WHAT IS YOURS WILL be gone. Your kin will die,
And you yourself will die like them.
One thing, I know, will live forever:
The deeds of the dead in all their glory.
— From the Hávamál
I wrote these pages in the lonely wastes of the Atlantic when all hope had vanished that Engelbert Endrass might return alive from his last patrol.
* * *
AGAIN THE BOAT IS heading west through the stormy Atlantic. This, our 15th patrol,
is like all the others. We had our misgivings about the 13th, but that is now a thing of the past. The sea has become the only place that makes me feel at home since I know that you,
Bertl, are out here with me, below me in the depths of the ocean. May the sea with its vast, overarching eternity fill in me the cheerless emptiness that has been haunting me since you died. I do not complain. When a child is suffering pain, tears can be a consolation.
That does not work for me. Wherever I reach with my eyes and ears, with my thoughts and spirit—you are there. And yet, you are no more. What remains is the knowledge that
we reached the zenith of our lives together. It is a feeling grand and bitter at the same time. 1
Heavy seas wash over the bridge. A belt keeps me tied to the rolling, swaying platform.
Above me unsteady stars, their image blurred through the driving spray and the salt that
burns my eyes.
The stars have moved off far away and withhold their usual radiance. You, too, experienced this cosmic harmony when eternity is at your touch and makes your heart swell as if it is about to burst, when you feel as one with what is around you and inside
you. Call it what you want: in those moments I was closest to you, Bertl. The awareness of
our friendship became the great source of strength with which we mastered all of life’s challenges. It was our bond to eternity.
No one could have said it better than you before you went out on your last mission:
“Fate, if you love us, allow both of us to survive this war. But if you want to be merciful, please let me be the first to go.”
High above, Castor and Pollux still shine brightly, that pair of twins whom the gods placed in the sky as an eternal symbol of friendship between two men. “Castor and Pollux”—
that’s how they used to call us, they who knew us well. And are they not amazed and furious now that Castor did not plunge into the depths when Bertl died?
You yourself found the answer to all this in the last words you wrote to me, words filled
with a premonition of what was to come: “God does not give us back the good times we
enjoyed, but he keeps the earth turning so that those who care can continue to pursue their happiness.”
I don’t want to, but I hear the voice of my slain brother and take it as a legacy and challenge to live, to sail the seas and to do battle with the enemy until he is vanquished.
That’s how we did our 15th patrol.
We had reached a position NW of Cape Finisterre on our way out into the Atlantic when
aerial reconnaissance reported a convoy bound for England from Gibraltar. U-Boat
Command ordered ten boats in the vicinity to close in. Homing in on the aircraft’s radio
signal I was soon able to make contact with the convoy itself. Our wolf-pack was named
“Group Endrass.” Careful shadowing allowed us to guide the other boats toward the prey.
By nightfall we had the convoy surrounded. Bertl’s name and memory inspired the entire
operation: every thought, every action we dedicated to his legacy.
The fight was fierce. The convoy was closely guarded by destroyers and other escorts carrying the latest weapons and equipment. They sank three of our boats, while two others
returned to base badly mauled. We ourselves made three separate attacks and sank six ships. Your spirit, Bertl, gave us strength and protection.3
One Saturday long ago at the Naval Academy, three en signs—Klaus, you and I—got together to go sailing. We belonged to that huge group of officer recruits who had recently descended on the institution. We loved the water and the sea and spent every spare minute
in the boats. City life, busy and glittering, meant little to us. 4
We sailed down the bay to Sønderborg, bought eggs and butter, ate more whipped cream
than was good for us, laughed and talked a lot, paid our compliments to the girls, and; in
general, decided that we were made to be friends.
That night we cruised back and forth on the outer bay where it meets the Baltic. By early
morning we decided to turn around when the wind began to freshen from NW. With long
tacks to WSW we endeavored to make it back, but any gains were soon lost due to the boat’s tendency to drift sideways. The wind became a storm. We shortened sail, but apparently not enough. Around noon, just as we were rounding the tip of Holnis Peninsula, a sudden downburst hit us with full force. I let go of the main sail so Klaus could try to pull it down while Bertl did likewise with the jib. But before we had a chance to do any of this, a second mighty gust caught the bulging main sail and pushed us irresistibly toward the shore. The rudder, unable to withstand the pressure, broke in two;
the anchor, unprepared, was of no use. Before we knew it we had run aground. I swam ashore to get help while my two friends tried to save and salvage as much as possible.
Hours later—wet and bloodied, disheveled and with torn clothes, but proud, our eyes shining brightly—we finally relaxed as a motor launch towed us back home.
In those moments we found each other. What the events of the previous day had failed to
achieve, what many shared hours of talking, listening and idle fun could never have produced, those minutes of immediate danger and mutual dependence accomplished
instantaneously. We sought each other, felt radiant as we began to appreciate our sense of
inner understanding, and were happy.
Our paths thereafter often kept us apart. We served on different cruisers as we learned the business of being officers. Typically, when the time came to determine who among us had
the better record as ensigns, each of us wanted the other to take first place—not because
we lacked leadership skills or could not make up our minds, but because each of us was
convinced the other was indeed a better and more deserving recipient of that honor.
When we three took leave of each other after this interval we did so with the solemn oath:
“No matter what, we shall meet again in the U-boat branch.”
During subsequent assignments on surface vessels or ashore we felt like prisoners behind
barbed wire. I recall how evening after evening Klaus and I would sit together on the verandah of the officer casino at Friedrichsort to breathe the fresh sea air after suffering all day on the dusty barracks grounds. We would watch the boats of the Weddigen and Saltzwedel Flotifias return from their exercises at sea—small, dark silhouettes cast onto the water by the last rays of the setting sun. An unspeakable yearning seized us to hasten
the day when we, too, would be a part of them. 5
At last even you, Bertl, were released from the hated desk job which you despised with all
its bureaucratic detours and inertia, its lifelessness and lack of challenges, so much indeed that you were almost ready to throw it all down and quit.
The day Bertl and I were assigned to the Wegener Flotifia we marked in red in our calendar and celebrated with red champagne until we were immersed in the dreamland that marked the world of submariners. That was in October 1938. At last we could wield
the sharpest weapon in our navy’s arsenal. Whatever the future had in store for us, we would be out there in the vanguard of the action. We grew even closer together in those
months of tough and thorough training exercises, against the backdrop of impending and
inevitable international conflict. The daily challenges left us no time for ourselves and very little opportunity to indulge our friendship. I remember how we sometimes huddled
together in our “cells” aboard the old hulk Hamburg that served as our accommodations in those days. In the winter, water would condense on the overheated metal walls and drip down, provided the heating system worked, as it often would to the point of glowing menacingly in the dark. At other times the system failed completely and everyone spent the night shivering in the icy cold. In the summer, the sun-baked walls would heat up the
air inside to such high temperatures that, by contrast, the Sahara would have been considered a pleasant place. Then there was the water supply system with its incessant thumping and clattering, reminiscent of machine-gun fire during an enemy attack, making
life miserable in all the cabins that lined the “cheerless lane” as we commonly called the
But in the end we laughed about these vicious evils of everyday life, made fun of them,
and ultimately ignored them. We hated wasting our nights or Sundays with paperwork in
preparation for the next day’s activities—paperwork that came back to us from our superiors with endless requests to insert a comma here or provide more precise figures there so that we had to type the whole report all over again. But all this nonsense vanished when we stood on the bridge of our boats as they steered out to sea in line ahead under a
brilliant sky. Then, careful so that our commanding officers would not notice, I would signal to you: “Watch Officer to Watch Officer—Let them all go to Hell!” And you would
reply: “Watch Officer to Watch Officer: Not only that. Let them do double time!”
The outbreak of the war found us in our assigned positions out in the Atlantic.
Late one night, after our second patrol, Bertl came to talk to me. We had spent the evening with Klaus, but there had been an awkward atmosphere of suspense. Indeed, Klaus had retired early for the night, much against his usual custom.
“I have to tell you something, Erich, I can no longer keep it to myself. Prien will go on a special mission. It has something to do with the enemy’s capital ships. It’s a matter of all or nothing, them or us. Klaus and his boat will be out on a similar raid. ”6
I asked, “Emsmann?” Bertl nodded. Silence. Then I said, “Bertl, I envy you.” Bertl replied, radiating confidence: “Everything will be fine.” And none of us had the slightest
doubt about it.
We in U 46 were near the Shetland Islands when the story of Scapa Flow broke. Prien had regained the open waters, everything had gone off without a hitch. Besides Prien, Bertl and the men of U 47, there was at least one other individual who could not have been happier, and that was I.
And Klaus? For a long time we heard nothing at all. After all, we assured ourselves, it does happen that a boat’s radio transmitter fails. But, on a mission like his, no news usually meant bad news. One day, when we had already given up hope, an enemy
broadcast announced that the bodies of three U-boat men had washed ashore in the Straits
of Dover. Their names matched those of Klaus’ boat. We refused to believe it. There had
to be other possibilities. Captivity perhaps? Rumors circulated of boats returning from patrol with half-starved crews and fuel tanks nearly empty. After all, we submariners are
used to waiting and being patient.
Our missions take us far afield, into the North Sea and out into the Atlantic. We are often separated from our comrades for long periods of time. Having to be forever alert, and being bound up in the boat’s routine, keeps us from giving our friends and their fates too
much thought. But they stay with us in our consciousness, even if they are not physically
present. Sometimes you hear nothing at all from them. Sometimes their boats are mentioned in radio traffic. Then you feel as close to them as if you could reach out and shake their hands. Months pass, half a year. Our bases are widely separated; one does not
run into one’s comrades as often as in peacetime. And yet, we remain true to one another.
During an attack suddenly your image, my comrade, arises in my mind, if only for a second. Your example, perhaps your death, inspires me to take greater chances than I normally would. And when our paths cross again after all, we slap each other on the shoulder and exchange knowing glances as if we somehow had to apologize for the long
separation, as if we wanted to assure ourselves that we were indeed still alive. Yes, Klaus, we know what waiting is all about.
Long after the broadcast about those men washed up on the beach, and long after the International Red Cross had informed us that they knew of no prisoners from your boat, it
suddenly struck me that I would never hear you laugh again. My comrade Klaus, you are
no more, your place is empty. You were the first to go. You won’t be the last. My grief for you is mixed with pride.
We who remain alive continue to seek out the enemy. We suffer casualties, but their places
are quickly taken by others. There is something unique about this camaraderie among U-
boat men. Many things contribute to it: the length of the missions; the physical challenge; the never-ending routine; the tenacity with which one endures the hours when sudden death can come at any moment during a depth charge pursuit, hours when one feels so terribly helpless without even a chance to fight back. These experiences leave a lasting mark on a submariner. Anything trivial falls away. What remains is the naked human being, the genuine comrade.
Bertl, now I want to recall a little more about you, my friend. And when I have finished
doing so, everyone will know why I call you a true friend in contrast to the superficial way in which most people use that word.
If I wished to give an indication of your courage and your readiness to take on challenges, all I needed to mention would be Scapa Flow or the nearly 250,000 tons of enemy shipping you sent to the bottom of the sea. But such praise would suffocate you who never
made a great deal about it. 7
I once had an opportunity to observe a sculptor at work. What impressed me the most was
the way he selected from a great pile of rough-hewn rocks those best suited for his ideas
and his work. He did it quickly and with such a sure hand that one got the impression that
no other rocks but those chosen could possibly be transformed into a piece of art. He never asked my opinion for reassurance. His sell-confidence required no confirmation by others.
In exactly the same way you were chosen to be a U-boat commander. Everything inside
you worked happily and organically together toward the one goal without you really being
aware of it. Only among your closest comrades would you share your experiences and concerns; if there was a crowd you would be suspicious of their hunger for sensational stories rather than the truth.
But whenever you were in a story-telling mood—in your calm and never exaggerating way, always with a knowing eye for the precious limitations that mark all human beings
and their creations—you were as though a gift for us, casting a spell upon us thanks to the intensity of your experience and the genuineness of your existence. You never belittled the dangers we have to live with; nor would you ever fail to show respect for our foe. After
all, a storm was a storm, and depth charges were depth charges. When recounting such moments you were honest in admitting how pale you and your men had grown as you sought each others’ eyes during those moments of crisis. For you knew that it is a false kind of courage to meet death with a fake smile on your face. If someone had mentioned
your personal courage you would have wondered what that person was talking about. You
would have looked at him with suspicion and you would have decided right away that he
did not really belong to us. But you also would have been kind enough not to rub it in.
You knew that convoy nights, the ecstasy of hunting unsuspecting prey, or even the agony
of underwater pursuits, are experiences not given to everyone. Others will never understand that traditional words and values do not apply to those situations.
Yes, you were modest. For you there was only one all-encompassing revelation, or call it
truth, and that was the sum total of the conclusions you drew from your war experiences.
Those conclusions made you into a human being and reduced all ponderables to
something very simple and profound. The war and its challenges elevated you above your
ordinary environment so that you could see and understand it better beyond all logic, for
with logic you can prove anything, and beyond all ideology for everyone of us sees a different face to which one prays. To be human, to feel responsible for oneself and for one’s influence on others—that was your essence: straightforwardness, integrity, balance,
and circumspection. This attitude is reflected most notably in your war diary:
1045: Without warning, three aircraft prepare to make a bombing run.
1048: Emergency dive. Aircraft dive from cloud cover. The first dropped four bombs.
Boat’s stern badly damaged.
While running submerged we discovered that the port shaft and rear hydroplane have been
damaged. No. 5 torpedo tube flooded and leaking because outer cover and casing gone.
Trim tank, No. 1 diving cell and watertight stern section also flooded.
Decide to rest boat on sea floor for a while.
Water penetration in stern section too much for pumps to handle. Urgent need to raise boat. Boat refuses to stir. Slowly increase air pressure on diving cells. Nothing. —
Full pressure on all cells. After long minutes boat slowly lifts off and shoots toward the surface at 40 degree angle.
No aircraft in sight.
During the attack Seaman Plaep was severely wounded by a bomb fragment.
Those are your simple words. I heard the same report directly from your lips when the attack was fresh in your memory your voice vibrating with the emotion of the moment.
And then you took away all tension and suspense by looking hard at us comrades and commenting, “Well, the good Lord must have wanted us to go on for a while longer.”
When you had safely returned and taken the boat into the dry dock, we saw the huge hole,
the demolished stem section, the bent shaft. The shipyard people shook their heads and admitted, “Can’t believe they made it home like that.” Their words showed how proud they were of the boat they had built and of the man who commanded it.
I can hear the bombers screaming down from the clouds. Before anyone can react to the
watch officer’s desperate, last-minute warning, the bombs explode on top and all around
the stem. Fatally wounded, the last man staggers through the hatch before it is pulled shut.
The boat rears up under the blast of the explosions, then drops like a rock to the bottom.
While everything is being done to save the boat, the commanding officer looks on helplessly as the wounded sailor bleeds to death before his very eyes. The water level inside the boat rises incessantly, adding lethal weight by the minute. The moment rapidly
approaches when no human will can possibly force the boat back up. Carefully,
compressed air is being directed to the diving cells to restore buoyancy. But not too much, because the boat cannot afford to break through the surface where the bombers are waiting
for the coup-de-grace. Jets of water keep penetrating the pressure hull and inundate the boat. “Boat refuses to stir,” you wrote. “Slowly increase air pressure on diving cells.
Nothing.” After those words there is a long dash in your diary. Every submariner knows
what that means: minutes of agony that can add streaks of silver to a shock of blond hair
and drain all blood from one’s face. Those moments can carve runic letters into your forehead, lines that will never go away and will make you look forever aged beyond your
“Full pressure on all cells. After long minutes boat slowly lifts off and shoots toward the surface at 40 degree angle.” That is your last chance, your last desperate attempt to avoid instant catastrophe. Better to die manfully under a hail of bombs than to be slowly squashed to death on the bottom of the sea. Those minutes of unspeakable suspense seem
like hours. Your entire burning will to live is focused on a tiny glimmer of hope.
Then the boat lifts off and shoots to the surface. Your relief of having escaped one mortal danger gives way to apprehension as to what will happen next. Will there be more bombs,
more explosions? Will it be the end?
The Commanding Officer pulls open the hatch to take a quick look around.
“No aircraft in sight.”
Anyone who can detect in your war diary the hidden drama and suspense that has been known to make war-hardened men collapse mentally and physically, will realize what I meant when I referred to your modesty and straightforwardness.
June 6, 1941. Weather is deteriorating. Storm force 9 to 11. Powerful seas engulf the boat.
A tanker comes in sight. Even under the prevailing conditions an attack at short range may
be successful. Decide to go for it. It is difficult to keep the boat at periscope depth.
1005. No. 3 torpedo on its way. Explosion after 34 seconds. Cannot use the periscope at
first because of the swell, but a few minutes later manage to get a glimpse for a second or two. The tanker’s hull looms immediately ahead. It must have run a complete circle.
Emergency dive. Too late. When we reach a depth of 16 meters the tanker plows into us.
No damage to the pressure hull, but neither of our two periscopes is working. We open distance a little and surface. The hatch to the bridge is jammed and cannot be opened from
the inside. We dive again, blind as we are.
1200. Back to the surface. We quickly open a hatch on the deck. The First Watch Officer
climbs through it. Hatch immediately closed again because heavy seas keep washing over
the upper deck. The officer manages to open the conning tower hatch from the outside.
The bridge looks like a junkyard, but no crucial damage except for the periscopes. We are
forced to return to base. 8
June 8, 1941. We sight a tanker.
1210. Alarm. We begin our attack with only one of our periscopes partially operational.
Fire two torpedoes. Both hit the target.9
2205. Steamship sighted. Prepare to engage with artillery
0010. Open fire. Enemy does not return fire even though vessel is armed with two guns;
instead crew lowers lifeboats.
0045. Cease fire.
0217. Vessel sunk. 10
Under the heading, “General comments concerning the patrol”, the U-boat commander adds: “The collision with the tanker was due primarily to the poor weather and the difficulty to keep the boat at periscope depth. Under such weather conditions the question
arises if one should attack the enemy or let him go. I decided to attack.”
These entries reveal, as seen through your honest eyes, what it means to weigh risks in submarine warfare. You felt no need to emphasize your aggressive spirit and your ability
to make decisions, not even when you chose to engage two additional enemy vessels even
though your boat was damaged, one of them armed with two guns. You take such qualities
for granted. Your report is unadorned and to the point.
During many convoy battles you were fortunate to command a handful of men who felt deep affection for you and close attachment to one another. One of them wrote home these
lines before he sailed with you on your last mission:
“Dear loved ones! Should you learn one day that our boat has not come back, there is no
need for you to keep up hope. We are blessed to be able to serve under such a marvelous
commanding officer. We are agreed that none of us will fall into the hands of the British.
We want to fight and win together; or else, if it cannot be helped, to die together.”
This splendid affirmation of Germanic faithfulness in life, war and death provides a glimpse of the power of your spirit that we comrades found so comforting, that induced your men to give their very best under all circumstances, and that drove you to seek out
the enemy without hesitation.
And then there was our mission.
Under the brilliant sky of a late summer afternoon our two boats lay side by side in the locks of St. Nazaire. Everyone in the base knew how inseparable the two of us had become, and therefore the fact that we put to sea at the same time meant something special
Our boats were decorated with flowers over and over. The sun reflected off the water and
showed the pier crowded with people, happy faces everywhere.
Before we got under way, I assembled my men on the upper deck and said to them: “You
know that Lieutenant Commander Endrass is a good friend of mine. Make absolutely sure
that we don’t have to be ashamed of our record when our two boats return together from
We picked up speed and left the locks in line ahead while a brass band played appropriate
tunes, cheers echoed back and forth and last messages were exchanged. Then the night swallowed up our boats and we were on our own.
Four days later, at night, I sighted a convoy and alerted Endrass’ boat then on patrol not far away. After being driven off several times I managed to attack and sink a destroyer. As the enemy vessel went down, its own depth charges exploded and created a fireball that Endrass saw from the distance and used to home in on the convoy. At dawn our two boats
rendezvoused. We exchanged information and laid our plans. For four days and nights we
clung to this convoy, never once losing it out of sight. 11
The enemy escorts knew their business well. Corvettes would suddenly approach and fire
at us from out of the sun. During the day they forced us to dive; at night they illuminated us with flares and kept us away from our prey. But they also realized that we were two tenacious wolves circling their flock. Whenever we found an opening we would pounce and try to go in for a kill. They added destroyers to the screen. We even attacked the destroyers to relieve the pressure. In return they dropped depth charges on us. Enemy aircraft added to our problems. They even tried to use a Q-ship as a decoy, but we remained aloof and would not fall for the bait.
When one of us had lost contact with the convoy, the other would hang on all the more tenaciously. If one was under pressure from the escorts, the other would counterattack to
distract the enemy. This battle raged over a distance of 700 miles, the equivalent of the distance between Paris and Moscow, until the convoy entered the Irish Sea. We
commanding officers did not get any sleep during those days. Always knowing exactly what the other would do under the circumstances gave us a sense of security and made us
strong. The harmony of our actions and reactions was a thing to behold. For both of us, those four days and nights represented the most wonderful experience the U-boat war had
afforded us until that time. It was the high point of our U-boat careers. We both used those very words when we returned to base together. This sense of comradeship and
understanding outweighed all the excitement of our welcome home, the congratulations, the flowers, the hugs, and all that. It still figured prominently when we reported to U-boat Command, and everyone present could hear it in our words and see it in our eyes.
Whenever we were together, it was always a high time, always summer And this last summer, the one before you went out again never to return, is indeed irretrievable, unforgettable. Everything we did, we did together. For four weeks we lived with two bodies but just one soul. Every heartbeat confirmed it, whether we were in Paris and immersed ourselves in its overflowing vitality that we had missed so much out in the Atlantic, or whether we enjoyed the comfort of the house we shared in La Baule les Pins.
We lived like kings and felt as if the world lay at our feet. After all, we had gone out in our tiny boat into the wastes of the ocean, just we and a few other men, mere nothings when
compared to the eternal skies above us—and yet, we had defied the storms and the sea. A
world power shook under our blows. You are the commanding officer. You lead your boat
either to victory or demise. When you are victorious, you return to the rejoicing of those
you left behind. The fairest girls will wave to you, the fullest glass is yours to enjoy. You return as a king, enriched by the gratitude of the fatherland. If you did win but failed to come back, you did so at the zenith of your life and fate spared you the agony of decline.
In that sense fate had reserved a truly royal gift for you. The best are mourning your death.
That is how we lived. We loved our lives without deceiving ourselves as to what might be
the other extreme, the last moment, the end. We anticipated death, just as we expected challenges and fulfillment in life. We hoped, however, that death would spare us, and if not, that we would meet it together. Fate has not been so kind.
Then came the day when you went out on your last mission. Little seemed different from
earlier farewells, and yet there was a shadow hanging over it. “It is not like the other times,” you said, “a good part of me I leave behind.” I knew what you meant, Bertl, and it
bothered me. Usually you had been the first who wanted to go out again, who could barely
reign in his impatience on the days before the boat was scheduled to sail. You were the one who radiated happiness and fulfillment when you stood on the bridge of your boat wearing your leather gear, eager to cast off. At that point you cut off everything that held you back, your eyes fixed only on what lay ahead. It was not only the cold and icy December day that made you quieter than usual. “Be sure to follow me as soon as possible,” you told me, as if you somehow sensed you needed me out there.
A few days later it is my turn to sail. Our operational instructions take us to different parts of the Atlantic. Christmas goes by, we say good-bye to the old year and welcome the new
one. At night I often sit and listen to Radio Belgrade playing “Lili Marlen.” Yes, Bertl, we had pledged to do that daily as often as possible as a means of feeling close to our loved
ones. It was a symbol of unity a festive act of remembering and having faith in a future
which could only be better. Monique used to sing that song for us. 12
My dark premonitions grew and reached the point of frightful certainty when there was no
news at all, when none of the many radio frequencies we monitored carried a message from you. Day after day I refused to believe it. But your silence became more oppressive
to me by the minute and threatened to knock me down as if a giant had punched me with
his fists. I hoped and hoped, yet realized that the odds were lengthening. As long as possible I held on to my self-delusion because it made me feel better
We were the first boat to return from the new area of operations off the Eastern Seaboard
of United States. I knew our staff ashore had planned a big reception with lots of people
and commotion. I avoided the whole thing deliberately by making base four hours ahead
of schedule. Nobody was there to greet us when we entered the locks and made fast. I could not hold back any longer and, besides inquiring innocently about wind and weather,
asked the supervising engineer at the locks when Endrass had sailed on his last patrol. He
could not remember the date, but it had been a long time ago. That ended my doubts once
and for all.
The boat has reached the protective concrete shelter. Comrades come by to greet me and
extend their congratulations. All of them are looking at me inquiringly and somewhat
longer than usual. I know what they want to ask me: Don’t you know that your best friend
I refuse to accept their challenge, refuse to tear to shreds the last vestiges of my self-delusion. Nobody says a word about Bertl. They don’t want to spoil my joy of seeing old
friends again and to feel solid ground beneath my feet—a sensation every submariner cherishes when returning from a long patrol. “Thanks, comrades, I appreciate it. It’s good
to be back.” I willingly take my part in this tragicomedy, tell them all about the mission, about the ships we sank right off the U.S. coast line, about good and bad weather we encountered, about my splendid crew—anything to avoid the big question.
Later we sit in the huge reception hail. We have already lifted our glasses to celebrate our safe return, my formal report is long over. Finally I break the silence and ask the flotilla commander point-blank:
“Bertl won’t come back? No news?”
“I knew it.”
The silence seems deeper than before. My last words hang in the room, hard and final.
That’s it. This is not the place or time for long speeches. I leave the room and am alone.
Face it, I tell myself, that your friend Bertl will never come back, that you will never again enjoy his sense of humor or hear his laughter. Face it that nothing can replace his loss, that nothing can outweigh the richness of our memories which allowed us to reach both the
zenith and the nadir of our lives together. Face it that there is no common future the way
we had imagined it so brightly. Face it that he is resting now somewhere out in the same
Atlantic we used to traverse together so many times when hunting the enemy.
Weeks later I find myself again in the immense expanse of the Atlantic, the only place I
can now call home. Your picture hangs in front of me. Next to it is a copy of your last letter to Monique, my friend, a letter that is like a legacy to me:
We have begun to discover each other, but this process is far from finished. Thousands of
people only know their own heart, they float and drift through life. People need to love and understand one another: that is the only way to learn what another human being is really like. That is what fills your memory…My thoughts are with you. I am profoundly
grateful for everything you have given me, while I am trying to think of what I can still do for you. Think of the faith of which you spoke last…no matter what…
Besides going down in history as the great commanding officer who made the world take
notice, you are the great human being who lavishes his rich inner life upon others, who will remain unforgettable to all who knew you.