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Last known WWII U-boat commander dies at age 105
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According to reports, Reinhard Hardegen, the man believed to be the last living German U-boat commander, died on June 9 at the age of 105.
Hardegen’s death was confirmed by Christian Weber, the president of the Bremen State Parliament in Germany. Further details about the former commander’s death were not provided.
From air to sea to U-123 commander
Hardegen began his career in the German military in the air, patrolling the skies as a navy aviator until a crash left him with a shortened leg and a chronically bleeding stomach. Hardegen managed to conceal these injuries, however, and soon gained entry into the German submarine division, where he served under Georg-Wilhelm Schulz until Jan. 12, 1942 — roughly one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — when he was given command of the U-boat known as U-123.
Dubbed “Operation Drumbeat,” the German Unterseeboot (undersea boat) force was tasked with sinking merchant ships, thereby disrupting the supply lines of the U.S. and its allies — and that is exactly what Hardegen did. On April 11, 1942, the SS Gulfamerica was on its maiden voyage from Pennsylvania to Texas, carrying some 90,000 barrels of oil, when it was struck off the coast of Jacksonville, FL by a torpedo launched from the U-123.
Hardegen was going in for the kill when he noticed that the shores were crowded with people who wanted to catch a sight of the oil tanker. Seeing this as an opportunity to put on a show for Germany, Hardegen repositioned his vessel in between the shore and the oil tanker and used the U-123’s deck gun to set the American ship on fire. The ship eventually sank, killing 19 crew members.
“All the vacationers had seen an impressive special performance at Roosevelt’s expense,” Hardegen later wrote in his log. “A burning tanker, artillery fire, the silhouette of a U-boat, how often had all of that been seen in America?”
Not a Nazi, but a German
While successful on the surface, Hardegen’s maneuver in sinking the SS Gulfamerica was risky; the waters were shallow — and the U-123 was boxed in. U.S. forces on the USS Dahlgren soon dropped six depth charges on Hardegen’s vessel, severely damaging it.
Hardegen was preparing to abandon his submarine during the attack when he froze from fear, and, to his surprise, the Dahlgren stopped attacking, allowing him and his crew fix the ship and limp away. He later said, “Only because I was too scared was I not captured.”
Hardegen went on to sink nearly two dozen merchant ships in two patrols off the American east coast during World War II, amounting to over 115,000 gross tons of sunken merchandise, making him one of Germany’s most successful commanders: an Ace of the Deep. When he returned home, he was awarded and invited to dine with Adolf Hitler.
Hardegen long claimed that during that meal, he told Hitler that he was focusing too much attention on the Eastern Front and that he was neglecting underwater warfare. Of course, this angered Hitler, who ordered that Hardegen be reprimanded. The U-123 commander allegedly responded: “The Führer has a right to hear the truth, and I have a duty to speak it.”
Throughout his life, Hardegen maintained that he was neither a Nazi nor a follower of Hitler, but a German fighting for his country.
From commander to politician to businessman
Hardegen went on to train other submarine commanders before he was put in charge of a ground unit toward the end of WWII. After the war ended, he was taken prisoner by the British, apparently mistaken for an SS officer with the same last name.
Eventually, after establishing his identity, he was released. Hardegen then spent two decades as a politician in his hometown, founded an oil company, and spent his free time playing golf.
Later in life, Hardegen returned to the United States, saying that he wanted to “show Americans that the enemies of yesterday are friends of today.” According to Hardegen, he always did his best to aid those on board the ships that he attacked, on one occasion even helping to get his victims rescued.
In an attempt to demonstrate that he had distanced himself from his military days, he once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Now I sink putts, not ships.”
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