COLUMN: What does it take to impress you?
It doesn’t take much to impress me.
Just put a German U-boat inside a building and let me walk around and take in that World War II terror, and I am impressed.
The German boat – U-505 – is just one of the many items of interest we came across when we visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago last week. We were there for a Thanksgiving visit with our daughter and her husband.
While much of the rest of the country was celebrating Black Friday, we found U-505 and the display that carries visitors back to the beginning of World War II and the Battle of the Atlantic.
The U-boat was the scourge of the ocean for Allied merchant and naval vessels. Like a sea predator, it awaited the arrival of its victims, hid beneath the waves and struck with devastating results. In World War II, the U-boats sank 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships. More than 66,000 navy and merchant seamen on the Allied side perished in this battle.
On the Axis side, 783 U-boats were sunk with the loss of 30,000 sailors. Three-fourths of the German U-boat fleet was sent to the bottom of the ocean. War is brutal no matter which side one is on.
Having been in the Navy on a surface vessel, I was at the same time fascinated and terrified over the deadly potential that U-505 carried on its World War II missions. A peaceful night on the Atlantic for a merchant or naval vessel could be turned into a terrifying end of smoke and fire without warning. The silence of a night at sea could end with the quiet running of a torpedo just below the surface.
U-505 was captured in 1944 off the coast of Africa. It was secretly towed to Bermuda, and its crew was sent to a POW camp in Louisiana. According to information at the museum, American officials did not notify the Red Cross of the capture of the crew, allowing the Allies to make use of German code information captured with the boat.
Family members in Germany were told the crew was presumed lost at sea since the boat was well overdue from its mission. Only after the surrender of Germany did they learn that their loved ones were alive. (One crewman of the 58 on board U-505 died during the attack on the submarine.)
After World War II, when the boat was deemed to be of no further importance to the Navy, it was donated to the museum and made the voyage from Portsmouth, N.H., through the Great Lakes to Chicago, where it rested outside the museum for 50 years before its own indoor, temperature-controlled structure was built to house it. In 2004, the sub was moved into its new home where thousands of visitors get to see the only German sub in the U.S.
No, it doesn’t take much to impress me.
I had previously gone to the Museum of Science and Industry nearly 60 years ago. During the few months that our family lived in Joliet, Ill., we made a visit there. As a 4-year-old at that time, my recollections are not overly vivid or complete. I do, however, remember the coal mine.
The museum has a coal mine complete with elevator to take visitors down just like the coal miners do. We did not visit the coal mine during last week’s visit, but my 4-year-old’s recollection was of getting into the elevator and descending to a very dark place.
In addition to the coal mine and the U-boat, the museum has numerous other displays of interest. There is a manned space exhibit that includes actual capsules used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions to space, as well as the Lunar Lander trainer on which astronauts worked prior to their flights to the moon.
The Museum of Science and Industry is open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and should be on the must-do list for those who take a vacation to Chicago.
The museum website can be found at www.msichicago.org.
Jeff Wallace is the retired editor of the Aiken Standard.