The Cutter Icarus and the First German Prisoners of WWII
“Contacted submarine. Destroyed same. Lat 34°12 ½” Long 76° 35″. Have 33 of her crew members on board. Proceeding Charleston with survivors.” -Lt. Maurice Jester, Coast Guard Cutter Icarus, May 9, 1942
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Maurice Jester transmitted the message above after sinking U-352, the second German submarine destroyed by U.S. forces in World War II. Icarus also rescued 33 Germans–the first enemy combatants captured by U.S. forces in the war. When they debarked at the Charleston Navy Yard, these prisoners became the first foreign POWs to set foot on American soil since the War of 1812. For his command of Icarus in the attack and sinking of U-352, Jester received one of only six Navy Cross Medals awarded to Coast Guardsmen during the war.
One of the 165-foot “B”-Class cutters referred to as the Thetis-class, Icarus was built by Bath Iron Works, in Maine, and commissioned on April 1, 1932. Designed for Prohibition enforcement, specifically tracking down rum running ships outside U.S. territorial waters, these cutters required excellent sea-keeping qualities, long-term accommodations for crew, and greater fuel capacity. With the 1941 U.S. entry into World War II, Icarus joined its sister cutters in escorting coastal convoys and anti-submarine patrols in American waters. In the morning of Friday, May 8, 1942, Icarus departed Staten Island, New York, for Key West, Florida. On Saturday afternoon, while off the coast of North Carolina, Icarus’s sonar operator picked up a “mushy” contact 2,000 yards off its port bow. The cutter’s crew went to general quarters and assumed battle stations.
At about 4:30 p.m., 10 minutes after the first sonar contact, an explosion believed to be a torpedo rocked the cutter about 200 yards off its port side. Reversing course, Icarus sped toward the contact, which was heading to the spot where the explosion had occurred. The underwater contact sharpened and, for the first time, propeller sounds were heard by the sonarman. The contact was lost at 180 yards but, after a calculated interval, Icarus dropped five depth charges in a diamond shape with one charge in the center. The sonar operator next determined that the contact was moving slowly west, so the cutter altered course to intercept it. Two more charges were dropped in a “V” pattern at a point leading the contact’s underwater track and, as roiling water from the explosions subsided, large bubbles were observed on the surface. Icarus reversed course yet again and dropped a single charge on the spot where the air bubbles had surfaced. Six minutes later, the cutter dropped a second charge in the same location.
Wreck site of the U-352 as it appears today. (Courtesy of NOAA)
At 10 minutes past 5 p.m., shortly after the last charge had been dropped, a U-boat broke the surface 1,000 yards from Icarus. The heavily-armed sub emerged bow first and down by the stern. The cuttermen were ready, opening fire with all weapons that could bear on the sub. Meanwhile, the U-boat’s crew began abandoning ship. Lt. Jester altered course to ram and the cutter’s 3-inch main battery was brought to bear on the submarine. The first 3-inch round fell short ricocheting off the water and through the conning tower. The second round overshot the sub, but seven of the next 12 rounds hit home and, within minutes, the damaged U-boat began sliding into the sea.
As the submarine sank, Icarus ceased firing, but the cutter circled the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. Icarus re-established sonar contact with the submerged sub and the sonarman heard propeller noises again. Taking no chances, Jester ordered one last depth charge dropped over the U-boat, which brought a large air bubble to the surface. No more noises were heard from the sub; it was finally vanquished. Meanwhile, 35 Germans were struggling on the surface to avoid the cutter’s path and its deadly depth charges. Expecting to be machine-gunned in the water, many yelled, “Don’t shoot us!”
Hellmut Rathke (bearded, standing left) and a junior officer after disembarking in Charleston. S.C. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
At 5:50 p.m., Icarus began rescue operations and retrieved the Germans from the water. Except for the wounded survivors, the prisoners were placed under guard in the cutter’s forward crew compartment. The U-boat’s commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Rathke, was among the survivors. At this point, it was learned that the submarine was U-352, carrying a complement of 48 men. Seven of the crew went down with the U-boat while others died in the water after abandoning ship. By 6:05, 33 survivors had been rescued and the cutter proceeded to Charleston Navy Yard by orders of the navy command.
The German prisoners exhibited good discipline and were surprised by the fine treatment they received aboard Icarus. Several of the U-boat’s crew spoke English and talked freely on personal matters, but disclosed no military information. Three of Icarus’s crew spoke German and conversed with the prisoners. The prisoners wished to know how much money the Coast Guard crew would receive for sinking a submarine and if crew members received promotions for doing so. The Germans related that they received medals and bonuses for sinking ships, the amount depended on the size and tonnage of their victims. Four of the prisoners also mentioned they had relatives living in the U.S.
On Sunday morning, Icarus arrived at the Navy Yard. There, the cutter delivered 32 prisoners and the body of a prisoner who died of his wounds en route to Charleston. To keep the enemy in doubt about the U-boat’s fate, naval authorities did not disclose the sinking of U-352 until almost a year later, in May 1943. For the remainder of the war, Icarus continued its convoy escort work, search and rescue duties and anti-submarine patrols. In the fall of 1946, the cutter was placed in reserve status, and it was decommissioned and sold in 1948.
The Coast Guard will soon build the “Heritage”-Class of 360-foot Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs). Icarus (WMSM-920) will be the sixth in the first flight of OPCs and, along with its OPC sister cutters, will become the mainstay of the Coast Guard’s ocean-going fleet.
A computer rendering of the Coast Guard’s new Heritage-class of Offshore Patrol Cutter. (Eastern Shipbuilding Group)
William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.