The Ongoing Search for the UB-88

It didn’t look as though 3 January 1921 was going to be a good day for the USS Wickes. As her port anchor was being raised that afternoon some 80 years ago, a link connector opened up, dropping 90 feet of chain and her anchor back into the dark waters of San Pedro Bay. The setback was apparently taken in stride since the log reports that the ship was underway just a few minutes later. The Wickes and her crew had an appointment to keep a few miles offshore, and the loss of an anchor was no excuse for being late.

The appointment the Wickes was headed for that gray, overcast day four score years ago, was the treaty mandated destruction of the German U-boat, UB-88. The UB-88, one of six German submarines that passed to the United States at the close of World War I, was toured around the country as part of the Victory Bond campaign, making port calls on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, ports along the Mississippi River, Panama, Mexico, and the Pacific Coast, as far north as Seattle, before settling at the Navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in Long Beach, California. There, for nearly two years, she was minutely examined as she was dismantled to discover the secrets of her superior underwater capabilities. At the close of the investigation, UB-88 was scheduled for destruction just offshore from Long Beach. The date was set for just after New Years, 1921. The executioner was the USS Wickes (DD-75). The main viewing platform for the sub’s demise, was the USS New Mexico (BB-40), flagship of the Pacific Fleet.

Before a crowd of prominent civilians and high ranking naval officers, as well as the ever present media in the form of newsreel, still photographers and print journalists, the Wickes showed her speed and nimbleness and her crew their skill as her Captain, William (to be known later as Bull) Halsey put them through their paces for nearly an hour just a short distance off the harbor at Long Beach.

At 4:08 p.m., the roar of the Wickes’ first salvo spelled the beginning of the end for the once fearsome “jerry tinfish” as she was referred to in the local press. Four minutes and some 20 four-inch shells later, the mortally wounded UB-88 plunged to the bottom. The only thing is, nobody seems to know where…

Over the years various divers claimed to have found the resting-place of the German warship, but none have ever provided a shred of evidence to support their alleged discovery.

Recently A group of diving buddies and I were out on the Horseshoe Kelp diving on various locations provided to us by a retired commercial fisherman. He had fished these spots for years but did not know what the structures on the bottom were. When he retired, he passed his secret spots to us to find out whether they were rock or wreck, and we were having a great time doing that very thing.

One of the locations we were looking for was proving to be a challenge. Sweep after sweep, the fathometer would show fish but no structure, then suddenly a very hard, distinct return with a small structure standing some ten feet above the bottom. We managed to get a marker on the spot and prepared to dive.

The first team down was back up in short order, and announced, “There’s good news and bad news. Viz on the bottom is zero to six-inches,” Andy replied.

“And the good news?” I asked.

“It’s a wreck,” came the reply.

My descent was cautious. Water color went from greenish brown at the surface, to black at about 50 feet. From there to the bottom there was nothing to see but the small section of the yellow polypropylene marker line that was illuminated by our dive lights. The flickering, silvery gleam of Chromis hovering above the wreckage gave early warning of our approach to the bottom. The water was no longer black—it was dark black.

Our marker weight had landed on a vaguely rectangular steel structure. Several minutes of Braille examination told me that it was heavily encrusted and had several tubes perhaps two to six inches in diameter protruding from it. The piece had obviously been torn or collapsed from its original orientation. Stopping and focusing the beam of my dive light on the structure during the backsurge allowed me to catch brief, six or eight-inch glimpses of the wreckage I was examining. On one such surge, my light revealed the unmistakable pattern of heavy nylon fishnet just in front of me. I cautiously probed the net and discovered that one whole side of the metal structure was wrapped in net, and it was flowing back and forth with each surge. I backed away very carefully and rejoined my buddy. Taking a different tack, we moved alongside the structure and followed it down where we could feel a series of parallel steel supports lying flush with the bottom and began following them. After some 15 or 20 feet, I again discovered the net, and again backed slowly away.

With all the net, nearly zero visibility, and deep water, the dive had the potential to develop problems. I called the dive and we headed up through the black water. On the long ascent I carefully considered what I had seen on the bottom. Trying to maintain a cautious, rational perspective, I tried not to get excited. Nothing I had seen had said without question that this was the UB-88. On the other hand, several things indicated that it might be the old German warship. In the limited visibility, the parallel steel supports seemed very similar to deck supports exposed on the S-37 off Imperial Beach. I recalled a circular hole with jagged metal edges bent inward where something had penetrated that I found while feeling across the rectangular section of wreckage. Could it be a place where one of the Wickes’ armor-piercing 4-inch shells struck some 80 years ago? These were clues that seemed to suggest that we might have found the missing German U-boat, but not proof. That would have to wait for better conditions on the site.

Several dives over the following months found conditions as bad as the first visit. The question of whether the UB-88 had been found remained unanswered.

Then, on our last visit to the site, we once again had a “good news and bad” news situation. The good news? We caught a break on conditions on the wreck; azure water and 30-foot visibility on the bottom. The bad news? The wreck wasn’t the old Imperial German Navy U-boat.

With the cleaner water I could make out what appeared to be a large barge, nearly flat on the bottom. The method of construction indicates that she was probability military, dating from around WW II. The structure and “deck supports” that looked so promising in 6-inches of visibility were easily dismissed as not being submarine wreckage in 30-foot visibility.

The fine visibility also allowed us to gather limits of immense, rock scallops from the wreck—a tasty consolation prize in lieu of a German U-boat.

So, the search for the UB-88 continues, with the old girl as hard to find now as a wreck as she was some 80 years ago as marauding undersea hunter of Allied shipping.

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