Enemies no more

Troy men probed the depths on opposite sides of World War II

Published Nov. 10, 2008 in the Keene Sentinel
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
TROY — Robert A. Hall of Troy was 19 when he volunteered to serve on a submarine in World War II. Anton “Tony” Haag of Troy volunteered at 17 to serve on a submarine, a dangerous assignment on what would become a vital weapon in World War II warfare.

But until a month ago, they’d never met.

During the war, they served on different ships, one in the Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the other in the Pacific. They were, in fact, enemies — Hall an American submariner aboard the Parche SS 384 and Haag aboard a German U-boat.

Now, since meeting through a mutual friend last month, they are compiling their memories of those days nearly seven decades ago to capture a piece of history from both sides.

Hall, 85, said he was thrilled at the chance to meet someone who had fought on the other side during the war.

“I think we both wanted to compare,” Hall said. “The Germans had some definite advantage to their submarines. They could do some things we couldn’t do, and vice versa. They had a lot more submarines than we did. They lost a lot more, but they had a lot more to use.”

The German submarine fleet, the largest in the war, lost 743 U-boats and about 28,000 submariners. Their American counterparts lost 52 subs during the war, with more than 3,000 crewmen perishing.

Haag, 83, who moved to the United States eight years after the war ended, said he was also excited to meet someone with whom he could share stories and compare notes about a time both have left in their past.

“At that time, we had to do our duty and that was it,” Haag said. “After war, there were no enemies. There were friends.”

Despite both serving on submarines, their war stories, and the years leading up to them, are very different.

Hall was in his second year studying at the University of Maine when he enlisted in the Navy in March 1943.

“… If I didn’t volunteer I’d have been drafted,” Hall said. “So I volunteered number one for the Navy because I was brought up in Maine, and so I’ve got salt water in my veins, but I really don’t know why I chose submarines. … It just sounded exciting and different, and it was.”

And there were some other benefits to being a submariner for Hall, who was assigned to be the ship’s baker, working in the galley preparing food for the 85 men on the boat.

“The pay was 50 percent more,” Hall said, because of the danger of what was still a very experimental type of vessel. “And the food was supposedly better, (with) the small crew and all. And you have a certain amount of pride there.”

During the three years he served in the Navy, until he was discharged in April 1946, Hall’s submarine went on six war patrols, each about 60 days long. Five of the missions were successful — meaning the sub sank other ships — and the sixth was not.

“Nobody liked to kill people, but that’s the unfortunate part of war,” Hall said. “It had to happen and did. And you put that behind you and now compare notes and look at each other’s ship and say, ‘Mine could go faster than yours,’ or ‘Mine could go deeper.’ ”

After the war, Hall became a high school biology teacher, got married, and he and his wife, Judy, had two sons. The couple, who had lived in Maine and New York, moved to Judy’s family home in Troy 21 years ago.

Haag, whose mother left him in Germany in 1928 — when he was 3 — to move to Philadelphia, grew up in foster homes and orphanages around the country throughout his childhood.

In 1941, after attending a technical high school where he studied to be a mechanist, he voluntarily enlisted in the German Navy, choosing to go through rigorous training and testing to serve on a U-boat.

“I had no mother, so I was always quiet around people,” Haag said. “In time it got me to think, ‘I don’t care what I do. If I’ll not come back, nobody cries for me.’ ”

On June 6, 1944, when the American and British forces stormed the German occupied beaches of Normandy, France — a day that would become known as D-Day — Haag’s U-boat was in the English Channel.

“… We came up in the morning on D-Day, you know,” Haag said. “And we were in the English Channel and we got picked up … they located us.”

“We went up and there were two airplanes … one comes this way, the other comes the other way. So, they dropped the torpedo and it ripped our whole back off. We had four sections that you could close up, you know, in the back.”

Another German ship came and pulled Haag’s U-boat to a German bunker on the beach. The crew returned to Germany, got on another submarine and returned to combat. Throughout the war, Haag served on submarines carrying 43 or 64 men, smaller than the one Hall was on.

In May 1945, when Germany surrendered, Haag’s captain ordered his men to sink their U-boat rather than surrender it to the English.

After the surrender, Haag returned to Germany, where he married, and six years later he and his wife, Theresa, joined Haag’s mother in Philadelphia.

They had three sons and lived in Yonkers, N.Y., where Haag was a supervisor at a factory that built printing presses, before retiring to Troy more than two decades ago.

Monday, for only the second time ever, Hall and Haag, joined by their wives, sat in Hall’s living room talking about that pivotal time in their lives when they were on opposite sides of the fence.

They listened intently to each other’s stories, occasionally nodding in agreement about the shared difficulties of life underwater, including uncomfortable bunks, lack of fresh water, rare moments in the open air, and chiming in on differences.

And while they probably couldn’t have imagined such a meeting decades ago, they now talk like old friends.

“The American Navy uses the term, ‘Pride runs deep,’ ” Hall said. “And I think both of us had a certain pride being in a submarine force …”

Hall, who writes a newsletter that he sends to the ever-shrinking crew of his submarine and attends reunions, has amassed a collection of historical information about the ship he plans to put together on CDs, along with information from Haag about the German submarine force, as a resource for future generations.

“This year, we had our 54th national convention,” Hall said. “There were 190 men there. … Fifty years ago, there would be 3,000 men there. This is of course what’s happening.”

But while World War II veterans are aging, Hall said he’s uplifted by the number of interested family members from younger generations who are carrying on the stories of their fathers and grandfathers.

“It’s important that people don’t forget what those men did then,” Hall said. “These people can keep those memories.”

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

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