In the early weeks of January 1942, relying on an old World’s Fair guidebook to find his way, Reinhard Hardegen brought his German U-boat near the mouth of New York Harbor.
A kapitänleutnant at the time, the equivalent rank of a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he was close enough to shore that, standing on his submarine’s bridge in the dark of night, he could watch the Ferris wheel turn above Coney Island, spot the headlights of cars and see the distant glow of skyscrapers in Manhattan.
“I cannot describe the feeling with words,” he wrote in a memoir, “but it was unbelievably beautiful and great…. We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out upon the coast of the USA.”
That same night — by then, the morning of Jan. 15, 1942 — Hardegen and his crew fired torpedoes at the Coimbra, a British tanker carrying oil off Long Island. Thirty-six crew members were killed as the ship sank, its bow pointing out of the water like a buoy that, Hardegen declared, marked the way to New York City.
In two patrols along the East Coast, Hardegen — who went on to achieve the rank of lieutenant commander — sank about two dozen merchant ships, part of a German military campaign to sever the supply chain between the United States and Britain.
He became a hero in Germany, where Adolf Hitler awarded him the country’s highest military honor. But he later disavowed any support for the Nazi party, became involved in German state politics and returned to the United States to speak with veterans groups and meet with the families of his wartime victims.
He was 105, and considered the last surviving captain of a U-boat, when he died June 9, apparently in Germany. Christian Weber, president of the Bremen State Parliament in Germany, confirmed the death but did not provide additional information.
A onetime navy aviator, Hardegen joined the German submarine division after a plane crash left him with a shortened leg and chronically bleeding stomach. He had to conceal his injuries to enter the U-boat force, according to a 2009 account in the Virginian-Pilot, but soon rose to command a submarine that sank several vessels off western Africa.
In December 1941, days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States and began its U-boat campaign, dubbed Operation Drumbeat. Hardegen was given command of U-123, and on Jan. 12, 1942, about three weeks after departing from the German base in France, his submarine sank the British freighter Cyclops near Nova Scotia, killing 99 crew members.
It was the first of nearly 400 Allied ships sunk during the campaign, according to historian Michael Gannon’s book “Operation Drumbeat.” The loss of supplies “constituted a greater strategic setback for the Allied war effort than did the defeat at Pearl Harbor,” he wrote.
By Gannon’s count, about 5,000 people were killed by the U-boat attacks. Hardegen was credited by Gannon with sinking or crippling 19 ships; other sources credit him with downing about two dozen.
In the absence of mandatory blackouts, Hardegen was able to spend weeks at sea targeting tankers and freighters illuminated by the glow of city lights. He later told the Charlotte Observer that he was “very surprised” at the lack of maritime defenses — “no blackouts, no dimming, nothing” — and was among several German naval commanders to describe America’s Atlantic coast as a “shooting gallery.”
The waters off Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, became known as “Torpedo Junction” for the U-boats that preyed there, and sailors’ bodies regularly washed ashore. Hardegen, however, said he did his best to mitigate losses and assist survivors. In accounts that Gannon corroborated, Hardegen said he approached one lifeboat to give the survivors buckets of food, along with a knife; on another occasion, he stopped a neutral Swiss ship and ordered it to pick up survivors from a sunken merchant vessel.
“Everyone stood at the railing, waved and wished us a good homecoming,” Hardegen wrote in his captain’s log. “Let’s hope that they tell this at home and effectively dampen the atrocity propaganda about us.”
Though most U-boat attacks occurred miles from shore, Hardegen terrorized the Florida coast on April 10, 1942, when he fired a torpedo into the SS Gulfamerica in shallow waters off Jacksonville Beach. Within minutes, flames erupted from the tanker and residents ran to the beach.
Hardegen was close enough to see their faces, according to a subsequent account in the Orlando Sentinel, and positioned his submarine between the beach and the crippled ship to fire shells from his deck cannon, sinking the Gulfamerica. Nineteen crew members were killed, and civilians clambered aboard rowboats to rescue the survivors.
Hardegen recalled nearly being sunk by a destroyer near St. Augustine, Fla., but returned to Europe to fanfare from Hitler, who awarded him the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves and invited him to a private dinner.
The son of a high school teacher who wrote biographies of naval heroes, Hardegen was born in Bremen on March 8, 1913. He entered the Navy in 1933 and became a submarine instructor in late 1942, after his meeting with Hitler. He later became chief of U-boat training and was transferred to command of an infantry unit near the close of the war.
Hardegen spent one year in British captivity during peacetime, apparently because of a mix-up with an SS officer who shared his last name, and eventually founded an oil company in Bremen. For two decades, he also served in the Bremen State Parliament as a member of the Christian Democratic Union party. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Hardegen made a well-publicized return to the U.S. after the publication of “Operation Drumbeat,” saying he wanted to “show Americans that the enemies of yesterday are friends of today.” His car — he reportedly drove until he was 100 — bore a license tag reading “U-123,” but he said he had otherwise moved far past military life.
“Now I sink putts,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “Not ships.”