Review of Steel Boat, Iron Hearts

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, hasn’t it, dear readers?  Well, I have a couple of articles for posting today: one on history and the other on manga.  I decided to start with my review of a work of history: Steel Boat, Iron Hearts by Hans Gobeler.  I have always been fascinated with memoirs of submariners.  Mostly, I read works about U. S. submarines in WWII and carried my fantasies about them so far that at one point I even wished to have a career serving on Navy attack submarines.  I even learned the game of cribbage after reading about how figures like Captain Dick O’Kane and Captain Mush Morton were into the game.  They played it so much that Dick O’Kane even managed to draw the perfect 29-point cribbage hand one game (5-5-5-J with the starter being a 5 of the same suit as the jack) and had all the participants sign the cards, which he framed.

playing cards

Anyway, most of submariners’ memoirs are written by officers.  Steel Boat, Iron Hearts (as well as my favorite memoir: U. S. S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific with J. M. Eckberg) separates itself from other memoirs in that it was written by the enlisted man put in charge of the diving manifold station, which made him privy to all the action which the U-boat saw.  Gobeler stands as a very interesting figure for his patriotism and honesty.  The person he collaborated with in writing the book, John Vanzo, told him to take certain parts out in order to make him seem more favorable to the readers; but Gobeler refused.  He wished this to be as accurate a portrayal of his service as possible, warts and all.

Young Hans Gobeler

Mr. Vanzo’s worries were unfounded: Hans Gobeler comes across as a very patriotic German rather than as a rabid Nazi.  If I were in any kind of service, I would like to have such a principled, courageous, and fun-loving person in my unit.  I retain this impression of him despite Gobeler doing things like joining the Hitler youth program, blaming the British for starting the war, and tenaciously believing that the Germans would win the war even as late as when his crew was captured by a Navy task force on June 4, 1944.  He wanted to be in the submarine force because this was the most prestigious outfit in the German Navy, and he had even tried to enlist in the war as early as fifteen.  His father had served in WWI on the Russian front, and his experiences there made him very anti-Communist, which resulted in him being blacklisted by Communist run unions in Germany until the Nazis came to power and ended this.  (I find it odd that so many people in Europe thought they had to choose between Fascism and Communism, which are nearly the same, instead of some third alternative.  I suspect a very famous chess champion, Alexander Alekhine, became a Fascist for the same reason.)  Prior to U-boat training, he had fallen in love with English literature and took courses in this language and would read William Shakespeare and Robert Stevenson while on patrol.  Also, he took a black Bible with him on patrol and strongly wished to honor “family, country, and God” by his service.

During his time aboard U-505, he served under three captains.  The first and the last were outstanding, while the crew likely wished to kill the second captain more than sink Allied shipping.  The first of these captains was Captain Lowe, who was half Dutch and unsuccessfully attempted to instill a taste for tea into his coffee loving crew.  (The crew knew so little about tea, that the chief cook made Lowe a batch as if making coffee.  I can sense some of your grimacing at the thought of this black brew of pure tannic acid.)  He was very laid back, and brought the most success to U-505 until he had the misfortune of sinking a schooner with a Colombian diplomat, which caused Colombia to declare war on Germany.  (They don’t teach you that in history class.)  Lowe showed remarkable humanity toward the survivors of the ships he sank and offered as much aid as he could to them before sailing away to find other targets.


After this, they had another captain transferred to their ship by the name of Zschech, who brought a cohort of rather domineering officers with him, including an executive officer with whom the crew suspected Zschech was romantically involved.  (Whether same sex or not, this cannot be a confidence booster.)  These officers, especially the captain, treated the crew and even the officers who had served under Lowe disdainfully and cruelly.  Reading the account of mandatory army drills, unwarranted hazing, and just plain nastiness makes it a wonder the crew did not mutiny.  Unfortunately, they had very little success during Zschesh’s captainship: I recall only one ship going under, but there may have been one more.  During Zeschesh’s first patrol, the U-505 had the terrible luck of having a depth charge dropped directly onto their ship while running on the surface.  Incidentally, the blast from this depth charge destroyed the plane which dropped it on them due to it diving too too closely upon them.  (Memories of Aces over Europe are coming to mind.)  Despite Captain Zeschesh calling for them to abandon ship, the engineering officer basically told the captain that he could abandon ship if he wished, but that he would stay on the repair her.  And repair her they did: U-505 was the most damaged U-boat to return to port during the war.


This was followed by long periods in port, exasperated by the saboteurs always managing to force U-505 to return.  But, reading about Gobeler’s times in port stands as another thrilling part to this work.  His times at drinking parties, the crew revenging themselves on sycophantic petty officers, arresting a saboteur, and other things interested me almost as much as his time at sea, which is fortunate.  The saboteurs gave this vessel their undivided attention, which brought the officers’ and crew’s morale to great lows.  The captain is particular was hard hit by all the times he needed to return to port during test dives.


The stress suffered by Captain Zschech resulted in his replacement with another captain, Harald Lange, who had experience in the merchant marine and had begun his career as an enlisted man.  Like Captain Lowe, he had a laid-back, confident style which won the approval of the crew.   Unfortunately, his career aboard U-505 was very short.  He was captain when the U-505 was captured on June 4, 1944–the first enemy vessel the U. S. Navy captured on the high seas since the War of 1812.  This was the result of the engineering officer in charge not doing his duty in setting the charges for scuttling the boat during the evacuation.  But, this turned out happily for us: you can still see this U-boat in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.  I also need to see the man-eaters of Tsavo, which are on display in the Field Museum of Chicago.



One comment on “Review of Steel Boat, Iron Hearts

  1. […] Review of Steel Boat, Iron Hearts […]


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