Aboard the U-505

I just returned from a trip to Chicago, where I did many exciting things, one of which was take a tour aboard the U-505, one of the few remaining U-boats left in the world. I was assured by many people that if I did only one thing in Chicago, this should be it; clearly people know my obsession with submarine movies far too well[1. Das Boot is one of my favourite movies of all time and one of the largest sections of my DVD collection is, yes, submarine films.]. I went with my friend T, who may not share my fanatical devotion to submarines, but has an appreciation for fine engineering and an unflagging enthusiasm for museum adventures.

The U-505 exhibit certainly has considerable showmanship. You sink slowly below the surface of the earth through a corridor lined with pictures and displays, including things like examples of weapons, with increasingly dim lighting and moody music, before you finally emerge into a big room and see, well, this:

Deck: A U-boat in an underground room, looking very large and impressive.

Please forgive the blurriness, I didn’t choose the best of lenses for my MSI adventure. It’s really quite an impressive sight, you kind of can’t help but go ‘woah!’ when you see it. You go down a long ramp, past the superstructure[2. They will try to waylay you to take your picture with the submarine so you can be charged an exorbitant amount for it when you emerge. Resist. Or just laugh at them when they try to sell you your photo package as you leave.], to reach the floor of the exhibit:

Upper Deck: The superstructure of the U-505

On the ground floor, you can wander around the submarine and through a series of exhibits that are rather interesting; there are replicas of the galley and sleeping quarters, an original Enigma machine, cutaways of torpedoes, and other fun things. The best part, though, was that they had actual veterans from the submarine service on the floor as docents; T and I talked to a man who’d served in the 1950s as a cook. I am all about living history, especially as we lose members of that generation, so I was very excited that the museum had done some outreach to get veterans into their exhibits, and they seemed to be having fun interacting with visitors.

The tour of the submarine itself wasn’t quite to my taste, although the submarine was fascinating. It’s a sort of sound/light/acting tour where the capture of the submarine is dramatized, and I would have preferred to wander through at my own speed, looking at things under clear light. This feeling was apparently shared by a young person on the tour who started screaming in terror when the depth charges went off and the lights flashed. I ended up kind of falling to the back of the group to have a chance to actually look at things, because the interior of the submarine is largely intact. You can see the original engine works, radio room, and so forth. They’ve made some modifications to make tours easier (including modifications to make it accessible) but they by and large captured the flavour, with the low ceilings and narrowness that remind you of the very utilitarian and predatory functions of the U-505.

I also love that you can actually handle components of the submarine; you can touch the hull, you can feel the controls, and so forth. Some areas are glassed off and you can only look, but the rest of it is very open. Being a tactile person, I like being able to explore museum exhibits with my hands[3. Lest you think this is a horrible travesty of conservation, the submarine was left rusting above ground until 2004, and needed a lot of work when they brought it underground, so it was hardly in a pristine state to begin with.]. It was interesting to see who on the tour adopted the crossed hands, respectful looking at museum exhibits stance, and who else reached out to touch things and really get inside the submarine.

It looks monstrous from the outside, but the ballast tanks actually narrow it considerably, and all the machinery keeps the floor high and the roof low, which is pretty ideal for me at just under five feet, less so for T at over six. Our guide told us that internal temperatures could climb up well into the 90s on the U-505 because it was stationed off the coast of Africa, and of course water supplies were limited by the desalination facility, so conditions cannot have been pleasant inside. T was particularly impressed with the food loading strategy, where the crew packed every corner, including one of the bathrooms, with food, and had to literally eat their way into the second bathroom. Meanwhile, I was fascinated by the controls and gadgets, of which there were a considerable number, and of course boggled at the difference between U-boats on film and actual U-boats[4. Hint: they’re smaller in real life than they appear in the movies. The experience is actually rather reminiscent of coach class on a budget airline.].

It was a strange sensation to imagine being crammed on board with 59 people in limited space, trolling the shipping lanes for prey. The U-505 sunk eight boats over the course of its career and each one must have been an ordeal, before its luck finally ran out and it was captured. Our guide pointed out that when submarines were hunted, while they were forced to battery power to be as quiet as possible, superfluous personnel were sent to bed, to use less oxygen and stay out of the way of the working crew. I tried to imagine lying in one of those narrow bunks, listening to the occasional ping of the sonar and men in stockinged feet creeping up and down the length of the ship, deep in evasive maneuvers. It’s a thing I’ve seen in the movies, but it felt much more immediate when I was actually on board, touching things the crew had touched.

A submarine-hunting explosive, known as a hedgehog.