By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard
This is the tale of two combat captains. They shared a love for the sea, the ability to command a crew under extreme conditions, and a loyalty to their nation and its wartime cause. But, at the same time, they fought on opposing sides of the Second World War.
Described as a “lanky, hawk-faced man,” Charles Eliot Winslow was born in 1909 and grew up in the Boston area. By 1940, he had become a successful paint salesman and was engaged to be married. Winslow had second thoughts about his fiancé, but instead of calling off the wedding, he chose to join the U.S. Navy. So, in 1941, at the ripe age of thirty-one, Winslow found himself called to active duty with the enlisted rating of seaman second-class. In his first assignment, he served out of Boston on board USS Puffin, a Maine fishing boat converted for minesweeping duties. In November 1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he decided to apply for an officer’s commission in the United States Coast Guard Reserve. Winslow passed the competitive examination and, by December, he accepted a commission in the Coast Guard.
Winslow rose through the ranks quickly. During 1942, he served as executive officer on board the Coast Guard weather ship Menemsha, and then received an appointment to the navy’s anti-submarine warfare school in Miami, Florida. Following graduation, the Coast Guard promoted Winslow to lieutenant junior grade and assigned him to the Argo, a 165-foot Coast Guard cutter originally built for offshore Prohibition enforcement.
Johann-Heinrich Fehler followed a different career journey than his American counterpart. A handsome, blond, clean-cut man, Fehler was born in 1910 and, as a boy growing up near Berlin, he longed to go to sea. After completing high school, he signed on with a German sailing vessel in the Baltic Sea and, after two years at sea, he began serving on a German ocean-going freighter. He next entered the German merchant marine academy and earned a mate’s certificate. In 1933, he joined Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party, which was recruiting new members throughout Germany. He would remain faithful to the Nazi Party for the rest of his military career.
Fehler found within himself a natural, almost instinctive pre-disposition for command at sea. In 1936, he joined the German navy as an officer cadet. He completed his training and climbed the officer ranks on board German naval vessels, including the notorious commerce raider Atlantis. Configured to look like a merchantman, this auxiliary cruiser sank twenty-two Allied and neutral merchant vessels early in World War II, before the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Devonshire discovered the disguised raider and sank her. The British set Atlantis’s crew adrift in lifeboats, enabling nearby German submarines to rescue the crew and return them to Germany. It was after this rescue that Fehler altered the course of his naval career from serving on surface warships, to joining the submarine corps and training to become a U-boat captain.
In the later years of the war, Fehler’s fate would be tied to the German submarine U-234. One of Germany’s oversized Type X-B subs, this 1,650-ton U-boat was designed to lay mines rather than attack enemy shipping. To allow frontline German attack submarines to remain at sea longer, the German navy decided to convert these minelaying subs into “milchkuhs (milk cows)” or submarine fuel tankers. His assignment to an undersea tanker proved disappointing to Fehler, who wanted to join the fight and command one of the attack subs. But Fehler stayed with U-234 because requesting another position would have postponed his deployment or garnered him a shore assignment.
On the East Coast, the U.S. Navy assigned Cutter Argo and her sisterships to patrol and convoy duties. The cutter carried a crew of seventy-five men and supported radar and sonar equipment; an armament of three-inch and twenty-millimeter guns; and depth charges and other anti-submarine weapons. As escorts, Argo and her sisterships were typically assigned to a convoy, tracked underwater contacts and attacked anything that resembled the sonar signature of a submarine.
Beginning in February 1943, Winslow served as senior watch officer and navigation officer on board Argo, but he rose rapidly through the ship’s officer ranks. In April, the Coast Guard promoted him to executive officer while he served concurrently as gunnery officer. After only two months as the cutter’s XO, the Coast Guard promoted him to commanding officer of Argo. In June 1944, the senior member of a navy inspection team reported, “The [Argo’s] commanding officer is an able and competent officer, forceful, decisive, military in conduct and bearing, maintaining discipline with a firm yet tactful hand…” Recognizing Winslow’s leadership qualities and excellent seamanship, the service retained him as Argo’s CO for the rest of the war.
In December 1944, the German high command summoned Johann Fehler to Berlin for meetings where he learned his U-boat would not undertake the usual milchkuh refueling mission. Instead, U-234 would serve as an undersea freighter to ship important war material to Japan. The German high command had sent U-boats to Japan before and three out of four submarine freighters had been lost attempting the passage. However, toward the end of the war there was no alternative for shipping cargoes to Germany’s last remaining ally.
Shipping space was limited in even the largest U-boats. To maximize U-234’s capacity, every conceivable watertight compartment on board was allocated to critical war material. The 300 tons of cargo included many of Germany’s latest armaments and military technology, such as new radar; anti-tank and armor weapons; and the latest explosives and ammunition. Military aviation materials included documents and technical drawings for several fighter aircraft; high-performance aircraft engines; and three disassembled Messerschmitt fighter aircraft (ME 262, ME 163 and ME 309). U-234 also carried raw materials rarely found in Japan, such as lead (74 tons), Mercury (26 tons), optical glass (7 tons) and uranium oxide ore (1,200 pounds). By 1945, communication between Germany and Japan had become problematic, so U-234 also carried one ton of mail and correspondence for German military, diplomatic and civilian personnel located in Japan.
Not only did Fehler have to ship important cargo, his orders also required him to ferry critical military personnel to Japan. His twelve passengers included two Japanese military officers, an air force colonel and a navy captain. In addition, there were two civilian employees of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Company and four German naval officers. Lastly, U-234 carried four German air force officers, including the flamboyant Luftwaffe general Ulrich Kessler.
Fehler departed Germany on April 15, dubious of reaching Japan. He cruised without surfacing for over two weeks using the U-boat’s advanced schnorkel system and, by early May, he reached the Atlantic. In the meantime, the Nazi war machine had collapsed, Adolph Hitler killed himself and other Nazi leaders had fled Berlin. So the surrender of German military forces fell to Admiral Karl Doenitz, head of the German submarine fleet. On May 5, 1945, Doenitz broadcast the order for all deployed U-boats to surrender to Allied naval forces.
By the time he received Doenitz’s order, Fehler was halfway across the Atlantic. He decided to surrender to the Americans, disposed of all top-secret devices and papers, and began steaming westward. Meantime, the two Japanese officers on board chose to commit suicide to avoid capture and Fehler buried their bodies at sea before U-234 met the Americans. Four other U-boats would choose to surrender to American forces, including U-805, U-873, U-1228 and U-858, which surrendered to an armed yacht patrolling off the Delaware coast. The navy decided to escort the four remaining U-boats to the Portsmouth Navy Yard, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
As it had played a major role in capturing the first German vessel of the war (the German arctic trawler Buskoe), the U.S. Coast Guard played an important role in taking over these last enemy naval vessels of World War II. The navy selected six patrol vessels as its “surrender unit,” including the three 165-foot Coast Guard cutters Dione, Nemesis and Argo; and the navy designated Winslow and Argo as the unit’s leader.
Within ten days of Doenitz’s surrender order, Argo began a busy routine of ferrying surrendering U-boats to Portsmouth from a pre-arranged offshore rendezvous point. For the first U-boat, Winslow kept Argo on station at the appointed location despite heavy seas and sixty-five mile per hour winds. On May 16, U-805 appeared with her navy escort and Argo took on board her officers and transferred armed personnel to the U-boat to oversee the German enlisted crew operating the sub. A strong impression left on Commander Alexander Moffat, the senior U.S. Navy representative on board Argo, was the youth and naiveté of U-805’s enlisted crew. Most of them were little more than boys and their officers had denied them any information about the war and the enemy they were fighting.
After delivering U-805 to the navy base and the crew to an armed guard detail, Argo returned to sea and repeated the process twice over the next two days with U-873 and U-1228. Some of the U-boat officers, such as U-873’s Kapitänleutnant Fritz Steinhoff, proved to be fervent Nazis. Steinhoff’s only response to questions was “I am a Nazi. I will always be a Nazi.” Within days of his surrender, he committed suicide in his jail cell.
On May 19, Argo rendezvoused with U-234 and her escort, USS Sutton; and Fehler, his officers and his passengers, were ferried over to the cutter from the Sutton. According to Commander Moffat, Fehler climbed over the rail, cheerfully introduced himself and extended his hand in greeting, but Moffat did not return Fehler’s proffer of a handshake. Denied a warm greeting by the American, Fehler went on to remark: “Come now, commander, let’s not do this the hard way. Who knows but that one of these days you’ll be surrendering to me? In a few years, you will see Germany reborn. In the meantime, I shall have a welcome rest at one of your prisoner of war camps with better food, I am sure, than I have had for months. Then I’ll be repatriated ready to work for a new economic empire.”
Surprised by his less than warm reception by the Americans, Fehler proceeded below decks with his officers and passengers. The prisoners were ordered to sit still with their arms folded, which prompted Fehler to complain bitterly to the American interpreter about their treatment. After learning about Fehler’s behavior, Winslow went below and ordered the guards to “shoot any prisoner who as much as scratches his head without permission.” Later, the Germans were disembarked with local journalists observing from the dock. Luftwaffe General Kessler saluted Winslow and politely asked permission to depart the ship, to which Winslow silently pointed the way. Fehler left the cutter protesting to Winslow “Your men treated me like a gangster.” Already simmering over Fehler’s hubris and loud behavior, Winslow pointed to the gangway and barked, “That’s what you are. Get the hell off my ship!”
After they disembarked, an armed guard escorted U-234’s personnel to the base prison at the navy yard. Meanwhile, the navy’s surrender unit was disbanded and Winslow asked the senior naval officer in charge if there were any further orders for Argo. The navy captain responded, “Argo has done an excellent job Winslow, and the navy appreciates it. For the record, I shall thank you in a letter. If there is anything I can do for you at any time, don’t fail to contact me.”
U-234’s prisoners were held at Portsmouth for a few days before the navy bussed them to a larger facility in Boston. Most of the enlisted men were dispersed to internment camps on the East Coast, but a few returned to the Portsmouth Navy Yard to assist naval officials in unpacking U-234’s important cargo. Navy officials deemed Fehler, his passengers and officers to be of high intelligence value and flew them from Boston to Washington, D.C., for further interrogation and processing.
To determine the contents of U-234’s cargo, the navy drydocked the U-boat and surrounded it with a shroud to shield the sensitive unloading activities. The Navy Department ordered a full inventory of the U-boat’s cargo and sent the ME 262 and ME 163 to the Army Air Force’s Wright Field, in Ohio, for analysis and testing. Much of the remaining technology, including some of the Messerschmitt aviation material was retained for U.S. Navy research. And the fate of the uranium oxide remains unknown, but the ore was likely shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for processing.
With U-234’s surrender, the sub’s operational days were over; however, for two more years, the navy analyzed her design and construction. The U-boat was subjected to numerous tests to compare the durability and performance of German U-boats to the latest American submarine technology. By the spring of 1946, extensive dockside inspections and testing at sea had been conducted and, for another year, advanced equipment and sophisticated technology was stripped from the U-boat for testing and analysis on shore. Finally, on November 19, 1947, U-234 was sunk as a target by the American submarine, USS Greenfish. Surprisingly, it took two torpedoes to send the U-boat to the bottom.
Naval Intelligence officials processed Fehler and the other U-234 officers through Fort Hunt, near George Washington’s Mt. Vernon home, before the men were dispersed to internment camps along the East Coast. The navy sent Fehler to a facility reserved for fervent Nazi officers and, in 1946, he returned home by sea along with other repatriated Germans. While Fehler sank no ships as a submarine commander, his association with U-234 made him the subject of journalists, writers and researchers and, perhaps, one of the better-known U-boat captains. After returning to Germany, Fehler settled in Hamburg and passed away in 1993 at the age of eighty-two.
After the war, the Coast Guard experienced a dramatic decrease in personnel levels, forcing the service to retire ships such as Argo. At first, the service mothballed the cutter at the Coast Guard’s training station at Cape May, New Jersey; however, in 1948, the service decommissioned the vessel and sold her in 1955. In 1959, a New York sightseeing business acquired Argo and she began a second career as a city tour boat.
After his wartime responsibilities had ended, Eliot Winslow was ready to go home. In a letter to his command, he wrote, “If the Argo . . . is scheduled to fight the wintry blasts alone all winter, my answer is ‘Get me off.’ One winter upside down was enough for me. It took me three weeks [on shore] to regain the full use of my feet!” After retiring from active duty, he settled in Southport, Maine (near the port city of Bath), where he started a business running tugs and local tour boats. For years, Winslow gave summertime tours of the southern Maine coast on board the sightseeing vessel he named for his old cutter, the Argo. Winslow lived to see his nineties at his home in Southport.
Winslow and Fehler fought on opposite sides of World War II and took very different paths in their wartime journeys. Both men found a unique role to play in the conflict, one as a German U-boat commander and the other as a Coast Guard cutter captain. Neither officer could have imagined the role they would play in the war, nor how their paths would cross in the closing act of the Battle for the Atlantic.
Ultimately, U-234 was used for target practice by the
U.S. Navy. On 20 November 1947, USS Greenfish
shot a torpedo at her as she lay on the surface, approximately 40 miles off Cape Cod.
(U.S. Navy Photo)
This dramatic image shows the immense size of U-873
in dry dock in Portsmouth. All the German submarines dwarfed Argo in terms of length, tonnage, and armament.
(U.S. Navy Photo)
After completing the successful transfer of surrendered
U-boats to Portsmouth, Captain Winslow navigated
Argo up to Southport, Maine, to anchor in front of his parents’ home situated on Love Cove. The cutter barely fit through the rocky narrows and is the only vessel of its size and kind to have visited the sparsely populated area.
(Courtesy of the Winslow Family)
Argo on patrol displaying her World War II armament and haze gray paint scheme. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)
LTJG Eliot Winslow (Courtesy of the Winslow Family)
Kapitänleutnant Johann-Heinrich Fehler (www.uboatarchives.net)
Using the schnorkel mast, shown here next to
the conning tower, U-boats could run their
diesel engines while submerged by sucking air
through an intake at the top of the mast while
blowing diesel fumes out of the schnorkel’s
exhaust manifold. (U.S. Navy Photo)
Rare color photo of newly surrendered U-805, 16 May 1945. The U-805, first submarine to surrender, was escorted by Argo at 12 knots for the last 50 miles to Portsmouth. According to Winslow, “Ten prisoners were stowed in the forward anchor chain locker, 23 aft over the screws, with 5 officers below decks, all under heavy guard. Modern conveniences at their disposal consisted solely of a 10-quart pail. Shower baths with smelling salts and sandwiches were omitted.” (U.S. Navy Photo)
This image shows Argo moored at Portsmouth Navy Yard on 19 May 1945, with U-234 crewmembers assembled on the fantail and Coast Guard officers and men looking on. (U.S. Navy Photo)
In his personal collection of photos from the event (below), LTJG Eliot Winslow’s hand-written captions included: “The Finger: May 19, 1945, Kapitanen Leutnaut [sic] Jahann Heinrich Fehler was captain of the 1600 ton submarine U-234 bound for Japan with a $5,000,000 cargo of mercury and tons of blue prints of the latest robot bombs and jet-propelled planes. He complained bitterly when ordered with 4 of his officers to sit on the deck with arms folded. Informed by the interpreter of the situation, I went below and ordered the guards to ‘shoot any prisoner who as much as scratched his head without permission.’ An apology must accompany every shooting. When Fehler was about to disembark, he was still growling. He was informed to save his grumbling for the captain, who would be at the gangway. When asked by the interpreter what were his troubles, he replied first in German. Then turning to me, he said in good English, ‘Ach—my men have been treated like gangsters.’ I had been simmering for an hour but that remark brought me to a boil. With eyes meeting head on, I barked ‘that’s what you are GET OFF!’ My outstretched arm point¬ed to the gangway. Strange as it may seem, there was no profanity for the moment, but I must confess the air was blue for 5 minutes while I muttered to myself.” (Courtesy of the Winslow Family)
Argo enlisted man and Coast Guard artist
John Floyd Morris, who served on board Argo,
made a series of sketches showing members of U-234’s passengers and crew. (U.S. Coast Guard Collection)
“Nazi prisoner of war taken from sub U-234 aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Argo,” by John Floyd Morris
(U.S. Coast Guard Collection)
“Nazi Lt. Gen. Ulrich Kessler aboard Coast Guard Cutter Argo,” by John Floyd Morris
(U.S. Coast Guard Collection)
“Nazi civilian aboard Coast Guard cutter Argo thougt [sic] by some to be Adolf Hitler,” by John Floyd Morris
(U.S. Coast Guard Collection)