THIRTY MILES NORTHEAST OF CAPE HATTERAS, NORTH CAROLINA
JANUARY 30, 1921
Through his periscope, Kapitän Hans Schultz watched the chaos aboard the schooner Carroll A. Deering and smiled. The white hull of the elegant five-masted sailing vessel was easy to see against the gray storm clouds gathering in the distance. The crew of the cargo ship rushed back and forth across the deck in hopeless panic.
Schultz narrated what he was seeing for the sailors in the control room of his U-boat, the Bremen.
“One man is standing there methodically tearing his hair out. Another seems to be screaming uncontrollably as he runs in circles. Two of the men are randomly tossing papers and objects overboard.”
“What kind of objects?” asked scientist Istvan Horváth with a slight accent. Although born Hungarian, he spoke German fluently. He was always intrigued by the results of his brainchild, an ingenious device he had dubbed Irre Waffe.
“Trunks. Clothing. Books. Navigational equipment.”
Schultz’s eyes were drawn to a couple of men by the lifeboats. They were sawing at the davit ropes with large knives.
“They’re cutting a lifeboat loose,” Schultz said.
“They’re not getting in it?” Horváth asked.
“No. It looks like . . . Yes, it landed in the water upside down. Now they’re getting ready to jettison the second one.” He looked away from the periscope at Horváth, a small man with horn-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline who was jotting notes in a leather-bound book.
“Even though it took longer for the effects to manifest this time,” Horváth said with both curiosity and pride, “the outcome seems to be the same. I suspect that the fact this ship has a wooden hull may account for the difference.”
“Then we’ll stick to steel-hulled ships from now on,” Schultz said. “I don’t like staying at periscope depth this long near a Coast Guard patrol area.”
They had their pick of targets along the United States’ East Coast, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, so they could afford to be choosy. The Deering was the fourth ship they’d attacked in the past three weeks. Designed as a merchant submarine to smuggle supplies past the British naval blockade during the Great War, the Bremen had been diverted from her original purpose on her maiden voyage. She was declared missing so she could be used as a secret test bed for an experimental technology, one that could have won the war for Germany had it been perfected in time.
But the Irre Waffe wasn’t ready before the Central Powers surrendered. So Schultz and Horváth made a pact to steal the Bremen and disappear with her willing crew and the radical weapon to undertake a new goal to get rich. For three years, the plan had worked beyond their wildest dreams, and this expedition was the most lucrative yet. The Bremen had the capacity to carry seven hundred tons of cargo, but she’d been so successful on this mission that her holds would soon be full. They’d have to return to base to off-load the hijacked spoils.
Schultz turned back to the periscope. The Deering’s second lifeboat tumbled into the water unoccupied. Then one of the crew jumped overboard after it. With the ship at full sail, she quickly left him behind.
“There goes the first one,” Schultz said.
One by one, as though compelled by some unseen voice, the crew members leaped into the chilly winter waters. Schultz counted them off as they went. The last to go was a man in his sixties with white hair and a beard. He didn’t hesitate as he flung himself over the railing.
“That must be the captain. Willis Wormell, according to our contact in Barbados.”
“That’s twelve crewmen total overboard,” Horváth said. “Going by the manifest, the ship is empty.”
“Excellent,” Schultz said. He took one final three-hundred-sixty-degree rotation with the periscope. Several shark fins were circling the men thrashing in the water. He doubted there would be anything left of their corpses for searchers to find. No ships were on the horizon, perhaps because they were steering clear of the oncoming gale.
Satisfied that they were alone, he lowered the periscope.
“Surface the boat,” he said to the executive officer. “You may shut down the Irre Waffe, Herr Horváth.”
Horváth nodded and flipped switches until the lights on his board went dark.
Once the U-boat was on the surface, Schultz climbed to the top of the conning tower and opened the hatch. He inhaled the clean sea air, a welcome relief from the stench of diesel fuel and body odor that always built up inside during a long cruise.
He lifted his binoculars and scanned the deck of the Deering once more. After he was satisfied that no stragglers remained, he ordered the Bremen to pull up alongside the cargo ship. Despite the storm on the horizon, the seas were relatively calm, with only a slight breeze pushing the schooner along.
When they were beside the Deering, the Bremen matched speed. His crew attached lines between the ships in a practiced ritual and climbed aboard using rope ladders.
To save the time it would take to lower the sails, Schultz told his men to drop both anchors. When they did, the Deering’s stately pace abruptly came to a halt, and a gangway was placed between the two stationary vessels.
Accompanied by Horváth, Schultz climbed onto the abandoned ship. His first stop was the bridge. He found the ship’s logbook and tucked it into his peacoat. It was his souvenir, just like the captain’s log of every other ship he’d commandeered.
They went down past the mess, where they saw uneaten plates of dinner still on the table.
“The critical moment must have arrived during their meal,” Horváth noted.
“I’ll have some of the men raid the larder for fresh supplies,” Schultz said. The Bremen had been at sea for over a month, and the canned beans and pickled beets were getting old. His mouth salivated at the thought of a ripe orange.
When they reached the hold, Schultz grinned as he took in the prize.
The Deering was smuggling five hundred barrels of illegal rum from Barbados destined for Norfolk, Virginia. The price for liquor had skyrocketed during Prohibition, which meant the schooner’s cargo was worth a million dollars.
With ramps set in place over the entire route to the gangway, the crew began rolling the barrels over to the Bremen.
The process for moving the massive casks was tedious and backbreaking, but the crew had dollar signs dancing in their eyes. They worked without complaint. They were just rolling the last few barrels over when the first officer, who was stationed on the Deering’s bridge, called to Schultz.
“Herr Kapitän! A ship is on the horizon and closing on our position.”
Schultz sprinted up to join him. The first officer passed the binoculars to him.
It looked like a Coast Guard cutter. It was on the opposite side of the Deering from the Bremen. They couldn’t have seen the low-riding U-boat yet.
“Prepare to abandon the Deering,” Schultz said. “Release the schooner’s anchors before you return to the Bremen.”
With the sails still set, the Deering would continue on, so the cutter would have no reason to investigate the unusual sight of a stationary ship in open water.
His men efficiently carried out their tasks, and Schultz was the last to disembark as the Deering began to move. He was met on the Bremen’s conning tower by Horváth.
“This might be an interesting opportunity to test the Irre Waffe on a warship,” the Hungarian said hopefully.
“We’ve already pushed our luck, Herr Doktor,” Schultz replied. “Let’s return home and enjoy our rewards.”
Horváth looked disappointed, but nodded.
When the Bremen was buttoned up and Schultz was back in the control room, he ordered the U-boat to dive. He raised the periscope and watched the cutter approach until she abruptly turned north.
Schultz turned to see the schooner receding into the distance, the words CARROLL A. DEERING, BATH etched in white on her black fantail. She would likely be ripped apart by the storm, but even if she weren’t, there was no evidence that the U-boat had ever been in contact with her. The Deering’s missing crew would forever remain a mystery.
Schultz lowered the periscope and said, “Set a course due south. Back to base.”
That drew a raucous cheer from the crew, but Schultz was contemplating where they’d go next after they sold off the current load of cargo. With the Bremen’s range of twenty thousand miles, it really could be anywhere.
The entire earth was their hunting ground.