Historian traces U-boat gunner's Valley voyage
The News Leader
By Joel Banner Baird
August 29, 2006
STUARTS DRAFT — Karl Baumann's odyssey begins in Nazi Germany and ends in Stuarts Draft. He endured the Battle of the Atlantic from the fragile perspective of a U-boat gunner and the decline of the Third Reich behind the barbed wire of a POW camp in Lyndhurst.
Harrisonburg historian Gregory L. Owen documents Baumann's journey in his new book, "The Longest Patrol." Even after its June publication, the two men meet to mull over re-discovered letters and archives. The research continues.
"Karl went over every page, every detail of the manuscript, making corrections," Owen said. "It's Karl's story; I wanted this book to be true to his memory."
Memories continue to tangle. A crewmember of a Canadian escort ship recently told Owen that he believed his depth charges destroyed U-953. Karl Baumann, aboard the German submarine, shared his comrade's conviction that a torpedo had flattened the Allied corvette on June 8, 1944.
Both had the story wrong.
"With all the ordnance that was expended, neither sank the other — and now they both are grateful they didn't," Owen said.
Survivors of Germany's prestigious U-boat fleet had the greater cause for celebration. After July 1943, the Allies were able to intercept messages to and from the devastating "wolfpacks," thanks to the breaking of the Enigma code. Troop and supply convoys gave the subs a wide berth while destroyers and long-distance bombers, equipped with ever-more-accurate radar and sonar, methodically scattered and sank the once-vaunted hunters.
"U-953 was typical in its ineffectiveness," Owen said. "It was atypical in that it actually survived the war. Of the 40,000 men in the U-boat arm, 30,000 died. It was the greatest loss of manpower, percentage-wise, of any other arm of any of the armed services during the war."
Owen's book also documents a love story that outlasted the global conflict. Baumann's childhood friend, Anneliese Samhuber, became a pen pal and then a tender love interest.
The letters stopped when a freak explosion of a 20mm deck gun riddled Baumann's side with shrapnel, but the connection outlasted the gunner's confinement in a military hospital on the occupied French coast, the Allied invasion and Baumann's subsequent transfer to Camp Lyndhurst near Sherando.
A work detail on Galen Heatwole's farm introduced the young sailor to the greater Mennonite community — and an America that would eventually welcome Kurt and Anneliese Baumann home.
"Heatwole treated me like a human being," Baumann said Monday. "That's why I came back."
As with all sagas, Baumann's is ongoing. Owen said only another edition would do the story justice.