You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Hunt for the Last U-boat

How a group of divers found a piece of history.

Emily Irving-Swift/AFP/Getty Images

A black night on the North Atlantic. Joe Mazraani’s eyes feel like they’re popping out of his skull as he sits in the steering seat on the dive boat Tenacious. It’s only about 2240 hours, at night, but it feels like long past midnight. He has been peering into the gloom for hours, days, years, if he has to admit the truth about the depth of his obsession for this hunt. At some point tonight he has started to imagine flailing, beckoning arms, the flashes of white life vests among the dark waves.

He wonders if he’s alone with these ghosts. But, of course, the other men on Tenacious are haunted, too. Possibly the divers are dreaming of the naval battle that took place here on April 16, 1944. Maybe they’re picturing the morning when a torpedo from U‑550 split open the side of the tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania. Perhaps they see the American men from the tanker scrambling into a lifeboat as the ship capsizes.

Or possibly they are wondering what it must have been like to be one of those German boys who abandoned his sub for the water as it sank. The Americans rescued only 13 men. That water’s so cold. Nobody knows better than divers how frigid and unforgiving the North Atlantic can be.

This trip marks their second summer of active searching, and the pressure’s building.  While Mazraani’s team has been hunting for U‑550 in absolute secrecy, another team has been publicizing its own search for the 550, and yet another team is rumored to be mounting a search. Bottom line: If the Tenacious divers don’t find the 550 on this trip, someone else will probably beat them to the long‑lost submarine.

U‑550 is the last unfound German U‑boat known to have sunk in diveable waters off America’s East Coast. These divers crave the opportunity to bear witness to the buried time capsule that is an undiscovered wreck. They seek the challenge of the search above and below water, the planning for both the hunt and the deep, dangerous dive.

Sunken treasure is often a compelling motive for divers, but maritime law unequivocally states that the wreck of a warship forever belongs to the country it served. It’s a way of honoring and preserving war graves. The divers aboard Tenacious
respect that. Instead of harvesting artifacts from the sub, they want to find 550 to get as close as they can to a moment when the Battle of the Atlantic flared right off US shores.

For the past 15 hours the expedition team aboard Tenaciouhas been sailing back and forth across an 84‑square‑mile grid where the divers think U‑550 lies. It’s mind‑numbingly boring, yet demands total attention to every detail from the sonar if you want to find anything. The tedium breaks when one of the guys at the monitor says, “Holy shit. We’re going over something.” The men watch a strange bottom anomaly coming into view, a mysterious blip. It looks too large to be a submarine, but who knows?

“This could be big,” someone’s voice cracks. “Wake the others.” It’s 2245 hours, July 22, 2012, and maybe these deep wreck hunters have just found their holy grail. But nobody’s going down there to see. Not now.

Rocketing toward the bottom of the sea behind his diver propulsion vehicle, Joe Mazraani can’t believe his good fortune. It’s the morning of July 29, and the visibility is outstanding. He’s the first diver in the water and so pumped on adrenaline that he doesn’t even remember that he hardly slept during the long trip to the wreck, barely remembers the debate on deck earlier this morning about the current. Mazraani said “to hell with the current,” suited up, and leaped off the stern of Tenacious, carrying about 300 pounds of gear.

At 270 feet he stops and looks around. He thinks, I’ve never gone deeper than this before.” It’s getting really dark, but he doesn’t turn on his dive light. He wants to let his eyes adjust, wants to see the wreck the way it looks to the fishes. He can’t even picture what lies ahead. Is it a broken, collapsed pile of rubble, like so many wrecks he has visited? Has the carcass of this war machine broken open from its crash dive? He has no clue. All he knows is that his eyes belong to the first human to witness this grave.

He slows his descent now as he reaches 300 feet. There’s something shadowy looming ahead, something thick and spiky and a little bent. It’s rising from below, almost like the barrel of a deck gun on a warship. But it can’t be. Subs don’t have guns of this size. He snaps on his dive light, flashes it toward the shadow.

The attack periscope. It’s bent with the top broken off, no doubt after an encounter with a commercial fisherman’s gear. Mazraani follows the anchor line. He sees the ring of the radio direction finder’s antenna, with sea grass trailing off it. At the base of the antenna is the conning tower. In the picture that Mazraani has seen of the last minutes of the 550 on the surface following the battle, this tower looked like Swiss cheese, pierced and dented by shells. But now the tower looks whole again and alive, wrapped tightly in fishnets and covered with a thick patina of bushy hydroids. It’s the proverbial octopus’s garden. Little orange fishes are schooling over the deck.

“My God,” thinks Mazraani, “the wreck is intact. After all these years.”

He reaches out a hand and touches the sub, feels a deep sense of reverence, a solemnity so profound that he almost forgets to breathe. It takes a score of seconds for the elation to hit. But when it comes, it’s not the fist‑pumping, high‑fiving that exploded aboard Tenacious after the discovery of the wreck a few days ago. It’s a rare blend of feelings—accomplishment, humility, and wonder.

From WHERE DIVERS DARE: The Hunt for the Last U-Boat by Randall Peffer, to be published on April 5th by Berkley Caliber, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Randall Peffer.