Published: February 17, 2007 11:18 pm
Historical Persepctive: Lt. Charles H. Hutchins and the USS Borie (Part I)
By Mike McCormick
TERRE HAUTE — In late October 1943, Task Group 21.14 – a Navy submarine “hunter-killer” group then situated in the North Atlantic en route to the U.S. from Casablanca – was notified that there was a probable U-boat fueling operation nearby.
Submarine hunter-killer groups consisted of one escort carrier and several escorts, usually destroyers. Task Group 21.14 was composed of the escort carrier Card, guided by Capt. Arnold J. “Buster” Isbell, and the destroyers USS Borie (DD-215), USS Barry (DD-248) and USS Goff (DD-247).
The USS Borie was under the command of Lt. Charles Harris Hutchins of Terre Haute, at age 30 the youngest commander of a destroyer in the U.S. Navy.
The son of Roland Ellis Hutchins, associate professor of civil engineering at Rose Polytechnic Institute of Technology, and Harriet N. (Gifford) Hutchins, Chuck was an excellent student-athlete at Wiley High School, graduating in 1930. He also was a letterman on Rose Poly’s 1930 and 1931 football teams, two of the best in college history.
Admitted to the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1932, Hutchins graduated in 1936.
The men serving with “Card Task Group,” as it was called, were brash and confident. The group had been participating in offensive patrols which resulted in the sinking of eight U-boats. It later earned a group Presidential Unit Citation “for extraordinary performance during anti-submarine operations in the mid-Atlantic from July 27 to October 25, 1943.”
On Oct. 30, 1943, Task Group 21.14 was midway between the Azores Islands and Iceland when U.S. aircraft spotted a U-boat. However, an air attack was unsuccessful. At 4 p.m , Oct. 31, another pilot radioed, “Two bogies on the surface!”
That aircraft, piloted by Lt. Wilma S. Fowler, followed the subs, locating U-91 and U-584 on the surface. Suddenly, the two German vessels began firing at the airplane until U-91, commanded by Heinz Hungershausen, submerged, wisely escaping the arrival of two more Avengers piloted by Lt. Letson S. Balliett and Lt. Alexander C. McAuslan.
The two American airplanes carried Fido sonic torpedoes, which quickly doomed U-584, steered by Joachim Deecke, in 2,000 fathoms of water. All aboard the sub were lost.
(Deecke and U-584 were celebrated by the German Navy for landing four saboteurs with four crates of explosives at Punte Vedra Beach, Fla., seven miles south of Jacksonville on June 16, 1942).
Capt. Isbell directed Lt. Hutchins to detach from the task group to search for the missing submarine, believed to be a “milch cow,” a U-boat used for refueling.
At 8:10 p.m. on that black and windy night, radar contact was made with a submarine 6,500 yards away. Lt. Hutchins turned the Borie toward the enemy. When it was 1,700 yards from its quarry, star shells lit up the sky
Just when the Borie’s sound operator thought he had lost radar contact, the sonar began registering consistent “ping-boings,” confirming nearness. As the destroyer closed on its potential victim, the sub plummeted. Two depth charges forced it back to the surface but it submerged again, stern first. After a third depth charge, a large oil slick was observed.
Meanwhile, an underwater blast rattled the Borie and blew out several fuses.
After searching three hours for the sub, Lt. Hutchins concluded that Borie had achieved a kill. “Scratch one pig boat,” he announced, “am searching for more.”
It was one of the few mistakes Hutchins made during a night of naval confrontations which included one of the greatest ship-to-ship death duels in the history of fighting at sea.
After the war it was learned that U-256 – guided by Oberleutenant Wilhelm Brauel – though severely damaged, survived the attack without casualties. U-91, the anticipated target, had escaped.
At 1:53 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1943, less than four hours later, Lt. Hutchins was standing immediately to the right of the helmsman in the wheelhouse when a voice announced radar contact with another unidentified submerged craft. Upon learning of the sighting, Hutchins lowered his head and raised his arm, shouting, “Flank speed!”
As the Borie gained speed, she pitched over waves 20 feet high. Water reached the ship’s highest towers. Four portholes – all 30 feet above the water level – were smashed but, suddenly, surface contact with the enemy ceased.
Lt. Hutchins directed soundman second class Lerten V. Kent to find the submerged craft. When he did, Borie slowly moved toward its quarry. When it got directly over its target, Hutchins told torpedoman Frank G. Cronin to drop “an orthodox deep pattern.” He did. However, due to a malfunction, Borie’s entire inventory of depth charges rolled inadvertently into the sea in an endless procession. Multiple explosions lifted the destroyer’s stern.
Many Borie crew members presumed no enemy craft could survive the detonations. Lt. Hutchins was not so optimistic.
Moments later, Borie’s chief fire controlman Robert A. Maher saw the conning tower of a submarine in gale-force winds 400 yards away. Radar contact was made and Hutchins turned his ship around while directing Borie’s 24-inch searchlight to illuminate the enemy.
Borie launched the first shot as it was circling but missed. Then all of its guns opened fire as the crew on the submarine – identified after the war as U-405 – frantically scrambled out of the conning tower to man its machine guns. Meanwhile, Korvettenkapitan Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann tried to distance his sub from the destroyer.
Fire controlman Maher directed three four-inch projectiles at the submarine’s main deck and all exploded near the main deck gun, obliterating it before it could be manned. Machine gun fire also was extremely effective at close range.
For reasons never explained, U-405 apparently could not submerge. But Hopmann was a skilled and experienced commander. For more than 20 minutes, he frustrated the Borie. by taking advantage of the U-boat’s smaller turning radius.
Hutchins matched Hopmann’s skill, keeping the Borie’s guns pointed at the sub despite the larger turning circle while avoiding Hopmann’s effort to point its torpedo tube at his ship.
As the destroyer pulled alongside the submarine, the Americans could see the facial features of enemy sailors as Lt. Hutchins deftly maneuvered his vessel into a position to attempt to ram.
(Continued next week)