Shooting the War: The Memoir and Photographs of A U-Boat Officer in World War II - James E. Wise Jr. Otto Geise became a U-Boat captain by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Born in Germany, at sixteen he decided to go to sea to see the world. He spent his training years on a square-rigged training ship, eventually earning his mate’s license and being taken on the SS Columbus, a German passenger liner. It was on one of these trips he met an American girl, intended to propose and become an American citizen. Unfortunately, the war in Europe prevented this (not to mention she sent a Dear John letter) and the famous coded signal sent to all German vessels ordered the ship’s captain into the nearest non-hostile port to off-load passengers and return to Germany.

Geise was serving as a mate on the Columbus, a German luxury liner when war broke out and the the knew the British would attempt to take the ship to use as a troop carrier so she was repainted and they attempted to sneak back to Germany by staying in neutral water (U.S., mostly) up the coast and then tried to break across the Atlantic. It was not to be. Challenged by the HMS Hyperion they scuttled the Columbus and were taken to Ellis Island aboard the USS Tuscaloosa, a cruiser that had been shadowing both ships.

The Germans had worked out a deal with U.S. authorities to re-patriot the crew by way of Japan, so they were shipped to San Francisco by train, and interned in a former military base. Geise and a couple of other officers managed to smuggled themselves to Japan and there he volunteered for duty aboard the Anneliese Esseberger, a blockade runner that was bound for Germany via Cape Horn with stops along to way to bring supplies to German raiders. One rendezvous was with the U-106 which provided escort back to Bordeaux where Geise, perhaps envying those on the sub, volunteered for submarine duty. (I found some of the patriotic bunk somewhat jarring coming from a naturalized American citizen now living in Florida, e.g. “the exchange between comrades at sea filled our hearts with joy,” but I suppose at the time both sides indulged in such jingoistic nonsense.)

At first, getting transferred was a difficulty process because the Merchant Marine was loath to lose officers to the Navy. Eventually, thanks to some pull from Navy brass who also needed officers, he was sent to submarine school, of which he says little interestingly, but emerged as a seaman. He is thus able to provide a view of life on a German sub from the vantage of the lower ranks, an unusual perspective. He accepted the privations with equanimity -- at least in hindsight, “like washing hands and face, taking a hot shower, brushing teeth, and shaving. During operations in the Atlantic or Arctic one simply could not escape becoming encrusted with dirt. At first, I thought a man could get scabies or some other skin disease if he didn’t wash down at least once a day. To my surprise, I soon learned that we cold make do by just rinsing off our hands and faces a couple times a week with salt water. . .Our hair and bears soon got filthy and clotted from the salt water breaking over the ship, and even the best comb broke when we tried to disentangle the hairy mess.”

Much of the patrol was spent on the surface and these subs were like thin cigars getting tossed about ferociously in heavy seas. “For days we wore heavy canvas belts lashed by strong steel straps to the boat. At first, we laughed at this precaution as unnecessary and inconvenient; it hampered our jumps through the hatches during alarms. But I soon recognized the necessity. More than once we had to pull lookouts from the top of bulkheads, where they lay, breathless and in pain. Comrades of other boats had not been so lucky; some whose straps broke were found missing after the water subsided.” He describes his watch guarding the boat’s stern during a storm. “. . , there was a thunderous crashing and bursting [of waves] that snatched our breath away. A tremendous weight forced us onto our knees and tore at our limbs. Above us a bright-green watery vault foamed and hummed before gradually subsiding. It became brighter and brighter while we fought against the draining water, spitting, choking, and cursing.”

During one depth charge attack, the sub had to go very deep, causing a variety of leaks and noises. Psychologically, confined in such as small space (the subs were only 20 feet wide) could be devastating. “One man in the bow room lost control of himself and started to scream in a high-pitched voice.” He had to be subdued and knocked unconscious least he cause a panic among the others. Their method of dealing with high-pressure leaks caused by popping rivets was effective, if bizarre: “one of our hams was placed with much ado against the hole [from which a finger-thick stream of water jetted into the boat] and bolstered with iron spokes and plates,” stopping the leak.

After several patrols in the North Sea on the U-405 as a seaman, he was sent to officer school and then posted to the U-181 for patrols to the Indian Ocean under Captain Freiwald. Freiwald had a unique way of involving the crew in decision-making. He called it der Feigling vom Dienst. “Every day the officers took turns being the coward. The coward had “absolute freedom to criticize, correct, even grumble about matters such as the daily routine and orders from the commandant.” On land, many of the comments might have been considered insubordination, “but here the coward could express those feelings, which fellow officers and crew members might agree with, without fear of retribution.” Freiwald would listen thoughtfully and then comment on what he thought might be possible or not, the reasons why, with regard to changes for the benefit of the crew.

Eventually, Geise was interned in a Chinese prison and repatriated to Germany after the war. He insists several times during the book that he was apolitical, that his motives were defense of the Fatherland and Hitler the Supreme Commander and thus deserving of obeisance. One might wish he and his comrades had been more political.

Geise survived the war, moved to the United States, married an American, and now lives in Florida. Lots of rare pictures, hence shooting...