This and hundreds of other exciting stories of WWII treasures will appear in Volume III of my series THE STORIES BEHIND THE TREASURES OF WORLD WAR II "The Making of a Collectorholic". I hope to have that ready sometime in late 2018.
The Saga of the Never Been Told Story of the "U-505 Commander’s Pistol"
I could write a book about this one but I’ll give you the condensed version. Otherwise, I won’t live long enough to write all of these stories. My obsession with military history and collectibles has taken me all over the globe. Yet some of the best items I’ve ever acquired have come right out of my back yard in a manner of speaking.
There was a very active military dealer by the name of Hugh (Jay) Shannon. Over the course of the years, he found an incredible amount of great stuff and so I would always stop by his tables and stay in touch with him. On this occasion he showed me a very significant artifact grouping of items he had just acquired from the widow of a Navy WWII veteran. Chief Petty Officer Clifford Werlla from Dallas,TX had been the Chief Photographer’s mate on board the Escort Carrier USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60) during a very historic event.
Once I saw what this grouping consisted of, I knew I had to own it. However, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not for sale, and never would be. After I recovered my composure from being teased and taunted, I looked at Jay and I said “never say never”. Sure enough a few years later, Jay offered me this grouping and hit me with a stiff price. I never flinched because I knew I had to have this significant piece of history.
On May 15th,1944, Task Force 22.3 departed Norfolk, VA on a routine antisubmarine patrol, but it would be far from routine. The USS Guadalcanal, under the command of Captain Daniel Gallery, along with Escort Destroyers Chatelain, Flaherty, Jenks, Pillsbury, and Pope, headed for the Cape Verde Islands. If you’d like to see some spectacular photos, and the history of each of these ships, please go to the USS Guadalcanal Task Force 22.3 Association website. I can guarantee you, you will not be disappointed.
Gallery, who would remain in the Navy after the war and become a Rear Admiral, had a crazy notion that he could capture a U-Boat intact. In his book entitled TWENTY MILLION TONS UNDER THE SEA, he goes into a lot of detail regarding this. Well, this actually occurred on June 4, 1944, when this task force encountered and attacked a U-Boat. It was the first time since the War of 1812, that USN personnel had boarded an enemy vessel during wartime.
According to his widow, Werlla was among the first boarders from the Guadalcanal to reach the stricken sub. His job as a photographer was to get below and snap as many pictures of the interior of this enemy vessel. The survival of this U-Boat was far from secure. While doing his duty he happened upon the bunk of the skipper who was Oberleutnant Harald Lange. Here, he located and secured, the commander’s pistol (an HSC Mauser) and his Zeiss Ikon camera. He told no one about these “acquisitions” and amwhen he returned to the Guadalcanal he stowed these treasures in a special place.
With a tremendous effort, the boarding crews were able to close the valves, including a large sea strainer. They also pulled all the wires from detonators and stabilize the U-505. The decision was made to tow the boat back to Bermuda (2,500 nautical miles) in order to study and evaluate the weaponry, code books and cipher machines.
A great number of terrific references have been written about this event. There is also a multitude of information available on the internet. Be sure to dive further into this history. It just gets better and better.
Along with being a fine Captain, Dan Gallery was a prolific souvenir hunter. When you look closely at one of my photos of Gallery you can see that Gallery is wearing a German navy visor cap and sporting a nice set of binoculars.
However, one treasure had eluded him. An interrogation of the crew from the U-Boat including the commander himself, led Gallery to conclude that someone had scoffed up Lange’s pistol and camera.
Werlla’s widow supplied all of these details. She told Jay Shannon about a series of requests by Gallery culminating in an order to turn in any and all “enemy contraband” which had been taken off the U-505 by the various boarding parties. Gallery told the boys that they needed to turn in all this gear but to put their names and service numbers on the items. This way the war trophies could be returned to the sailors once their intelligence value had be evaluated. In fact if you look closely at the picture of Gallery with the binoculars, you can see a paper label probably containing the name of the sailor who turned them in.
When this first round failed to turn up the pistol and camera, according to Werlla’s widow, Gallery ordered a shakedown of the entire ship. Of course, there are certain areas that are considered “off limits” and that included the “dark room” where pictures were developed. Chemicals and other sensitive items were stored there and could not be disturbed. This also made a perfect hiding spot for these precious souvenirs that Chief Photographer’s Mate Clifford Werlla was not about to give up. He told his wife, the way he looked at it, he risked his neck by boarding a sinking submarine that could have blown up any second or sunk to Davey Jones’ locker.
Werlla developed all the photos and they were put into a beautiful leather bound album. I was told that three of these albums exist. One was given to Dan Gallery, one went to Annapolis and one was retained by Werlla. More on this later.
Clifford Werlla was highly decorated for his actions during this event.
I have the original award document signed by R.E. Ingersoll.
He was a four-star Admiral who served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet during this time. It wasn’t until 1947 that Werlla officially received the award and recognition for his heroism.
Having managed to get these items home once he was discharged, he made his wife promise, no matter what happened to him, to never sell these trophies until after “the old man” died. He never wanted his skipper to find out he actually had these items.
Werlla passed away in the 1960s and his wife was true to her word.
Included among the other paperwork is a copy of the obituary of Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery stating he passed on January 19, 1977. The affidavit detailing the pedigree of the pistol and signed by Lorraine Werlla Smith is dated a mere four days later on January 23, 1977. She waited exactly four days after she found out her husband’s skipper had passed away. By this time, she had remarried and that might have had a bearing on the sale.
A fantastic leather bound photo album with gold lettering on the front which reads “Can Do, Junior” June 1944” was also part of this group.
”Can Do” was the nickname for the USS Guadalcanal and “Junior” was the name given to the sub. They even stenciled this across the conning tower of the U-505. The album contains incredible images of the capture. Some of these have been published and some are marked on the reverse TOP SECRET USS Guadalcanal.
One of the photos is incredibly profound. It shows the crew of one of the boarding parties standing in front of the conning tower. My guy, Werlla is right there in the picture. Standing on top of the conning tower is Captain Gallery. There is a flag staff with the U-Boat’s flag quite visible. However, above this is the Stars and Stripes. What a significant symbol of such an historic event.
The history of the U-505 does not end here. As most of you know, she is now on exhibit as part of a huge display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. If you are ever in the area, I encourage you to stop and take the tour. They have a comprehensive display of artifacts from the U-Boat service and many are specifically from the U-505.
In December of 2014, this story was featured on the American Heroes Channel as part of a series called “Secrets of the Arsenal”. I was very proud that they selected my story to be part of the premiere episode. As of the date of this publication, I’m told it’s been shown over 60 times and has been seen throughout the world. I’ve had customers from as far away as Africa, write to tell me they were in a room of their house and heard either a familiar voice or my named being mentioned on the television. They would rush into the room where the TV was playing and call out to their family to come quickly. Lo and behold, there was my ugly puss telling as much about this story as they would let me for a 12 minute segment.
There’s a whole lot more that I could tell you about this unique piece of WWII and why I still have it after all these years. Don’t hesitate to stop me at a show some time or call me on the phone.