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.
Erich had served on UB-85 from November 1917 until April 1918, Hermann remembered. The boat completed two war patrols, but on the fateful day of April 30 while diving to evade gunfire from the British Royal Navy ship, the Coreopsis, the submarine began taking on water because the hatch malfunctioned. The boat resurfaced and the crew escaped under fire from British patrol vessels; the men, including Erich were picked up, spending the rest of the war in an internment camp in England. Badly wounded in the right arm, Erich never recovered the full use of it.
And Hermann, who continued wiping his sweaty forehead, was never free from guilt.
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