Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sub hunter recalls chasing U-boats

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Standard-Journal online
By Ryan Hall
November, 2004

MILTON -- On March 22, 1943, John Shaw, now of Milton, saw exactly what he was looking for, a large German submarine, fully surfaced. With a pass of the B-24 bomber he was riding in, the sub was reduced to nothing but debris and an oil-slick several hundred feet wide.

"It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, looking for a little submarine in the ocean," recalled Shaw, 87.

"She was fully surfaced and we sort of dive bombed it," he added, making a swooping motion with his hand.

Shaw, who retired from active service in the Air Force in 1946 as a major, and from the Reserves in 1978 as lieutenant colonel, was a navigator and part of the 480th Antisubmarine Group, also known as the sub patrol unit, which flew out of England and Africa on a year-long tour during World War II.

In 1943, when his crew sunk the 740-ton German U-boat, the largest class in Hitler's fleet, off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean, he was a member of the "Tidewater Tillie," one of the more famous airships of the war.

The crew, which all received numerous awards and citations, had already sunk one submarine and damaged another, both off the coast of England. Both of those subs were spotted when they were partially surfaced.

After being transferred to Africa, the "Tidewater Tillie," one of 17 bombers in the 480th, changed the search pattern that had been used by the previous sub patrol unit stationed at Port Leoli, Africa.

Shaw said the search flights could last up to 17 hours, encompassing thousands of miles.

On this particular pass, the U-boat was completely surfaced with several men on deck, a sign the Germans knew the previous search patterns and felt safe when outside of the patrolled areas.

Shaw's plane had been traveling at an altitude of 1,200 feet under cloud cover when the crew made visual contact with the sub, prior to it being noticed on radar.

The "Tidewater Tillie" swooped to within 200 feet, dropping four bombs, each programmed to submerge 75 feet into the ocean before exploding.

Shaw remembers watching the sub as his plane bared down on the doomed vessel and the men on deck.

"They were jumping, I don't know why, they were 1,000 miles from shore," he said, chuckling.

According to the crew's log of the attack, the result was debris spread over 200 feet and an oil slick measuring approximately 600 by 300 feet when the plane left the area 30 minutes after dropping the charges.

Though there were successes for Shaw's crew, he noted that the job was often boring.

Going on such long flights with only the task of scanning the ocean could be "monotonous," Shaw said.

He noted his crew flew over 65 missions and spotted "six to eight" submarines throughout his tour of duty.

To keep himself busy, Shaw was constantly taking navigational measurements. In those days, the navigator did not read a computer screen to find out where he was, he read the sky.

Shaw said he would used a sexton and "shoot," or sight, three stars and then use the resulting lines to form a triangle. He then would place the plane in the center of that. Shaw said he was always within a half-mile of the exact location.

Another method used to navigate was dead reckoning. Shaw said dead reckoning was used to gauge wind speed.

When flying from point A to point B, Shaw would have his pilot fly the most direct route. Along the way Shaw would look for another city and then figure out, based on what they were flying over, how far the wind had blown the plane off course.

He could then calculate its speed and give the correct route to his pilot so the plane would end up at the proper destination and not behind enemy lines.

"We called it dead reckoning because if you didn't reckon right, you're dead," Shaw said, smiling.

Another danger outside of miscalculating the route, was the potential of being shot by enemy planes or a submarine that spotted the plane before it was bombed.

"We had 55 caliber machine guns," Shaw noted of the planes armament. "They had 20 millimeter cannons."

He said that nearly 50 percent of those in the 480th wouldn't return from a flight, something he remembers each Veterans' Day.

"When I think of Veterans' day, it's the men I knew one day and didn't know the next," Shaw said. "I lost some very good and close friends."

Luckily, despite being attacked numerous times, the "Tidewater Tillie" only ever lost one crew member, a homing pigeon.

The bomber had a pigeon on board so that if it was ever shot, a note could be put on the pigeon and it could fly the message back to base.

During one run, three bullets pierced the "Tidewater Tillie," one of which went into the pigeon's cage, killing the bird.

"It's the only casualty I ever had on any flight," Shaw said, laughing.

"I was one of the lucky ones."


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