Seaman 1st Class Art Coelho of Port Charlotte, Fla. wasn’t aboard the USS Pillsbury (DE-133) when she took part in the sinking of the U-515, a German submarine, off the Madeira Islands in the Atlantic near the North African coast. However, he was on her two months later when the same destroyer escort helped capture U-505, the first time an American ship had boarded an enemy vessel since the 19th century.
In the spring of 1944, during the height of World War II, the carrier USS Guadalcanal and four DEs sailed out of Norfolk, Va., on a hunter-killer patrol. The USS Pillsbury, Coelho ‘s ship, was part of that patrol.
Their job: to find and sink German submarines attacking Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Commanded by Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, skipper of the Guadalcanal, the squadron quickly become proficient at its assignment.
On April 9, 1944, two fighter planes from the carrier attacked the surfaced German sub, U-515, north of the Madeira Islands. The U-boat dived after firing at the carrier-based planes.
A couple of DEs, the USS Pillsbury and the USS Flaherty, arrived on location 45 minutes later. After a while, the Flaherty made contact with the enemy submarine and dropped a series of depth charges. She escaped.
The two DEs were joined by two more DEs, the Chatelain and the Pope. For hours, all four ships searched in vain for the elusive German submarine. Finally, the Chatelain picked up a firm sonar contact from the enemy sub. The Pope maneuvered over U-515 delivering a devastating depth charge attack.
The enemy sub was forced to surface. Caught in a murderous crossfire between the Pillsbury and the Flaherty, they made short work of the German sub. U-515 was sent to the bottom.
The highly decorated skipper of the U-boat and 40 crewmen who survived were captured and taken prisoner. Some 16 members of the submarine’s crew lost their lives. Capt. Werner Henke, commander of U-515, was held as a POW at Fort Hunt, Va. He believed he would face a show trial and extradition as a war criminal. He committed suicide by trying to climb the prison fence. The U-boat skipper was fatally shot. The German naval officer is buried in the Soldiers’ Cemetery at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland.
The Guadalcanal and the rest of its hunter-killer patrol returned victorious to Norfolk after sinking the U-515. On their next voyage, the task force was given a special mission: Bring back a German sub intact, along with its entire crew.
Coelho, now 79 [at the time of this interview] and living in Port Charlotte, was serving aboard the USS Pillsbury by then. A Portuguese teenager who grew up in New Bedford, Mass., he joined the Navy in January 1942.
“I was the ship’s laundryman. I made more money than the captain,” the Presbyterian Homes resident said with a smile. “I would wash and starch sailors’ uniforms for a buck.”
By then he had made four round trips from Norfolk to Europe on convoy duty aboard DE-133.
“Four DEs would convoy 80 transport ships from Norfolk to Gibraltar,” he said. “It would take us two months one way because we could only go as fast as the slowest ship, and that was eight knots. We never lost a ship.”
When he wasn’t washing uniforms for the 200-plus sailors aboard the Pillsbury, Coelho’s battle station was serving as a spotter on one of the ship’s quad 40 mm anti-aircraft guns. He gave the 40 mm gunner sitting beside him the range on each attacking enemy airplane as it dived for the ship.
Early in 1944, the DEs in Coelho’s squadron switched from convoy duty to search-and-destroy missions with the Guadalcanal.
A hundred miles off the Cape Verde Islands near the northwest coast of Africa on June 4, 1944, the hunter became the hunted. It was two days before the Normandy Invasion — D-Day, the beginning of the end for Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.”
The German submarine, U-505, was lurking in the shipping lanes between the United States and Casablanca in North Africa, waiting to attack the next convoy that sailed by.
“I was on the bridge of the Pillsbury when U-505 was first spotted,” he said. “All of a sudden DE-149 (the Chatelain) dropped her depth charges on the German sub. The depth charges damaged the 505’s rudder, and four or five minutes later she pops up on the surface surrounded by the four DEs.
“The German skipper of the sub came up on the conning tower to see what was happening. About that time, one of the Wildcat fighters from the Guadalcanal flew over and strafed her with machine-gun bullets,” Coelho said. “The bullets hit the skipper in the leg and he fell over the side.
“When that happened, the crew apparently thought the captain had abandoned ship. So the rest of the crew abandoned ship, too. They climbed up into the conning tower and jumped into the water without a fight.”
The crew of the Pillsbury was standing off several hundred yards, watching. The DE moved closer to the swimming enemy sailors, as did the other three DEs. The Pillsbury threw a landing net over the side for the German sailors to climb aboard the American ship.
Fifteen of the German sailors climbed up the net onto the Pillsbury. We didn’t have anyone aboard who could speak German, so we just motioned to them
to put their hands on their heads and go forward on deck to the bow of the ship,” Coelho said. “We moved in so close to the circling sub that one of her diving planes cut a hole in the side of our number two engine room, flooding it and knocking out two of our four engines.”
Meanwhile, the U-505 was still underway, steaming in circles at 4 knots with no one alive on aboard. The skipper of the Pillsbury dispatched a 30-foot open whale boat to come alongside the enemy sub and board her.
The Navy’s Naval Historical Center picks up the tale from there: “Lt. j.g. Albert L. David led the eight-man party on broad. Despite the probability of U-505 sinking or blowing up at any minute and not knowing what form of residence they might meet below, David and his men clambered up the conning tower and then down the hatches into the boat itself. A quick examination proved the U-boat was deserted, except for one dead man on deck, the only fatality of the action. The boarders set about bundling up charts, code books and papers, disconnecting demolition charges, closing valves and plugging leaks. By the time the flood of water had been stopped, the U-boat was low in the water and down by the stern.”
Second in command of the boarding party was Boatswain’s Mate 2nd class Wayne Pickles Jr. of San Antonio, Texas, a friend of Coelho’s.
“Among the secret stuff Pickles and his sailors collected aboard U-505 was an Enigma machine. One of the sailors almost threw it overboard because he thought it was some kind of a typewriter, but Pickles stopped him,” Coelho said. “After the machine reached the Guadalcanal it was immediately flown by one of the carrier’s planes to Bermuda, and from there on to Washington.”
According to Naval records, borders from the Pillsbury found two M4 Enigma machines. These were ultra-secret German code machines used to communicate with the German U-boat fleet. It was a vital link Allied intelligence partially broke that helped win the sea war during WWII.
The Pillsbury took U-505 in tow, but with two engines disabled it couldn’t do the job, so the tow line was passed to the Guadalcanal. However, it was a converted liberty ship, and the carrier didn’t perform much better. Three days later the Navy seagoing tug Abnaki (ATF-96) arrived and towed the captured German sub back to the Bahamas.
“It was a top-secret deal. The Navy didn’t want the Germans to know we had captured one of their subs intact,” Coelho said. “We returned to Norfolk for repairs, but we got no liberty because the Navy was concerned about the word getting out about U-505.”
David, who led the boarding party and was in charge of capturing the submarine, received the Medal of Honor. Coelho, along with the hundreds of other sailors in the hunter-killer patrol, was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for a job well done.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, June 1, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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*Coelho died in 2010.