Few people can walk into a museum, look upon something and say, “I did that.”
Carl Schena can.
Fewer people can walk up to that artifact or object that’s been deemed worthy of immortalization, and look at vandalism or damage it has incurred, and say, “I did that.”
Carl Schena can.
And an even smaller fraction of those people can say, “I did that” and have hordes of students and people surrounding him, reverently asking for his picture and saying they were studying what he did in school for the last couple of months.
Carl Schena can.
He participated in, from behind a mounted 3-inch gun, what hadn’t been done in over a century of American warfare, and helped crack the German Enigma code and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Because Carl Schena helped capture U-Boat 505.
Schena was born Sept. 13, 1921 in Revere, Massachusetts, to Michael and Antonette Schena, a construction worker and homemaker, respectively.
Schena is one of 12 children (five brothers and six sisters), growing up in the midst of the Depression. However, as he puts it: “It was a good life — it really was.”
“We never went without food or clothing, and we got along pretty well,” said Schena of his 11-sibling army.
Growing up in those times, and in a more rural part of Massachusetts, kids from the neighborhood had to make their own “fun.”
“We used to throw rocks at each other,” said Schena. “The neighborhood guys would get together and throw rocks at each other or we’d get an old tire and ride down the street inside of it.”
“What’s growing up without some cuts and bruises?” he added.
Schena said life was simple even when his dad was out of work. The family had its own garden, the family had a hog they would slaughter for the winter time, and his dad had a private still in the basement for making moonshine for his own consumption.
“He just made it for himself,” said Schena. “A lot of the neighborhood made booze and was selling it, you could smell it in the air. It had a special odor.”
In high school, Schena described himself as being shy, and not an exceptional student. By the time he was in the ninth grade, he would drop out and join the Civilian Conservation Corps.
From the moonshine still, to the pig, to his shovel in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Schena lived a happy life, he said. He owned nothing, but wanted for nothing.
Nothing does not end up in museums. Nothing gets you “the good life,” but something was in the future of Carl Schena after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
United States Navy
Within two months of the Japanese attack on U.S. naval vessels in Hawaii, Schena had joined the Navy.
For his first assignment, Schena was in the South Pacific for a year before he was sent back to the U.S. for re-assignment.
During that time, war and therefore technology was rapidly changing. The guns got bigger and the armor got thicker. The planes could go faster, so spotting them had to be quicker. And with the advent of the submarine, particularly the German U-Boat, the need for hunting vessels became apparent.
“I was put on a destroyer escort,” said Schena. “We saw some convoy duty and then we were assigned to a task group.”
Among his group were five destroyers and an aircraft carrier, he said. And for months, Schena was behind a 3-inch gun on the bow of the ship out on the deep parts of the ocean.
Following World War I and the advent of the submarine as a favored tool of war by Germany, the American Navy needed ways to quell the danger underneath the waves. In order to do this, the destroyer class was created and the ships were equipped with both sonar and depth charges.
The name of the charges used by USS Jenks, the destroyer Schena was on, was called the MK9: It weighed 300 pounds, contained 200 pounds of TNT, and could explode from anywhere between 30 and 600 feet down in the water.
The explosions would either destroy the U-Boats or force them to rise, and that’s when Schena, with his topside gun, would take over.
“We made different stops,” Schena said, adding that he visited the Irish and Spanish coasts, always searching for submarines while escorting the aircraft carrier, the Guadalcanal.
Because of some of the messages that the U.S. had decrypted, the Allies had learned that a group of U-Boats was operating near South Africa and attacking vessels.
In response, they dispatched the “Hunter-Killer” group, Task Group 22.3, which included the Guadalcanal and five destroyer escorts, including Schena and the USS Jenks.
“We were on a hunting trip,” said Schena, remembering back on the historical mission he was a part of 75 years ago.
However, after sailing around off of Port Blanco, the crews of Task Group 22.3 were losing hope because after weeks of search they hadn’t found any German U-Boats, let alone the 505, underneath the waves.
“For weeks, a U.S. Navy task group had tracked a shadowy U-boat. Despite a crack team and the latest technology, the task group was unable to pinpoint their elusive prey,” writes the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. “Low on fuel, the frustrated captain had just called off the search when … there was something on the sonar.”
With the sun shining down, blue water all around, and American sailors scrubbing decks and going through the motions of their daily duties, the winds turned in the Allies’ fortunes.
“We were just about to leave when one of our destroyers made contact with a sub with the sonar and we were assigned to assist,” said Schena. “And that’s when the sub decided to surface.”
Strafing alongside U-Boat 505, Schena says he buried two 3-inch rounds in the conning tower of the submarine.
After a short chase, the German crew of the submarine knew they were done. They subsequently surrendered, but Daniel V. Gallery, commander of the escort carrier Guadalcanal, told Schena’s ship to not sink the submarine. Even as the crew was jumping out, cracking the secret of the U-Boat could help win the war, and Gallery wanted “to capture that bastard if possible.”
“The crew abandoned the submarine, and we had all our rowboats out there to pick up the German sailors,” Schena said.
However, the Germans did not leave U-505 before placing explosive charges throughout the submarine. They would rather let the U-505 sink to the bottom of the ocean than fall into enemy hands.
“Our sailors went down there,” Schena said. “They were very cautious about going throughout the ship because anything they touched could potentially explode the ship. Fortunately, the crew members forgot to set the timers on the explosives.”
There were 13 charges throughout the ship, and the seamen of TG 22.3 were able to catch and preserve not only one of Hitler’s most deadly vessels, but also one of only six U-Boats ever captured by the Allies, according to German scholar Erich Groner.
In fact, it was the first time the United States Navy had captured an enemy vessel on the high seas since the War of 1812, according to the United States Naval History and Heritage Command.
But not only was the U-Boat itself — and the actual functions of the vessel — important for the Allies to understand, but it was what was inside the boat that was even more valuable. Because inside the U-Boat was a German Enigma Machine, the “uncrackable” code maker of the Third Reich, according to the Historic Naval Ships Association.
Schena still to this day holds that he and his fellow crewmates knew what they had done. They knew they had helped in capturing the key to the unbreakable code, but they were sworn to secrecy, told for decades afterward to never tell a soul about what they had done on June 4, 1944.
The U-505 would be towed to Bermuda in secret and her crew would be interned in secret. But her secrets would help win the war, and a 23-year-old Schena saw it all.
But for him, it was never about the credit because two days after U-505 was captured by the task group and crew of the USS Jenks, Allied troops stepped onto the beaches of Normandy.
“I think what we gave them assisted in the invasion of Europe,” said Schena.
Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Schena was discharged Sept. 30, 1945, after receiving a number of commendations, including the bronze star for his actions in capturing U-505.
For years, he was never truly allowed to tell people why he had received the unit citation — just that he had participated in a mission that was important to the war effort.
He went on to raise two kids with his wife, move to California, and worked at a variety of odd jobs in search of the good life.
However, a few years back, his son invited him on a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. As they walked in, Schena said he got emotional because he knew what was housed there.
As they walked into a massive room, with crowds of people circling around her 251-foot long frame, was the infamous U-505, preserved, intact. Trophy-esque lights now shine down on her, visitors now walk through her, and curators lead tours around her.
And still punctured into her conning tower were the two holes Schena bore into her.
“There was a teacher who had her whole classroom there, and they all came over and wanted my autograph,” said Schena. “The teacher said they had been studying (U-505) in preparation for their trip to the museum.”
“That day he was a celebrity,” Schena’s son Carl chimed in.
For years, he kept this secret. For years, no one knew what he and the fellow members of the task group had done. And Schena stood there and modestly answered questions for the inquisitive minds of children and museum curators.
“It’s something that happened in my life,” Shena said with humility, “and you kind of push it aside.”