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Reinhard Hardegen, a leading German submarine commander of World War II who brought U-boat warfare to the doorstep of New York Harbor in the winter of 1942, died on June 9. He was 105.
His death, evidently in Bremen, Germany, where he was born and raised, was confirmed in the Bremen news media on Thursday by Christian Weber, the president of the Bremen State Parliament.
Soon after the United States went to war with Japan and Germany, Admiral Karl Donitz, the commander of the German submarine service, sent six U-boats to attack oil tankers and freighters in American and Canadian waters before they could head overseas. The mission, code-named Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), was aimed at further disrupting Britain’s precarious supply lifeline and demoralizing the American home front.
Captain Hardegen provided Drumbeat with some of its most stirring exploits when his U-boat sank two ships off Long Island and brought him close enough to New York City to see the glare from Manhattan’s skyscrapers in the night skies.
“It was a very easy navigation for me,” he told Stephen Ames, a filmmaker, in a 1992 interview, recalling how his approach was aided by the lights along the shoreline.
Approaching the entrance to New York’s Lower Bay on the evening of Jan. 14, 1942, Captain Hardegen climbed to the bridge of U-123 and beheld an illumination that thrilled him.
“I cannot describe the feeling with words, but it was unbelievably beautiful and great,” he wrote in a war memoir published in Germany in 1943. “I would have given away a kingdom for this moment if I had one. We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked upon the coast of the U.S.A.”
By the time Captain Hardegen’s two war patrols to America had concluded in May 1942, he had sunk or crippled 19 merchant vessels, according to Michael Gannon, the author of “Operation Drumbeat” (1990).
He did so despite suffering a severe leg injury in a crash while serving in Germany’s naval air arm in the 1930s.
Captain Hardegen’s marauding and the sinkings carried out by fellow U-boat captains led the Navy to organize convoys of merchant vessels escorted by warships along the coastlines. The Army ordered lights along the East Coast to be doused or shielded to lessen the silhouetting of ships offshore that had made them easy prey for U-boats. That “dimout” put Times Square in shadow, its signature neon advertising signs gone dark.
And Captain Hardegen’s exploits evidently inspired the German home front.
A photographer carried aboard U-123 to shoot propaganda pictures was unable to get any clear shots of nighttime Manhattan. But fabricated still photos and movies purporting to show New York’s lights as captured from U-123 were shown in German movie theaters, according to Clay Blair’s “Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942” (1996).
“Although the fabrications were amateurish, German audiences accepted them as authentic,” Mr. Blair wrote.
Reinhard Hardegen was born on March 18, 1913, in Bremen, Germany. He joined the German Navy and visited New York City in 1933 on a cadet training cruise, going up to the Empire State Building’s observatory to gaze at the night skies over the city.
He transferred to the submarine branch in 1939, took command of U-123 in May 1941 and was chosen for Drumbeat after sinking several ships off West Africa, his rank of kapitänleutnant the equivalent of a lieutenant in the United States Navy.
In the early hours of Jan. 14, 1942, he brought U-123 east of Long Island and sank the Norwegian-manned oil tanker Norness some 150 miles from New York City.
He kept his sub underwater during the daylight hours that followed. At nightfall, aided by tourist guidebooks to New York he had brought along, he surfaced and followed the southern shore of Long Island and Queens, glimpsing the lights of homes and cars in the Rockaways and the illuminated Ferris wheel at Coney Island.
After getting to the outer reaches of New York Harbor, he returned to deeper waters off Long Island, where he sank the British oil tanker Coimbra about 100 miles from New York.
The sinkings of the Norness and the Coimbra, a day apart, made for front-page headlines. Captain Hardegen then headed to Cape Hatteras, N.C., where his submarine sank three more ships before he returned to his base at Lorient, France.
On his second war patrol to America, between March and May 1942, his toll including the American oil tanker Gulfamerica off Jacksonville, Fla. But his boat was nearly sunk off St. Augustine, Fla., by a destroyer’s depth charges before he managed to get away.
After leaving the submarine service in May 1942, he held a naval training position and worked on the development of advanced submarine torpedoes. In the winter of 1945, with German forces reeling, he was transferred to land warfare and became a battalion commander.
Soon after Germany surrendered, he was arrested by the British, who mistook him for a someone with the same last name who had been a member of the Nazi SS forces. He was held for 16 months before he convinced them that he was a career Navy officer.
“I was not a Nazi,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1999 interview. “I did my duty for my country, not for Hitler.”