"We found'em Lieutenant!" Masters calls from the nose bombardier position.
Yes, we're going into action!
White caps of jagged waves span across the horizon, almost swallowing in this vast expanse of the South Atlantic our Liberator bomber cruising at 2000 feet a couple hundred miles, and an hour, North East of our secret airbase at Ascension Island. Off in the distance, I can see an assembled mass of boats; far more than should be loitering in a war zone, visible out of my position in the top gun turret.
"Surface contact at 3 o'clock" Lieutenant Harden, our pilot, relays to me to radio back to Ascension, letting them know we've found the subs Freetown told us were out here.
"Yes, Lieutenant." I reply, stepping down from the turret to get on the radio.
"Nest, this is Albatross 1. Nest, this is Albatross 1. Made visual contact. Approaching from Southwest at 230 miles per hour."
"They've got Red Cross flags draped over the subs surface guns and decks." Masters announces.
He's so lucky to have a good view, while I'm stuck back here in front of the radio, only getting to see out when I man the top gun turret.
Lieutenant starts talking to me on the coms, "Chambers, get on the wire and. . . "
"Hold Sir," I declare, as I start receiving an urgent message on an open frequency.
This is Captain Hartenstein of U-156 requesting your help. We are on a humanitarian mission, assisting survivors of a downed ship. This is a neutralized zone.
A short pause in the message ends when a British voice comes on.
RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children.
What are they doing out here?
"Lieutenant, the sub is communicating with us on an open channel in English. They are picking up survivors of a sunken ship, including women and children." I inform Lieutenant Harden.
"Get that info back to base, ask them what we should do." He orders back.
"Nest, this is Albatross 1. Nest, this is Albatross 1. German sub is picking up survivors from sunken ship, including women and children. They have a Red Cross flag draped across their gun deck. Please advise. Repeat, German sub is picking up survivors from sunken ship, including women and children. They have a Red Cross flag draped across their gun deck. Please advise. "
Maybe we can drop them some food.
"Lieutenant, I've asked for orders from base." I report to Lieutenant Harden.
"Good." He retorts, almost instantly.
"Guys, we're going to circle while we await a reply. Stay off the guns for now, but keep your eyes open." Lieutenant Harden orders over the coms.
How long will it take Ascension to reply? What will they tell us to do? What can we do?
"Lieutenant, we have food in our emergency jump kits we can drop to them." Conlen calls from the waist.
"Good, look for anything else we can offer. Gather up the flares, life-rafts, and other emergency supplies." Harden orders.
I take a moment to step back up into the turret, hoping to eye the surface activity. We're banking far to the south to stay out of range of any anti-aircraft guns, but still keep an eye on the sub and small flotilla of life-boats.
Maybe Ascension can launch a rescue plane with more food and medical supplies.
"Albatros 1, this is Nest. Albatros 1, this is Nest." crackles from the radio.
I drop down, rushing toward the radio, grabbing the headphones to quickly smash them over my scrunched ears.
"This is Albatros 1, go ahead Nest." I reply.
"Albatros 1, your orders are to Sink the Sub. Repeat Sink the Sub."
That can't be right!
"Nest, this is Albatros 1, please confirm our orders." I reply, not wanting to hear what I think was presented.
"What did they say?" Harden asks over the coms.
"Albatros 1, your orders are to Sink the Sub. Repeat Sink the Sub." Ascension confirms.
Removing the headphones from my now hurting ears, I leave the radio set behind as I step between the bulkhead separating my post from the cockpit. Moving close to Lieutenant Harden, I tell him personally, "They're ordering us to sink the sub Lieutenant. I confirmed the orders to make sure I heard it right."
"Confirm it again!" He barks back, clearly not convinced.
"Yes Sir!" I say, heading back to the radio.
I replace the headphones on my ears, this time with care not to bend them.
"Nest, this is Albatros 1, please reconfirm our orders. Please reconfirm your orders." I say in a hopeful tone.
Maybe I heard wrong the first two times.
"Albatros 1, this is Nest. Your orders are to Sink the Sub. Do you copy?" they reply in an understanding manner.
"Yes, Albatros 1 is to Sink the Sub. We copy." I confirm in a defeated voice.
How can they want us to do this?
"Lieutenant, the orders are confirmed. We are to Sink the Sub." I inform the Lieutenant.
"We're going in hot guys. Masters, ready with the depth charges. Everyone else, man your guns." Lieutenant announces over the coms.
What about the people down there? Why are they ordering us to do this?
Climbing back up to my position in the top turret I am a witness to our approach. Some of the people in the life-rafts are waving at us as we come in-line with the German submarine.
We level off, heading directly toward the U-boat. As we approach people begin diving off of the deck of the sub. We pass over them. I turn to see behind us, but nothing happened.
Why didn't anything happen? Where are the depth charges?
As we climb away I can see people scurrying away from the submarine. It appears to be diving.
"They didn't release." Masters announces.
"We're going in for another pass." Lieutenant informs the crew.
Isn't one attack enough?
Our Liberator circles around for another run, this time tracking the sub's wake to depth charge them below the water-line.
How many civilians are on that sub?
We line up with the wake, passing over the sub, but again, nothing happens.
"They didn't release again." Masters calls out.
"We're going in for another pass. Check the damn charges!" Lieutenant Harden barks, clearly unhappy we can't release our weapons.
How many times do we have to do this? I don't want to sink that sub!
Again, we line up with the sub's wake, this time coming in from the front. Right atop the submerging vessel we prepare to drop another set of depth charges.
"Damn it, they didn't drop again!" Masters exclaims in utter frustration.
"Switch to bombs, we'll go in again." Lieutenant Harden orders.
Why do we keep doing this? We're not supposed to be doing this? God is telling us not to do this!
Our Liberator lines up with the sub once again. Coming up from the back of the boat, we release a pair of bombs as we arrive just over it. Our plane rises a bit from the loss of weight as two massive explosions erupt out of the sea on either side of the submarine. Rather than just white water gushing up into the sky, these are red with flame, turning to slate black smoke.
We did it. We bombed that sub.
"We've done what we were ordered to do." Lieutenant Harden tells us.
"Get on the box and tell Ascension the sub rolled over and was last seen bottom up. Crew had abandoned ship and taken to surrounding lifeboats." Lieutenant Harden orders me.
"Yes Sir," I reply as I head back to the radio set.
At 11:25 am September 16, 1942 an American B-24 Liberator operating out of Ascension Island spotted U-156 with Red Cross flags draped over its deck assisting people in life boats. The pilot of the bomber, Lieutenant James D. Harden, turned his plane away while radioing back to his base for instructions. The officer on duty that day Captain Robert C. Richardson III had a very tough decision to make, and did not possess all of the information he needed to making it. Richardson, who did not know this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, ordered the B-24 to "sink the sub". The scored a hit with two bombs, one of which landed amongst the life-boats, killing many of the survivors of RMS Laconia, which had been ferrying civilians, soldiers, and Italian POW's to South Africa. The attack by the bomber forced U-156 to dive, fleeing the scene, and stranding most of the Laconia's survivors. The crew of the bomber were awarded medals for the alleged sinking of U-156.
Captain Richardson had a tough call to make against an enemy that was normally considered an extreme threat. The submarine was acting suspiciously to anyone who did not know that there was an international rescue effort taking place, which Captain Richardson did not know. He ordered more attacks throughout the day to find and sink the Germans.
Yet, the journal, International Law Studies, covers interpretations of International Law during armed conflicts and how these laws are applied by each party. In Volume 64 chapter IX The Law of Naval Operations, the Laconia incident is examined in the context of International Law applying to submarine warfare in World War Two.
The person who issued the order to attack and the aircraft commander who carried it out are both prima facie guilty of a war crime. The conduct of the aircraft commander appears to be entirely inexcusable since he must have observed the rescue operation. During the time that they are engaged in such an operation, enemy submarines are no longer lawful objects of attack. The fact that the US Army Air Force took no action to investigate this incident, and that no trials took place under the then-effective domestic criminal code, the Articles of War, is a serious reflection on the entire chain of military command.
The decision to bomb the submarine compelled Germany's Grand Admiral Karl Donitz to issue the Laconia Order, specifically forbidding his crews from rescue attempts in the future. Despite this order, the Laconia incident was not the last time German crews attempted rescues from sinking ships. This order, though, was used against Donitz during the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal. Donitz served 11 years and 6 months for War crimes, despite testimony by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the American Admiral in the Pacific, in his defense that the U.S. operated the same way against the Japanese in the Pacific.
German, Italian, British, French, and other ships worked to rescue the remaining survivors of the Laconia. Out of the original 2,732 compliment, 1,113 survived. The remaining British soldiers, Polish guards, Italian POWs, and civilians died at sea. On the night of the 17th Ascension Island was notified of the international rescue effort. They sent no more bombers to the scene.