Date: Wednesday, January 28, 1998 

Source: By Doug Bukowski. Special to the Tribune. 

Section: TEMPO 

Copyright CHICAGO TRIBUNE 

 

CHICAGO'S OTHER U-BOAT

THE UC-97 WAS ON DISPLAY HERE LONG BEFORE THE U-505. NOW, A SALVAGE EXPERT

SEEKS FUNDS TO RAISE THE GERMAN SUB FROM HER WATERY GRAVE 

 

   Almost any Chicagoan can tell you the city is home to the U-505, a fully

equipped German submarine from World War II.

   History, however, records that the U-505 was only the second U-boat to

reach these improbable shores. The first, the World War I vintage UC-97,

arguably earned a more enthusiastic greeting when it arrived after the Great

War, including an electric "welcome" sign at City Hall and a prestigious

mailing address on the north branch of the Chicago River.

   But the U-505 has fared much better in the long run. It has stood outside

the Museum of Science and Industry for more than 40 years, its only enemies

the weather and crowds.

   The UC-97, on the other hand, sits on the bottom of Lake Michigan in 300

feet of water, scuttled by the U.S. Navy in 1921 and all but forgotten.

   But if Taras Lyssenko has his way, the UC-97 may soon resurface. If it

does, it will join the handful of U-boats that survive for viewing.

   "As long as I've been diving, there have been people saying they're going

to find it," says Lyssenko, 35, a salvage operator who, with his partner, Al

Olson, located the wreckage

   of the UC-97 in 1992.

   But knowing where it is, he notes, is not the same as having the resources

and the permission to salvage. More than water can keep a submarine down.

   And so the UC-97 sleeps with the fishes.

   In its day, the submarine generated considerable attention. The UC-97 was

one of six U-boats handed over to the Navy following the armistice in

November 1918. The Navy was particularly interested in the UC-97's minelaying

capabilities.

   After a rough Atlantic crossing with an American crew in the spring of

1919, the UC-97 participated in wreath-laying ceremonies outside New York

harbor to honor the victims of submarine attacks during the war. The sub then

traveled the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes from May through August, with

engine trouble forcing cancellation of the Lake Superior leg of the tour.

   The UC-97 tied up at Navy (then Municipal) Pier on Aug. 16, 1919, just 17

days after the end of the Chicago race riots. Residents weary of the violence

that had claimed 38 lives suddenly had an interesting diversion.

   "A New Jersey sea serpent couldn't have caused much more excitement than

did the German submarine UC-97 along the North Shore today," noted the Daily

News.

   That excitement may explain the illuminated "Welcome UC-97" sign erected

at City Hall.

   On display at the Pier, the submarine represented high technology as

possibly the most advanced enemy weapon of the war. But 79 years later, the

UC-97 would seem nothing if not primitive.

   It measured 185 feet in length, weighed 491 tons while surfaced, and had a

crew of 32. By comparison, the U-505, manufactured some 20 years later, was

252 feet long, weighed 1,120 tons and had a crew of 59. The USS Seawolf, the

Navy's latest generation, nuclear-powered attack submarine, is nearly twice

as long and weighs more than 16 times as much as the UC-97, with a crew

complement almost four times greater.

  

   A war relic, or not?

   Advanced technology or no, people had good reason to visit the UC-97 at

Municipal Pier. No weapon used in the war, not even poison gas, had been more

controversial. Indeed, Imperial Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine

warfare--where ships were torpedoed without warning--served as the immediate

cause for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

   This particular U-boat, though, may have been a little less than

advertised. The Tribune reported the UC-97 had sunk seven ships, taking 50

lives, and was captured by the British in the North Sea when its diving

apparatus failed.

   However, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships says the UC-97

was launched in March 1918 and "never commissioned" in the German Imperial

Navy.

   The naval attache for the German Embassy in Washington offers slightly

different information, saying the UC-97 went into service on Sept. 6, 1918,

and was delivered to the Allies on Nov. 22. Regardless, the UC-97 made for

powerful symbolism to any Chicagoan walking its deck.

   Following the UC-97's tour, the Navy removed equipment and machinery

considered valuable. Included in that category was one of the two diesel

engines and the periscope. But the submarine still had the crew assigned to

it.

   The duty had to be less than pleasant, especially when Rear Adm. Frederic

Bassett of Great Lakes Naval Training Base decided in January 1920 that crew

members "are not entitled to subsistence at the rate of $2.50 per day . . .

inasmuch as quarters and messing facilities are available for these men

aboard the USS Wilmette."

   The UC-97 spent the next winter on the North Branch of the Chicago River,

where the U-boat received its post office address: Cherry Avenue and Weed

Street. For a time, the Navy considered a more permanent--and dry-- change of

address, perhaps giving the submarine to the Field Museum or putting it in

Lincoln or Grant Park. Ultimately, the Navy decided treaty obligations

required sinking its prize.

   So, on June 7, 1921, the U-boat was towed 20 to 30 miles due east of Fort

Sheridan and sunk by the four-inch guns of the Navy gunboat Wilmette. Willard

K. Jacques of Lake Forest, then 9, sailed on the Wilmette that day as a

guest; Jacques' father had wangled an invitation from the Wilmette's captain.

   Jacques described the action for author James E. Wise in 1989. Father and

son stood just 30 feet from the guns. "We'd stuffed our ears with all the

cotton they'd given us and stood on a coil of large rope to cushion the guns'

concussion.

   "My father stood behind me and with each shot would lift me by the elbows.

The heat was intense (because) we were so close to the firing."

   The Wilmette itself was no stranger to controversy. It was the converted

lake steamer Eastland, which, in one of Chicago's most grievous tragedies,

had rolled over on its side in the Chicago River in July 1915, killing 811.

Even  as a Navy vessel, journalist Ernie Pyle found it "was still in sinking

condition, I assure you."

   Following its scuttling, the UC-97 simply disappeared. It evidently

drifted considerably from where it went down, and for years no one could

locate it.

   Interest in the whereabouts of the UC-97 was rekindled in the 1960s by

amateur historian David A. Myers Jr. of Waukegan. Rear Adm. Alban Weber also

hunted for the submarine with his Great Lakes Training Squad, consisting of a

destroyer-escort and five patrol craft escorts.

   "We wanted to perform anti-submarine exercises off it," recalls Weber, now

retired, "but didn't find it."

   The Chicago group that restored the World War II submarine USS Silversides

was no more successful in finding the UC-97. Some divers had a theory for

these failures: The U-boat had not sunk completely and so changed location

with lake storms.

   But Olson and Lyssenko thought otherwise. The Berwyn-based salvage divers

used side-scan sonar towed behind a boat; the sonar created a map of the lake

floor. Working sporadically over a stretch of four years, they searched 140

square miles of the lake's bottom until locating the U-boat in August 1992.

   Like the salvagers of the Titanic, the pair used a camera on a

remote-operated vehicle to record their discovery. The tape shows about 60

percent of the U-boat, with the submarine resting upright, the "UC-97"

designation still clear on the conning tower. Some hatches are open, and

there is evidence of one shell from the Wilmette's guns having hit the deck,

causing moderate damage.

  

   Project on back burner

   Lyssenko says raising the UC-97 would be fairly simple: "There are

heavy-lift derricks that do a lot of work out of New Orleans and shipbuilding

places like that. They're real heavy-duty derrick-barges, 600 tonners. They

could crawl up to that thing, hook on it and pick it up like a Tinkertoy."

   The operation would be considerably easier than another project Olson and

Lyssenko's company, A and T Recovery, has worked on -- retrieving Wildcat

carrier fighters lost in training exercises on Lake Michigan in World War II.

   With the UC-97, "You're talking about a giant pipe lying on the bottom of

the lake," Lyssenko explains, "as opposed to something that's really

delicate."

   Lyssenko calls raising the UC-97 "a back-burner project" for now and is

reluctant to discuss specifics; in the salvage and recovery business, loose

lips can help others locate sunken ships. But the U-boat's future will depend

on how several important details are handled.

   The first is cost. Lyssenko estimates recovery would require between $1

million and $1.5 million. Additional money would be needed for preservation.

   Then there is the question of ownership. The Illinois Court of Claims

ruled in April 1996 that the UC-97 belongs to the state.

   Maybe. William Wheeler, associate director of the Illinois Historic

Preservation Agency, explains: "There would be a real question about the

status of a military submarine." The Navy does not easily let go of its

property, even when sunk. (But Germany has. The Chicago consulate said the

German government has no claim on the U-boat.)

   Robert Neyland is a naval archeologist for the Naval Historical Center in

Washington and has authority over the Navy's shipwrecks. "Probably it (the

UC-97) is still ours and would be our responsibility," says Neyland, who does

not want to see the U-boat raised only to fall victim to inadequate

preservation. But if an organization offers a good plan, "we'd probably work

with it," he adds.

   Olson and Lyssenko have talked with the Illinois Historic Preservation

Agency about the best way to utilize the UC-97 if it is raised. The challenge

involves both money and space.

   For example, the Museum of Science and Industry has launched a major

renovation project for the U-505. The museum hopes to raise $11.5 million to

move, enclose and restore the U-boat, with the remainder serving as an

endowment for future repairs.

   It is unlikely, museums sources indicated, that the museum would want to

take on an additional project, even though the UC-97 would be the only World

War I U-boat in existence, the others remaining dating from World War II.

  

   A possible taker

   Isco Valli, director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, doubts

his institution could easily take on such a project. "Our museum is not the

appropriate place for that," Valli believes. "We'd have to have a total

revamping of our mission," which is Great Lakes maritime history. The museum

already has a submarine, the USS Cobia-- but that is because the craft was

constructed by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co.

   But the UC-97 has at least one taker. "If it were ever made available,

we'd certainly be interested in making room for it," says Bob Morin, chairman

of  the board for the USS Silversides and Maritime Museum, now in Muskegon,

Mich.  Morin also indicated his organization would be willing to help restore

the  U-boat. Coincidentally, both the UC-97 and Silversides were moored in

the same general area of Navy Pier years ago.

   Moving an Illinois artifact to Michigan would take some negotiating. "Our

first preference would be to keep the UC-97 in Illinois, but if someone

offered to keep it on the Great Lakes, we'd consider the plan," offers

Wheeler of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.