A Personal History Beneath the Waves


When U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez's clerk sent him a note one day in 1996, saying someone had an emergency request, he sent the jury out of the courtroom and halted the drug trial he was hearing.

Then he turned his attention to two men standing at the back of the room. One held a worn piece of brass and a china dinner plate.

Scuba diver John Chatterton and his lawyer, Peter Hess, told the judge that after three years of searching and studying, Chatterton had found a passenger ship that was sunk by a German U-boat off Atlantic City during World War I. They wanted the judge to grant an "Admiralty arrest" so Chatterton could salvage artifacts from the vessel.

The name of the ship, they told him, was the SS Carolina. Rodriguez was stunned. His father had been a passenger on board that ship--one of six sunk by Germans on June 2, 1918, a day that came to be known as "Black Sunday."

"I started the day like any other normal day," Rodriguez said in a recent interview. "Little did I know that later I'd learn they'd found the ship my father was on."

To prove that he had, indeed, reached the Carolina, Chatterton, during his dive to the vessel 240 feet below the ocean's surface, pried off the brass "C" from its name on the stern. He brought it to court along with the dinner plate showing traces of the ship's logo.

"All of a sudden the reality that they'd found the Carolina hit me," Rodriguez said. "Here I'm holding something from the ship my father was on. It went down in 1918. You wouldn't think there's too much around."

The judge's father, Mario Rodriguez, a Cuban raised in Puerto Rico, had boarded the ship in San Juan on May 29, 1918, bound for a new life in the United States.

But when the Carolina reached the waters off New Jersey, the U-boat sent a shot across its bow--a warning that the vessel was about to be sunk. In a show of civility that was part of war at the time, the German captain then boarded the ship and told the 218 passengers and crew to get into the lifeboats before the ship was shelled.

They scrambled into the lifeboats and rowed away from the steamship, which soon burst into flames from the shelling, and sank.

Though they had no idea where they were headed, the lifeboats tried to stay together, with the men and boys--and one or two girls--taking turns rowing. A storm blew in that night, separating the lifeboats and overturning one of them, causing 19 passengers to drown.

After 44 hours at sea, lifeboat No. 5, which carried Mario Rodriguez and 28 others, drifted into the waves off the shore of Atlantic City.

"They saw a light and headed for that," the judge said, recounting the story as his father told it. "It was the light on the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City."

The Atlantic City Gazette Review of June 4, 1918, described the emotional scene as the lifeboat arrived on the beach and the Shriners band, visiting the resort for their annual convention, broke into "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"[The band] faced the sea over which the little craft was bobbing up and down with its passengers, weak to exhaustion, waving their arms frantically, hugging one another in sheer joy at the long searched for relief in sight," the newspaper said.

Hundreds of bathers and visitors on the Boardwalk rushed to the water to welcome the stranded boaters as lifeguards rowed out to help them.

"Beach guards launched their boats and bent their backs as they tore through the combers toward the yawl," the newspaper said.

"Men and women . . . were shouting, others stood, with tears streaming down their cheeks, tears that were not of grief, but happiness over the rescue and scene before them. Others were swearing, spilling their wrath at the kaiser," the Gazette Review reported.

"My father arrived in this country to the strains of the national anthem," Rodriguez said. "It's like a movie."

Mario Rodriguez moved to New York, then to Camden, N.J., where he and his wife, Carmen, reared five children. He worked as a mechanic for a Philadelphia tobacco company.

In 1939, after studying for years to become a U.S. citizen, Mario Rodriguez took the oath of citizenship in a federal courtroom just blocks from the family's home. Forty-six years later, in the same courtroom, Joseph Rodriguez was sworn in as a federal judge.

"It was quite emotional," Judge Rodriguez said. "You realize how time passes and all those things about the Constitution I heard from my father, words and phrases that I heard him studying, how important they became to me."

The Carolina and the five other American ships that were sunk by the U-boat still hadn't been found.

Chatterton, 49, a commercial scuba diver who became interested in U-boat history after finding the remains of a German submarine while diving off Atlantic City, had studied German naval archives and checked nautical charts to try to pinpoint the locations of the ships. He also studied their history, construction and the circumstances surrounding the sinkings.

It occurred to him that the log of the U-boat that bombed and gunned down the ships would give its nautical position when the attacks were launched.

He translated the document and made a chart of the positions as given by the captain.

"I took the [chart] overlay and went down to the docks and tried to find the fishing boat captain who was the top gun for fishing that area," Chatterton said.

The two went out on the fisherman's boat and, using sonar equipment, located five of the six wrecks, he said.

Chatterton dove to what he believed to be the Carolina in 1995. On the fantail, he saw a brass "N," which made him think he'd found what he'd come looking for. When he cut through the thick bunches of fishing line hiding the letters and discovered the "C," he knew he'd found it.

"It was one of those moments that's very personal," said Chatterton, who was alone on the dive. "There was a great degree of satisfaction. It's not necessarily something that translates to your bank account. It's not something the rest of the world is waiting for, but the harder you work at something, the greater the ecstasy."

After Chatterton proved to Rodriguez that he had found the ship and that he had the ability to salvage on it, the judge granted an injunction protecting his salvage operation. The court order means other divers may go to the site but cannot interfere with Chatterton's efforts.

He found a safe weighing several hundred pounds last summer. Floating it on lift bags, he and others working on the project raised it to the surface.

Having deteriorated significantly, it was easy to open, he said. Inside he found a solid gold rosary with handcrafted gold beads, a Tiffany box holding a diamond-encrusted platinum ring, a gold pin inscribed with the name "Edith," several gold watches and necklaces, a charm bracelet with a gold padlock and skeleton key, a wedding band with initials and a date etched inside and French coins from the 1700s.

There was something else in the safe, too--a black, muddy substance that Chatterton believes is decomposed cash.

"Back then, before Visa and MasterCard, everybody traveling, especially people like Judge Rodriguez' father, who was emigrating to the United States, carried their life savings with them in currency," he said. "Unfortunately, the last 80 years kind of took care of that."

Chatterton, of Highlands, N.J., plans to post photographs of the ship's artifacts on a Web site about wreck-diving off New Jersey, creating a "virtual museum." The site will include a history of the wreck, photographs and translations of the U-boat captain's log for Black Sunday.

"That makes it much more accessible than putting it someplace in a museum along the Jersey shore," Chatterton said.

He knows the wreck contains many more artifacts, including another safe, which he plans to bring to the surface this summer.

But, he said, they are not what motivates him to dive.

"The treasure of the Carolina is a lot greater than a couple of rings and some gold coins," he said. "It really and truly is the history of the wreck."

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