Everyone notices the massiveness first.
Even if you grew up around ships in a Navy town like San Diego or an historic East Coast port city. Even if you have gazed out onto Lake Michigan and seen a barge across the horizon that looks like a skyscraper on its side or if you’ve been on a casino boat when it set sail or a modern cruise ship that looks more like an apartment building.
The U-505, a 750-ton German submarine that fills a 35,000-square-foot space, is intimidating. It took weeks and millions of dollars to move inside in 2005, after braving 50 years of Chicago weather outside the Museum of Science and Industry.
When you step inside, particularly if you made a semi-annual pilgrimage when you were in grade school, you remember how cramped the submarine is inside. The tour guide reminds you that in the rooms that the crew shared in shifts, it wouldn’t have been unusual for the temperature to top 100 degrees.
Ralph Parka, a former aviation mechanic who also served in Vietnam, came from a military family in Chicago and both of his uncles survived the landing on Omaha Beach just days after the U-505 was captured in the Atlantic on June 4, 1944. Submarines were not nicknamed “iron coffins” for nothing, he said.
“I was a kid in grade school when I read about U.S. subs in WWII. They were 99 percent in the Pacific and very few in the Atlantic,” said Parka, who now lives in Hegewisch and New Buffalo. “But it doesn’t matter what side you were on, they don’t know what happened to most of those guys.”
There is a grim chart on a side wall of the U-505 exhibition that shows the thousands of ships hit by submarines, mostly U-boats that took down 3,000 ships.
By contrast, the USS Silversides SS-236, the most famous and highly decorated U.S. submarine, sunk 30 Japanese vessels, more than any other surviving American submarine. The USS Silversides now resides in Muskegon, Mich.
While Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and chief curator at MSI, harbors no illusions about the horrors of World War II, she believes firmly that the 70th anniversary of the capture of the U-505 is important to talk about.
“One of the things I like most about my job is using artifacts such as the U-505 to tell a really human story about ingenuity and hope and creativity.
“The reason the U-505 was so sought after by the U.S. Navy was because it had such advanced technology. The Germans had been extremely creative in developing the U-505. Throughout my job I get to see that kind of human ingenuity manifest in objects, some are everyday objects and some are really unique objects, but they show the creativity of the human spirit,” McCarthy said.
It's in the tour script that the Germans developed fluorescent paint to glow in the dark on the submarines.
In its day the U-505 was the iPad, McCarthy said. It was one of the most sought-after pieces of technology.
"Human desires and human ingenuity is continually remanifesting itself every time there is advancement in technology, so the U-505 and the iPad are connected in very direct ways,” she said.
Another reason the anniversary is noteworthy, according to the curator, is that the U-505 is also an important symbol, an artifact with special dimension. The boat is a conductor for a “very compelling human story, and I think it’s engaging for (new) audiences, especially when these sailors were not much older than they are."
“When (the U-505) was captured, the sailors under penalty of death were not allowed to talk about it. For two years they had to be silent about an amazing story. It was the first foreign vessel to be captured by the Navy since the War of 1812. Without an artifact like the U-505 to bring that story to life it wouldn’t have the vibrancy that it does today,” she said.
McCarthy said when you are going through the exhibit you get caught up in the excitement and danger of that capture day, but the U-boat is also a reminder that there can be reconciliation.
“We can tell the story of two bitter enemies coming together after the war. The captain of the submarine and two crew members came to MSI for the 20th anniversary.”
Also two crew members came with their grandsons to serve as translators for the installation in 2005.
“That night they went out with another curator to a German restaurant and when word got out who was there everyone was coming up to their table asking to get their pictures taken with them, mostly because the U-505 is such an beloved icon in the city of Chicago,” McCarthy said.
The U-505's story of bravery marked a turning point in very bad and bloody war, but she said the anniversary has special significance for the locals because it is our story, too. The hero Dan Gallery was a Chicagoan and, as McCarthy added, “those of us who live here in Chicago and Northwest Indiana” know that Lake Michigan is important.
So it’s against that shared understanding that created a backdrop for his legacy.
“Dan Gallery created a brilliant moment in history and he solved problems," she said. "I think people in Northwest Indiana and Chicago should celebrate that heritage.”