The Coast Guard took the first Nazi prisoners of World War II
Built in the early 1930s, the 165-foot “B”-Class cutters were often referred to as the Thetis-Class. The Thetis-class cutters proved good sea boats becoming the backbone of the Coast Guard’s coastal patrol and convoy force during World War II.
Among these cutters was the Argo, which escorted Nazi Germany’s last surrendered U-boats into captivity and the Thetis, one of 11 Coast Guard cutters credited with sinking a U-boat. However, the most honored of these cutters was Icarus, which sank U-352 and captured its crew at the beginning of World War II.
Icarus and its sister cutters were 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. Icarus was built by Bath Iron Works in Maine and commissioned on April 1, 1932.
The cutter reported for duty at Stapleton, New York, on Staten Island, and served as part of the New York Division’s Special Patrol Force, which conducted law enforcement patrols in support of Prohibition regulations. After passage of the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, Icarus continued sailing out of Stapleton on law enforcement and search and rescue patrols.
After war erupted in Europe in 1939, the Coast Guard assigned Icarus to Neutrality Patrols protecting merchant vessels from attacks by European combatants. 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.
On the morning of Friday, May 8, 1942, Icarus departed Staten Island for Key West, Florida. On Saturday at about 4:20 p.m., 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.
Ten minutes after the first sonar contact, an explosion believed to be a torpedo rocked the cutter about 200 yards off the port side. Reversing course, Icarus sped toward the contact, which was heading toward 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 slowly moving 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 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.
At 10 minutes past 5:00 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 cutter’s crew was ready, opening fire with all machine guns that could bear on the sub. Meanwhile, the U-boat’s crew began abandoning ship. Icarus’s commanding officer, Lt. Maurice 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 the next 12 rounds hit the U-boat or came close, with seven of them hitting home. Minutes later, the damaged U-boat began to subside 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 cutter’s 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 further noises were heard from sub; the vessel had finally been 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!”
At 5:50 p.m., the Icarus crew began rescue operations and retrieved 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 as ordered.
The German prisoners exhibited good discipline and were surprised by the fine treatment they received on board 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 also 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 crewmembers received promotions for doing so. The Germans related that they received medals and bonuses for sinking ships, the amount depending 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 one 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, on May 1, 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 ship was placed in reserve status and stored at Staten Island. The Coast Guard decommissioned Icarus in 1948 and sold it to the Southeastern Terminal and Steamship Company.
Icarus was the second American warship to sink a U-boat and the first to capture German combatants. 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. Icarus was one of numerous combat cutters that served the heroic Coast Guardsmen of the long blue line during World War II.