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The capture of a German U-boat, U-234, on May 14, 1945, by destroyer escort USS Sutton, has been described as one of the most dramatic and intriguing incidents of World War II.
The fact that a Ramsey soldier, the late Joe Brewer, was involved in this event, brings it home to us. According to Joe’s son, Ken Brewer, his father enlisted in the U.S. Navy – with his parents' consent – before his 18th birthday.
His first assignment was as a baker’s mate on a destroyer escort, the USS Sutton, one of a task force whose mission was to patrol the North Atlantic, looking for submarines.
When the crew members on the Sutton were told that they would have to turn in their cameras and camera bags before the ship sailed, Joe quickly whittled a replica of his camera and placed it in his camera bag. Had he not done so, the unfolding history that he was able to record would have been lost to us.
Much has been written about the capture of U-234, with a documentary later produced and aired on the History Channel, because U-234 was no ordinary submarine, the passengers on board were not ordinary passengers and the cargo she was carrying was definitely not ordinary cargo.
On her first and last voyage, U-234 sailed from Kristiansand, Norway, for Japan on April 15, 1945. She ran submerged at snorkel depth for the first 16 days, surfacing after that only because her commander, Johann Fehler, considered it safe from attack because of a raging storm.
From then on, she spent two hours running on the surface by night and the remainder of the time was submerged.
On board were 12 passengers, including German Gen. Ulrich Kessler of the Luftwaffe; Kai Nieschling, a naval fleet judge, who was to rid the German Diplomatic Corps of the remnants of the Richard Sorge spy ring in Japan; Dr. Heinz Schlicke, a specialist in radar, infra-red and director of the naval test fields at Keil; and August Bringewalde, who was in charge of Me 262 production of the Messerschmidt.
Also on board was Japanese Lt. Commander Hideo Tomonaga of the Imperial Japanese Navy, a naval architect and submarine designer, and Lt. Commander Shoji Genzo, an aircraft specialist.
The cargo carried by U-234 was determined by a special commission, and included technical drawings, examples of the newest electric torpedoes, a crated Me 262 jet aircraft (along with all the technical data for the Japanese to mass produce them), a Henschel Hs 293 glide bomb and a half ton of uranium oxide (stored in gold-lined cylinders). The presence of the uranium was kept secret for the duration of the Cold War.
While the submarine was en route to Japan, the war ended and Germany surrendered. The German High Command issued orders for all submarines to surrender.
In the meantime, the United States, whichhad cracked Germany’s secret code, knew U-boat 234 had some very important plans and people on board.
In a 1988 interview, Commander Fehler said that he made the decision to surrender to the United States, rather than Canada or Britain, because he felt that the Canadians or British would imprison the crew indefinitely, while the U.S. would let them return home.
For the two Japanese passengers, there could be no surrender, since Japan was still at war. They both committed suicide by taking an overdose of Luminal, a barbiturate sleeping pill.
Their bodies were sewn into canvas bags and the men were buried at sea in the normal tradition of the sea.
The captain of the USS Sutton, Lt. Commander Thomas W. Nazro, made contact with the submarine and executive officer, Lt. David K. Gottlieb, led the boarding party of 15 men, which included Joe Brewer, who took along his camera.
In the same 1988 interview mentioned above, Commander Fehler said that the U.S. Navy crew acted properly and respectfully, allowing the German crew to take down their flag with dignity and ceremony. One of the photos taken by Joe Brewer shows this taking place.
Most members of the German crew were taken aboard the USS Sutton, with only a skeleton crew to operate U-234, with an American crew aboard.
Five days later, the Sutton brought the U-boat into Portsmouth, N.H., and turned her over to the Coast Guard. Here, the secret cargo was quickly unloaded. What happened to the uranium aboard U-234 is still a mystery.
It has been suggested that it was used in one of the bombs dropped by the United States over Japan, but, strangely, all the files pertaining to that uranium have disappeared.
U-234 was used as a target by the U.S., and was sunk off the coast of Cape Cod in November 1946.
Following his tour of duty, Joe returned to his home in Westervelt, later settling in Ramsey.
When the story of U-234 was made into a documentary and shown on the History Channel, his daughter contacted the Smithsonian about the amazing photos her father had shot during the event.
Today, Joe Brewer’s camera and original photos repose in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., along with other important documents and artifacts from U.S. history.