Mar 8, 2015

Wartime enemies make contact 67 years later

Canadian sailor exchanges e-mails with sole survivor of a German sub his ship rammed in 1943.

 Nearly 70 years after a famous Second World War incident in which a Canadian ship rammed and sank a German submarine in the Mediterranean Sea, the only survivor of the doomed U-boat and perhaps the last living sailor from HMCS Ville de Quebec have rediscovered each other via the Internet -- two former enemies now forging a poignant, long-distance friendship via e-mail.
The remarkable reunion came about after a California newspaper published a story last November featuring the wartime reminiscences of Frank Arsenault, an 86-year-old Canadian veteran now retired and living in Santa Cruz.
The highlight of the P.E.I.-raised Arsenault's four years aboard HMCS Ville de Quebec was the corvette's fateful encounter with U-224, a German submarine that was menacing a convoy of Canadian ships on Jan. 13, 1943, off the coast of Morocco.
The enemy sub's presence was detected by a Ville de Quebec sonar operator, and 10 depth charges were dropped into the ocean. One of them struck and damaged the U-boat, which surfaced as the panicked Germans plotted their next move and one officer-- Lt. Wolf Danckworth -- reached the conning tower to size up their plight.
That's when the Canadian ship's captain, Lt.-Cdr. A.R.E. Coleman, wary of the U-boat's deck guns, gave the order to ram the wounded sub.
"I saw this guy coming out of the conning tower," Arsenault recalled. "That's when the captain realized we could hit the sub and he called out, 'Stand by to ram.'"
The impact submerged him so deeply that he momentarily blacked out, but Danckworth was the only German to reach the surface as U-224 was swallowed by the sea.
Fifty-five of his countrymen died in the sinking. Arsenault remembers seeing Danckworth bobbing in the waves, awaiting rescue by another Canadian ship at the scene, HMCS Port Arthur, as Ville de Quebec's crew tried to steady their own damaged vessel after the successful strike.
The sinking of U-224 was widely hailed as a triumph of Canadian seamanship, and King George VI made a morale-raising visit to the Ville de Quebec the next time the corvette docked in Britain.
"I had often wondered what happened to that poor guy in the conning tower," Arsenault told Postmedia News on Monday.
Two weeks ago, Arsenault found out precisely what had happened to Danckworth -- from the man himself.
The tech-savvy German veteran, now 93 and living in the Hanover-area town of Bad Nenndorf, had been surfing the Internet when he happened upon references to U-224 in the November story about Arsenault and published on the Santa Cruz Sentinel's website.
He began trying to contact Arsenault, reaching current residents of the Canadian's former home in a nearby town.
Then Danckworth sent a letter to the Sentinel, recalling his dramatic escape from U-224 and asking the newspaper to help him contact Arsenault.
"I was still half in the hatch and the boat took me down to 30 feet under water," Danckworth wrote of the ramming by the Canadian ship and the German sub's sinking.
"Here I had a blackout and [then came] back to life, swimming like a dog and watching air bubbles passing me upwards. They showed me the way to go, and I reached the surface."
He recounted being plucked from the frigid water, covered in blankets and given an orange.
"The orange tastes still deliciously in [my] memory," he told the Sentinel.
Danckworth was told how to reach Arsenault.
And earlier this month, the shocked Canadian veteran received a friendly letter from
his former enemy, whom he'd seen for the first -- and last -- time nearly seven decades earlier at the height of hostility between their countries.
"I couldn't believe it, that he had picked up on that story," said Arsenault. "He wanted to make contact, and he wrote: 'I'm the survivor that you saw getting out of the sub. I'm 93 and I'm still alive!'"
Since then, said Arsenault, the two have exchanged numerous e-mail messages and shared memories of the 1943 sinking of U-224 to "try to get the story straightened up" in their minds.