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Navy admits error, honors World War II captain's bravery in sinking of U-boat

Adm. Jonathan Greenert speaks with Herbert Gordon Claudius Jr. about his challenge coin history on Dec. 16, 2014. Claudius accepted the Legion of Merit award on behalf of his father at a ceremony. The actions of Lt. Cmdr. Claudius as commanding officer of PC-566 resulted in the sinking of enemy submarine U-166.

JULIANNE F. METZGER/U.S. NAVY

By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 19, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Navy has posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit with a Combat ‘V” device to Herbert G. Claudius, 72 years after it dismissed his claims that he and his crew sunk a German U-boat off the coast of Louisiana during World War II.

His son, Herbert Gordon Claudius, Jr., accepted the award from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert during a Tuesday ceremony at the Pentagon.

The elder Claudius has finally been recognized for his actions on July 30, 1942, when he led the patrol ship USS PC-566 into battle against a German submarine that had been attacking American vessels.

At the time, U-Boats were wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called them “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war.”

Minutes after the passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee was torpedoed and sunk by U-166 45 miles south of the Mississippi River Delta, Claudius’ crew spotted a periscope in the area. After Claudius ordered depth charges fired, the crew saw an oil slick in the area where the weapons were dropped, according to historical accounts of the incident. This was strong evidence that the submarine had been severely damaged or destroyed.

But when Claudius submitted his after-action report, the Navy doubted his account because he and his crew had not yet received anti-submarine training, according to National Geographic, which is making a documentary about the affair.

The Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Assessment Committee even admonished the crew for a poorly executed attack, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Claudius was removed from command and sent to anti-submarine warfare school.

“Claudius was shafted,” U-boat expert Richie Kohler said, according to National Geographic. “He should have returned home a hero, but he was humiliated and sent back to school.”

But the Navy has since come around. Nearly 60 years after the fact, an oil company discovered U-boat wreckage very close to where the battle occurred. Last summer, oceanographer Robert Ballard explored the site with remotely piloted vehicles and conducted high-resolution mapping to try to figure out what happened. The evidence suggested that U-166 had in fact been destroyed by a depth charge.

After concluding its own historic and archeological assessment, the Naval History and Heritage Command recommended the service credit PC-556 and Claudius for sinking the U-boat and give them the appropriate recognition.

Mabus acknowledged that the Navy made a mistake.

“Seventy years later, we now know that [Claudius’s] report after the action was absolutely correct,” Mabus said at the award ceremony, according to National Geographic. “[Claudius’ ship] did sink that U-boat, and it’s never too late to set the record straight.”

Mabus also praised the captain’s bravery, noting that Claudius and his crew were operating in “very dangerous waters.”

Greenert went on social media to pay tribute.

“Claudius was essential in sighting and sinking [U-166],” Greenert wrote on his Facebook page. “Claudius’ actions reflected great credit upon himself, and it was a true pleasure to be able to share the presentation with his family.”

Claudius served 33 years in the Navy and died in 1981.

“He would have felt vindicated,” Gordon Claudius said, according to National Geographic.

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes

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