Everyone applauded and then the Kapitänleutnant popped open a bottle of champagne to the roar of the crowd. Crewman suddenly appeared and opened more bottles to fill the guests’ glasses. When all was ready, the crowd lifted their arms high with champagne bubbling over onto the tablecloths.
“To the U-26!” Hartmann shouted, and they all cheered.
When they sat down again, the men at the table began to talk to one another, but Hermann Meier did not know anyone and so he focused on the tablecloth in front of him, wishing he could somehow get up and leave, yet he knew he could not commit such a grievous error in manners. If anything, he would be one of the last to leave, most certainly not the first. He looked up and took in the view of the torpedo room, seeing the many pieces of equipment crowded in a small space. There was hardly enough room to breathe with all of these men together and his thoughts suddenly turned to his son Erich, a U-boat crewman on UB-85 during WW I.
He sadly remembered the fierce arguments with Erich about becoming a U-boat crewman. Hermann wanted Erich to become a welder like himself at the yard, a job that would possibly keep him out of the military, but Erich wanted to join the Reichsmarine, the German Navy under the Kaiser.
Luise, Hermann recalled, took Erich’s side in the argument.
“Hermann, Erich is a young man and wants some adventure in his life,” Luise told him as they lay in bed together after their son’s announcement. “I am worried, yes, about his safety, but I understand his longing to see places other than Bremen.”
“Mein Gott, what are you saying, Luise?” Hermann asked. “ I build those U-boats, but as I swear to God in heaven, you would not catch me inside one on the open sea!”
Luise laughed despite herself. “Yes, Hermann, but you fear the open sea and Erich does not suffer from that. One way or the other, the Kaiser will get him into the military with this awful war, better it be on a U-boat than in one of those dreadful trenches!”
A cold sweat broke out on Hermann’s forehead sitting now on board U-26, almost two decades later. He took out his handkerchief again, wiped his face, and looked slowly around him, hoping no one saw his distress as he remembered clearly his horror when Erich was assigned to UB-85, one of thirty-six coastal torpedo attack boats made at AG Weser during the Great War. Hermann himself worked on that boat, and, at first, he was relieved knowing the perfection put into the building of it, and then a terrible thought crept into his mind. Perhaps it was not flawless after all, perhaps he had made some stupid blunder while working on the boat and in some way, he would be responsible for the death of all the crewmen and his own son.
Hermann’s job, unlike those other men sitting at the celebratory table, had consequences—deadly consequences. He looked around and felt a stab of envy. He doubted if they carried home the weight of their work like he did. Still, if he thought about it with a clear head, most of the U-boats he worked on were lost because they had been in the keen sights of the enemy. Yet whenever workmanship problems disabled a boat built at AG Weser, he and his men felt the might of their mistakes. In the shadows, behind closed doors of the Third Reich, they were called Du dummer Idiots and blamed for problems the boat developed when the sailors were in deadly situations.
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