Source: By Doug Bukowski. Special to the Tribune.
Copyright CHICAGO TRIBUNE
THE UC-97 WAS ON DISPLAY HERE LONG BEFORE THE U-505. NOW, A SALVAGE EXPERT
SEEKS FUNDS TO RAISE THE GERMAN SUB FROM HER WATERY GRAVE
Almost any Chicagoan can tell you the city is home to the U-505, a fully
equipped German submarine from World War II.
History, however, records that the U-505 was only the second U-boat to
reach these improbable shores. The first, the World War I vintage UC-97,
arguably earned a more enthusiastic greeting when it arrived after the Great
War, including an electric "welcome" sign at City Hall and a prestigious
mailing address on the north branch of the
But the U-505 has fared much better in the long run. It has stood outside
the weather and crowds.
The UC-97, on
the other hand, sits on the bottom of
feet of water, scuttled by the U.S. Navy in 1921 and all but forgotten.
But if Taras Lyssenko has his way, the UC-97 may soon resurface. If it
does, it will join the handful of U-boats that survive for viewing.
"As long as I've been diving, there have been people saying they're going
to find it," says Lyssenko, 35, a salvage operator
who, with his partner,
Olson, located the wreckage
of the UC-97 in 1992.
But knowing where it is, he notes, is not the same as having the resources
and the permission to salvage. More than water can keep a submarine down.
And so the UC-97 sleeps with the fishes.
In its day, the submarine generated considerable attention. The UC-97 was
one of six U-boats handed over to the Navy following the armistice in
November 1918. The Navy was particularly interested in the UC-97's minelaying
After a rough
1919, the UC-97 participated in wreath-laying ceremonies
harbor to honor the victims of submarine attacks during the war. The sub then
engine trouble forcing cancellation of the
The UC-97 tied
up at Navy (then Municipal) Pier on
days after the end of the
that had claimed 38 lives suddenly had an interesting diversion.
did the German submarine UC-97 along the
That excitement may explain the illuminated "Welcome UC-97" sign erected
at City Hall.
On display at the Pier, the submarine represented high technology as
possibly the most advanced enemy weapon of the war. But 79 years later, the
UC-97 would seem nothing if not primitive.
It measured 185 feet in length, weighed 491 tons while surfaced, and had a
crew of 32. By comparison, the U-505, manufactured some 20 years later, was
252 feet long, weighed 1,120 tons and had a crew of 59. The USS Seawolf, the
Navy's latest generation, nuclear-powered attack submarine, is nearly twice
as long and weighs more than 16 times as much as the UC-97, with a crew
complement almost four times greater.
A war relic, or not?
Advanced technology or no, people had good reason to visit the UC-97 at
Municipal Pier. No weapon used in the war, not even poison gas, had been more
controversial. Indeed, Imperial Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine
warfare--where ships were torpedoed without warning--served as the immediate
cause for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.
This particular U-boat, though, may have been a little less than
advertised. The Tribune reported the UC-97 had sunk seven ships, taking 50
lives, and was captured by the British in the North Sea when its diving
However, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships says the UC-97
was launched in March 1918 and "never commissioned" in the German Imperial
The naval attache for the German Embassy in Washington offers slightly
different information, saying the UC-97 went into service on Sept. 6, 1918,
and was delivered to the Allies on Nov. 22. Regardless, the UC-97 made for
powerful symbolism to any Chicagoan walking its deck.
Following the UC-97's tour, the Navy removed equipment and machinery
considered valuable. Included in that category was one of the two diesel
engines and the periscope. But the submarine still had the crew assigned to
The duty had to be less than pleasant, especially when Rear Adm. Frederic
Bassett of Great Lakes Naval Training Base decided in January 1920 that crew
members "are not entitled to subsistence at the rate of $2.50 per day . . .
inasmuch as quarters and messing facilities are available for these men
aboard the USS Wilmette."
The UC-97 spent the next winter on the North Branch of the Chicago River,
where the U-boat received its post office address: Cherry Avenue and Weed
Street. For a time, the Navy considered a more permanent--and dry-- change of
address, perhaps giving the submarine to the Field Museum or putting it in
Lincoln or Grant Park. Ultimately, the Navy decided treaty obligations
required sinking its prize.
So, on June 7, 1921, the U-boat was towed 20 to 30 miles due east of Fort
Sheridan and sunk by the four-inch guns of the Navy gunboat Wilmette. Willard
K. Jacques of Lake Forest, then 9, sailed on the Wilmette that day as a
guest; Jacques' father had wangled an invitation from the Wilmette's captain.
Jacques described the action for author James E. Wise in 1989. Father and
son stood just 30 feet from the guns. "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'
"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."
The Wilmette itself was no stranger to controversy. It was the converted
lake steamer Eastland, which, in one of Chicago's most grievous tragedies,
had rolled over on its side in the Chicago River in July 1915, killing 811.
Even as a Navy vessel, journalist Ernie Pyle found it "was still in sinking
condition, I assure you."
Following its scuttling, the UC-97 simply disappeared. It evidently
drifted considerably from where it went down, and for years no one could
Interest in the whereabouts of the UC-97 was rekindled in the 1960s by
amateur historian David A. Myers Jr. of Waukegan. Rear Adm. Alban Weber also
hunted for the submarine with his Great Lakes Training Squad, consisting of a
destroyer-escort and five patrol craft escorts.
"We wanted to perform anti-submarine exercises off it," recalls Weber, now
retired, "but didn't find it."
The Chicago group that restored the World War II submarine USS Silversides
was no more successful in finding the UC-97. Some divers had a theory for
these failures: The U-boat had not sunk completely and so changed location
with lake storms.
But Olson and Lyssenko thought otherwise. The Berwyn-based salvage divers
used side-scan sonar towed behind a boat; the sonar created a map of the lake
floor. Working sporadically over a stretch of four years, they searched 140
square miles of the lake's bottom until locating the U-boat in August 1992.
Like the salvagers of the Titanic, the pair used a camera on a
remote-operated vehicle to record their discovery. The tape shows about 60
percent of the U-boat, with the submarine resting upright, the "UC-97"
designation still clear on the conning tower. Some hatches are open, and
there is evidence of one shell from the Wilmette's guns having hit the deck,
causing moderate damage.
Project on back burner
Lyssenko says raising the UC-97 would be fairly simple: "There are
heavy-lift derricks that do a lot of work out of New Orleans and shipbuilding
places like that. They're real heavy-duty derrick-barges, 600 tonners. They
could crawl up to that thing, hook on it and pick it up like a Tinkertoy."
The operation would be considerably easier than another project Olson and
Lyssenko's company, A and T Recovery, has worked on -- retrieving Wildcat
carrier fighters lost in training exercises on Lake Michigan in World War II.
With the UC-97, "You're talking about a giant pipe lying on the bottom of
the lake," Lyssenko explains, "as opposed to something that's really
Lyssenko calls raising the UC-97 "a back-burner project" for now and is
reluctant to discuss specifics; in the salvage and recovery business, loose
lips can help others locate sunken ships. But the U-boat's future will depend
on how several important details are handled.
The first is cost. Lyssenko estimates recovery would require between $1
million and $1.5 million. Additional money would be needed for preservation.
Then there is the question of ownership. The Illinois Court of Claims
ruled in April 1996 that the UC-97 belongs to the state.
Maybe. William Wheeler, associate director of the Illinois Historic
Preservation Agency, explains: "There would be a real question about the
status of a military submarine." The Navy does not easily let go of its
property, even when sunk. (But Germany has. The Chicago consulate said the
German government has no claim on the U-boat.)
Robert Neyland is a naval archeologist for the Naval Historical Center in
Washington and has authority over the Navy's shipwrecks. "Probably it (the
UC-97) is still ours and would be our responsibility," says Neyland, who does
not want to see the U-boat raised only to fall victim to inadequate
preservation. But if an organization offers a good plan, "we'd probably work
with it," he adds.
Olson and Lyssenko have talked with the Illinois Historic Preservation
Agency about the best way to utilize the UC-97 if it is raised. The challenge
involves both money and space.
For example, the Museum of Science and Industry has launched a major
renovation project for the U-505. The museum hopes to raise $11.5 million to
move, enclose and restore the U-boat, with the remainder serving as an
endowment for future repairs.
It is unlikely, museums sources indicated, that the museum would want to
take on an additional project, even though the UC-97 would be the only World
War I U-boat in existence, the others remaining dating from World War II.
A possible taker
Isco Valli, director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, doubts
his institution could easily take on such a project. "Our museum is not the
appropriate place for that," Valli believes. "We'd have to have a total
revamping of our mission," which is Great Lakes maritime history. The museum
already has a submarine, the USS Cobia-- but that is because the craft was
constructed by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co.
But the UC-97 has at least one taker. "If it were ever made available,
we'd certainly be interested in making room for it," says Bob Morin, chairman
of the board for
the USS Silversides and
the U-boat. Coincidentally, both the UC-97 and Silversides were moored in
the same general area of Navy Pier years ago.
first preference would be to keep the UC-97 in
offered to keep it on the
Wheeler of the