It was just about two weeks and seventy-five years ago that the United States Navy would attempt and succeed at an extremely difficult mission that would mark the first of its kind since 1812, and be lauded as a potential game changer in World War II. On June 4, 1944, a team of men on the USS Guadalcanal Task force 22.3, also known as the “Hunter-Killer” unit would capture the U505, a state of the art (at the time) German submarine that would unlock secrets about German naval technology, unearth the infamous Enigma machine, and prove instrumental in war efforts going forward. The story of the U505 capture is the stuff of legend–but it was very real. And, here in Chicago, you can not only hear the tale of the U505 capture–you can relive it in the space, as the 252 foot type IX-C submarine, the only of its type to be captured and one of only four that still exist in the world, is securely nestled in its own underground space at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.
You might think a 252 foot, 750 ton submarine would be hard to miss, even at a massive museum like MSI, but as with many of the great things we have here in Chicago, U505 can be overlooked–especially if you don’t stray beyond “prime” museum space. With all the interesting exhibits constantly coming out of MSI, and the sub having been in the MSI collection all the way back to 1954, a mere 9 years after its final battle, it might be easy to skip it for something more modern or eye catching–the indoor tornado, the Tesla coil, or the Wired to Wear exhibit.
All are good uses of your time–educational, interactive and inviting. But take a walk a little further, first to the U-505 Submarine: 75 Stories exhibit and then further in basement corridors to the magnificent machine itself, and you can find yourself inside the stories themselves, on board the sub itself, with splashes of depth charges overhead and the ominous, ever-closer tones of the US fleet’s sonar really illuminating what it would have been like to be there.
75 Stories is a brand new exhibition for U-505, and brings a rarely seen group of artifacts to the surface that details even more closely than before the stories of the sub, as well as the stories of the men who lived aboard it, and later, those who captured it. Though this is a smaller exhibit, off to the side when disembarking the escalators and one floor down from the action of the main hall, it’s carefully curated–and completely fascinating.
The exhibit marks two years of work on the part of MSI, thanks to a grant from the National Maritime Heritage Grant Program, to preserve and restore U-505, and shows off the conservancy project as well as some truly fantastic archival footage of the submarine’s original arrival in Chicago, as well as the work that’s been done in areas like the conning tower, torpedo room, deck, control room, and galley kitchen to remove any abrasions, paint as the ship would originally have looked, restore hardwood in some locations and help give guests a better look at life under the water with a focus on giving guests a better look at the control room and galley kitchen the men would have used.
About half of the exhibit is dedicated to display of the artifacts that relate to and were from U-505–things like vintage cigarette packs, journals, leather uniforms the Germans would have worn, attack diagrams, confidentiality agreements and scrapbooks, as well as a good dose of war propaganda and documents that really give things a sense of the times. The scrapbook is of particular interest, and has been carefully scanned and made browseable in tablet form near the genuine article. It gives visitors to MSI glimpses of the life of an enlisted German on the ship, and ships like it in general.
As many times as I’ve visited MSI for stories in the past, I’d never stepped foot inside U-505, mostly out of bad luck–not having the ability to fit in a timed entry or simply missing it during after dark events when it was available to explore. After getting my feet wet, so to speak, in 75 Stories, though, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. After all, though world-class museums exist far beyond Chicago’s borders, there is literally no other place in the United States, and few places in the world, you can come face to face with a submarine and then board and explore it.
But before you board, in one of the most immersive permanent displays the museum officers, you must make the trek out to where the submarine now sits. Once the museum originally acquired the sub, thanks to Chicago and Admiral Daniel Gallery, they had to actually get it here. That was no small feat, and 75 Stories also documents the arduous journey. Getting U505 to Chicago from where it had been resting at Portsmouth, New Hampshire took months of planning and engineering. Eventually, it would travel through the 3000 miles and 28 locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway, and through four of five Great Lakes until it reached Chicago. Once in Chicago’s waters, it would travel a further 800 feet overland along Lake Shore Drive on a rail and roller system so as not to damage the pavement.
Originally, U505 was displayed on MSI’s front lawn–mostly for lack of a better place to put it. In 2004 though, the sub took another journey to its new home inside the museum, after six weeks of planning and some grand feats of engineering over another four days. U505 is now safely nestled in a big cement holding area which protects its hull from damage and provides ample room for guests to examine it from top to bottom. With it being so far away from the main areas of the museum, though, there’s travel time to get to the ship itself.
MSI takes full advantage of this, with an interactive storytelling experience that details the ships involved on both sides, life in the control rooms and military bases, and even life as a sailor during World War II. There are some truly amazing war posters along the way–from the famous “Loose Lips Sink Ships” to other interesting and colorful creations. It’s dark, and vaguely marine somehow, with shimmery blue projections on the wall.
Then you arrive at the ship. It is massive. U-505 was a threat and a great asset to capture partially due to its size. Type IX-C submarines were some of the biggest the German forces had. They were faster, stronger and contained more undiscovered technology than the submarines the US had previously encountered in World War I. Subs of the same type as well as U-505 were skulking in the depths in 1944, sinking merchant ships that were bringing vital supplies to the war effort, and as it turned out, had even more secrets aboard, including the Enigma machines recovered from this and other captures that would help the Allies crack German codes.
Boarding U505 takes care, and immediately gives you the sense of being in another, much smaller and more dangerous, world. Everything you may have heard about submarines is true–there is no room for anything resembling privacy or personal space. Ceilings are low (though the museum has actually dropped floors in places to allow easier access) and space is at a premium. Our guide for the tour described the conditions–60 men, two bathrooms, and water rationed such that alcohol swabs were all that was available for bathing.
Enlisted officers slept in the same room as the ship’s massive torpedoes, and “hot swapped” with others on the ship rather than getting their own bed. U-505 was captured outside of Bermuda, and temperatures, due to the location, engines and batteries, easily leapt to three digits. When U505 was submerged, as it was for three days once pinged by the American forces, oxygen too was at a premium. All those not working were ordered to sleep. In emergencies, if the ship had to dive quickly, soldiers were expected to run to the front of the boat and stack themselves strategically to help the ship submerge faster.’
In your tour, you’ll get a chance to see the living quarters (in some case the same as the torpedo room, as we mentioned), the officer’s bunks (they got their own, with privacy screens in some cases), the galley, control room, and engine room. You’ll also get a narrative experience with lights and sounds that help a lot with getting a better sense of the events that transpired on the days leading up to its capture, from the first ping of US sonar against the hull of the sub to the terrifying splashdown of depth charges that would soon rock U-505, and the frenzied evacuation afterward, with rudder damage causing the ship to spin perilously as water filled it and orders were given to scuttle the ship using 14 pre-existing bombs.
The capture and recovery of U-505 is an incredible story, and U-505 itself is an incredible piece of machinery. U-505 Submarine: 75 Stories takes a deeper dive into World War II and its naval battles, as well as the day to day lives of both those who originally called U-505 home for months at a time to the team who would capture it, while also managing to highlight the progress the two countries have made in relations since that war so long ago. If you, like me, hadn’t taken your maiden voyage on MSI’s very own historic submarine, perhaps it’s time to embark. It’s a great lesson in history and sacrifice, telling personal and larger war stories in an unforgettable way, and bringing you up close and personal with some truly amazing engineering all at once.
You can see U-505 Submarine: 75 Stories and the main U-505 exhibit as part of general admission to MSI, but if you’d like to take it a bit further and take the On-board Tour, you’ll need to purchase an additional, timed-entry ticket. Find out more about 75 Stories and the U505 here.