CHEYENNE, Wyo. — At the height of World War II, German submarines, also known as U-boats, gained a reputation as the terror of the high seas.
With more than 1,100 built, Hitler's U-boat fleet was infamous for disrupting enemy supply lines, sinking more than 2,600 Allied ships during the course of the war, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.
Toward the war's end, one of these U-boats, U-858, was sent to wreak havoc along the east coast of the United States. But two weeks after Hitler's suicide, on May 14, 1945, U-858 became the first Nazi submarine to surrender to U.S. forces.
It's a boat that Chuck Kline remembers well. That's because, for nine months after its surrender, Kline served aboard U-858.
Kline, now 93, is one of a dwindling number of American sailors who served aboard submarines during World War II, and the last to come from Wyoming.
Born March 19, 1923, in Boulder, Colorado, Kline grew up in the town of Rifle in the western part of the state. Records show he began his naval service in July 1943, starting out in the V-12 Navy College Training Program at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"I went to classes to major in engineering, but I got into trouble with some of the math in there," Kline said. "So they called me and gave me a choice. 'We can put you on probation, or you can go to boot camp,' and I chose boot camp. And I'm glad I did now."
Rather than take his chances on the top of the water as a motor machinist, Kline said he had the opportunity to volunteer for the Navy's submarine program. He was selected as an alternate, and got in when the man ahead of him had to withdraw due to a physical problem.
"I ended up in the training program at a submarine base in New London (Connecticut)," Kline said. "There I learned the big diesel stuff, and I already had a lot of mechanical background, welding and everything, which helped a lot."
His first assignment began in the spring of 1945 aboard the USS Pollack, which had spent much of its time patrolling the Pacific theater before being converted to a "school boat" by the time Kline joined the crew.
But Kline's time aboard the Pollock would be short-lived. Just months after he took his post, Kline was selected as part of a special detail to take control of U-858 after its surrender.
"They sent an escort out to bring it back to the states, and eventually got it up to New London," Kline said. "I'd had a lot of mechanical background and had already been on a submarine, so lo and behold, I was selected as part of the special detail."
Rather than combat, the U-858 was given a special mission: fundraising for the war effort. The U-boat toured around various ports as a sort of floating publicity stunt for the war bond effort.
But even though its combat days were behind it, the U-858 posed its own challenges to its new American crew. Contemporary reports referred to the vessel as "a sewer pipe with valves," and Kline said that wasn't too far off.
"The Germans had no regard for creature comfort on their submarines," he said. "The first time we got into cold weather, we were up at Portsmith, New Hampshire, and getting into that cold water, it was like a rain storm inside that boat. We put oil cloth over our sacks so they wouldn't get wet."
Aside from the leaks, Kline said he can still vividly recall just how messy the boat was when the American crew first took over. It had nothing in the way of shower or laundry facilities, and Kline remembers having to clear out cans of bread floating in putrid water.
Since all the controls were originally in German, Kline said the new crew had to draw up English tags and place them around all the controls to know what they were doing. And even then, the mere construction of the U-boat could pose issues for its sailors.
"It also had a snorkel we didn't have, and when the snorkel mast went up, it looked like a big wastebasket floating on the surface," Kline said. "With that, we could operate at 33 feet submerged, and it had a fitting on it that went to the main (air) induction valve.
"When you were operating that, most of the guys in the engine room ... had their eyes glued on the barometer in there, because if you didn't keep a close eye on that thing, you start pulling suction and it was liable to pop your eyeballs right out of your head!"
A motor machinist mate, Kline described himself as the "fuel oil king" of the U-858, taking on the responsibility of getting all of the sub's fuel on board. As an enlisted man, this was unusual, and Kline remembers some noncommissioned officers were "a little upset" at the responsibility he commanded.
After nine months aboard the U-858, Kline officially separated from the Navy in March 1946, while U-858 was stationed at Key West, Florida. He returned to Colorado to finish a degree in industrial arts.
U-858, meanwhile, was brought back to New England, where the Navy used it for torpedo practice before scuttling it toward the end of 1947.
Kline's wartime service prepared him well for civilian life; after matriculating at Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University), Kline moved to Cheyenne to help launch an auto mechanic shop program in Laramie County School District 1, which continues to this day.
He also became heavily involved with the United States Submarine Veterans of World War II, a congressionally chartered veterans organization formed in 1955 and formally chartered in 1981.
One of Kline's proudest accomplishments with that group was working to develop a carved outdoor memorial at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in Evansville, to commemorate the crew of the USS Barbel, who were lost to a Japanese bombing attack in February 1945.
Though he was too young for World War II, Ed Galavotti is a fellow local submarine veteran who has been working to promote Kline's legacy in the run up to Armed Forces Day on Saturday. Although Kline would never suggest it, Galavotti believes Kline is a living legend, and one Cheyenne should feel privileged to still count among its residents.
"There are hardly any submarine veterans of World War II left, and how do you capture that experience?" Galavotti said. "People don't realize what the transition was like, going from the crash of 1929 to going to war, the end of the war, and then going all the way to today.
"Today's nuclear navy has much more capabilities, much more comfort for the crew," Galavotti added. "Back then, they had a battery and a snorkel. They couldn't go down and stay down all day; they had limited time.
"I think it's important to let people know we have a veteran here who did all that stuff."