary- and trim-pumps were falling out. The men had to scoop the water by hand into another chamber Ė the bilge of the central area.

With that much water the boat was sinking deeper. I couldn't believe what I saw. The boat was already 400 meters deep [1,300 feet] under the water. I swear it was 400!  Naturally the boat couldn't sustain this depth. I remember I heard the captain, the leading engineer and some of the officers talking about what to do. The captain said either we resurface or we are going to die down here. He gave the order to resurface. Under steady attacks of waterbombs the captain succeeded with use of the electric motor to surface slowly. The bearing of the crew during the waterbombing persecution was very good, nobody got crazy Ė it was a disciplined exit.

When the boat arrived up on the surface the captain opened the porthole of the tower and screamed, "Surrounded by destroyers! All men out of the boat! Wounded first!" We had barely come out of the water when the boat was attacked by artillery of the destroyers. [USS Corry and destroyer-escort USS Bronstein fired on U-801.] It took longer to evacuate because we had to get the wounded men out of the boat. The first men that came out of the boat were killed immediately.

I saw Adam Dracker rigging an explosive charge before he left the boat. It was his job to make sure that the boat couldn't get in the hands of the enemy. Then I saw a comrade staying on one side, scrolling his eyes and trembling. He got crazy and stayed in the boat. When I came out of the boat I saw the captain dead and some others lying on the deck. One of them lost his head, only his body was left! We jumped into the water as fast as we could and away from the boat, just away, as far as we could. The boat was still moving slowly through the water by battery power. Because of damage to the main rudder the boat went in a circle.

I heard an explosion, but I don't know if it was the explosive charge or the shooting of the destroyer. After a direct hit by the destroyer the boat exploded. Then the submarine lifted up and sank. Because of the attack, nine more comrades didnít survive. All of the men that still had been in the tower died, including seaman no. 1 Karl Pausch. 

We were swimming in the Atlantic about 1 1/2 hours. All of us thought that the Americans are going to kill us or just leave us in the water. But finally we were taken up by the destroyer [USS Corry]. Before we got on the destroyer we commemorated to our dead comrades a "treble hurray." On the deck of the destroyer, we couldn't believe that we had survived all that. Just telling each other: "The war is over for us now!"

The treatment of the crew on the Corry was very good. We got bags with clothes from the American Red Cross. We were taken below deck and got a good meal. The crew had been separated, officers and enlisted men. After about two hours they took us to an aircraft carrier [USS Block Island] and we were very well treated, officers on one deck and the crew on another. After 14 days of traveling on the carrier we came to the American port, Norfolk [Virginia]. Now a captivity of two years in the USA began. 

[US National Archives Photo]
POW Erich Wagner aboard 
aircraft carrier USS Block Island 

We were interrogated and taken to a prison camp in Papago Park in Arizona. We got enough to eat and had to work, inside and outside the camp. Most of the time we were treated well by the Americans. I remember when I was driving in a truck, together with other guys. We met a man who told us that the war is over today, the Germans undersigned their capitulation. We were angry about it because we still had hoped to win this war.

Finally they told us we could go home. We were taken to New York where we traveled by ship to Europe. Unfortunately we didnít go to Germany, but were taken to Antwerp (Belgium) where we were handed over to the Tommys [nickname for the British]. After six weeksí stay in Belgium we were brought to England where we spent another 1 1/2 years of captivity. The captivity in England can not be compared with the one in America; we didn't have enough to eat and the accommodation was very bad. Well, they hated us more than anybody else. Maybe they had enough reasons why.

On 27 October 1947, I came home to Germany.


Translation (4/2005) by Johann Adam, great-nephew of U-801 crewmember Karl Paush, who was killed in action 17 March 1944. 

BELOW: Prisoner of War Personnel Record for U-801 Survivor Erich Wagner    [Source: U.S. National Archives] 




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