During the first few days of June 1944, the Allied forces in England were preparing to launch the greatest military invasion in world history.
At the same time, Julian Austin and the other crew members of the USS Chatelain were patrolling the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa in search of German U-boats which could sink the Allied ships during World War II.
At that time, Austin was 19 years old. He had volunteered for the Navy after graduating from high school in Tennessee. His brother Jack was also serving in the Navy but in the South Pacific.
By the summer of 1944, Austin was a torpedo man second class aboard the USS Chatelain, which was a destroyer escort. Like all sailors, Austin was on the lookout for German U-boats sailing underneath the waters of the Atlantic. The Germans were sinking merchant ships three or four day off the East Coast.
“The merchant ships are what kept us in the war,” said Austin recently.
He was responsible for the torpedoes and the depth charges, which are explosive weapons used against submarines by being dropped into the ocean. The Chatelain also had hedgehogs, which are fired at a submarine from the bow of the ship. A direct hit by one or two hedgehogs was enough to sink a submarine.
In May 1944, the Chatelain and its other ships sank the U-boat 515. The commander of the force told his crews that the next time they encountered a U-boat, he wanted to capture it intact.
A month later, they got their chance.
On June 4, 1944, the Chatelain made a sound contact with a German U-boat off the coast of Africa. The pilot of a plane spotted the submarine under the water and started circling it from the sky. The ship hurled a barrage of hedgehogs at it. A second attack by the Chatelain, this time with depth charges, forced the U-boat to the surface.
Austin was one of those crewmen dropping the depth charges. The ship also fired 20 mm and 40 mm guns on it.
The U-boat’s crew was jumping overboard as their vessel came to the surface.
“They were abandoning ship,” said Austin. “The U-boat was low on food, fuel, everything else. That’s when we caught it.
“It was headed back to France. We knew it was coming back from south of Africa. We were running low on fuel also.”
The task group seized its chance to capture the U-boat and carry out the boarding operation it had been planning for months. The American crewmen were successful in capturing a German submarine intact. They were able to control the damage to the vessel so it could be towed safely.
Most important of all, the Americans were able to capture the codebooks used by the Germans during the war.
“We captured the codebooks and we didn’t want (the Germans) to know we had captured it,” said Austin.
The captured U-boat, the 505, was secretly towed to Bermuda. The submarine’s crewmen were interned at a prisoner of war camp where they were kept isolated from other POWs.
This proved to be one of the most dramatic incidents in the entire Second World War. The task force was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for this action.
The citation read “The Task Group’s brilliant achievement in disabling, capturing, and towing to a United States base a modern enemy man-of-war taken in combat on the high seas is a feat unprecedented in individual and group bravery, execution, and accomplishment in the Naval History of the United States.”
In one of the last antisubmarine actions of the Atlantic war, the Chatelain took part in a 12-hour hunt for the submarine which had torpedoed the USS Frederick C. Davis on April 24, 1945. Eight other ships joined her as the group again and again attacked the U-546 and finally sunk that one.
When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Austin was hoping he would be sent to the Pacific. But it was not to be. Instead, he got married on Aug. 14, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered and the war finally came to an end.
During the rest of the war, the Chatelain had patrol and convoy escort duty, as well as serving as plane guard during aviation exercises, until Nov. 20, 1945, when she arrived at Charleston, S.C. The destroyer escort was decommissioned and placed in reserve in Florida.
In addition to the Presidential Unit Citation, the Chatelain received five battle stars during World War II, according to online sources.
After the war, Austin became a business owner and civic leader in Marion. Today at age 93, he stays active with the Rotary Club of Marion, where he has more than 40 years of perfect attendance at the meetings.
And the U-505 he helped capture is today on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It has been a museum ship there since 1954 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
When asked if he was ever scared during his time in the war, Austin said, “When you’re 18, 20 years old, you’re not scared.”