BREMEN, GERMANY — BREMEN, Germany -- The old U-boat commander is still tall, erect and elegant. He's charming and affable. But he's not one bit apologetic about sinking about two dozen American and Allied ships during World War II up and down the East Coast.
"It was war," says Capt. Reinhard Hardegan. "I did my duty."
His duty as he saw it was sinking ships for Nazi Germany. He turned out to be very good at it. He's still proud of his skill.
And he's jealous of his "score," as he calls it. He once thought he'd sunk 29 ships, but later research cut his count to 24 or 25, a revision he only reluctantly accepts.
He was stalking ships along the Atlantic Coast of the United States a half-century ago. He likes to say it was then that he fired the first shots in the war between the United States and Germany.
War was declared Dec. 11, 1941. Captain Hardegan sank his first ship off the U.S. coast Jan. 14, 1942, Berlin time.
"We always set our watches to German time," he says.
"The first ship I sank was the Norness. It was south of Montauk lighthouse [off Long Island, N.Y.].
"The sinking of the Norness was the first shooting of the war," he says. "This was the exact beginning."
Two days earlier he had sunk a ship called the Cyclops in Canadian waters.
"But we had been at war with Canada already two years," he says, modestly self-deprecating. He had been a U-boat commander since December 1940, and he had already sunk his share of ships on patrols to Africa, England, Canada and Greenland.
The day after sinking the Norness, he sank the Coimbra off Cape Hatteras, N.C. He had had a busy week starting the war.
Captain Hardegan commanded a five-vessel U-boat wolf pack, the first sent out by Adm. Karl Doenitz, the German navy commander who would succeed Adolf Hitler as Germany's leader in the last week of the war. Admiral Doenitz eventually spent 10 years in prison as a war criminal.
Captain Hardegan's pack prowled the U.S. coast from Halifax to the Carolinas. They were all supposed to attack on that first day, in what the Germans called "Operation Drumbeat."
But fog, snow, or lack of targets prevented the other U-boats from firing. Captain Hardegan had to start the war by himself.
The tag "U-boat" comes from the German word for submarine, "unterseeboot." Captain Hardegan commanded U-123, or as he says "OOOH-one-two-three."
He's 79 now. But, with his assured air and in a blue blazer with an artfully displayed white handkerchief, he still has some of the -- of the young naval officer in the perhaps idealized portrait of him that dominates the salon of his home near here.
He was sinking ships practically in the surf on the two patrols he led in early 1942.
He remembers vividly torpedoing a ship called the Gulf America off Jacksonville Beach, Fla. People lined the shore to watch.
"I sank this tanker. It was four miles off the coast," he says. "When the tanker was burning, all the motorcars came to the coast, and we saw them, all with full lights.
"There was no blackout. I could see the big wheel [the Ferris wheel] in the amusement park and all the lights and the motorcars and the hotel in full light.
"It was very easy for me," he says. "I could see the ship silhouetted against the lights."
He surfaced to finish off the Gulf America with his deck gun. But he says he didn't want to fire because he was close enough for a long round to land among the people on shore.
"So I turned around," he says. "I went between the ship and the beach. It was dangerous for me. I didn't know if there was artillery on the coast."
Americans remember him
He visited Jacksonville a couple of years ago, arriving peacefully this time, by plane. He talked with people who had seen the Gulf America sink.
"I saw you," he recalled one woman saying to him. "I saw you silhouetted against the burning tanker."
And he spoke with survivors of ships he'd sunk. He speaks excellent English.
Few were resentful.
"They were very fair," he says.
He met the daughters of the captain of the City of Atlanta, who went down with his ship when Captain Hardegan torpedoed it in 1942.
"Two ladies about 70," he says. " 'We're not angry with you,' " they said. " 'He had two guns on board. He knew this was war. If he would be lucky, perhaps he would have shelled you and sunk you with his guns. But you were more lucky.' "
Captain Hardegan did take his hits in his turn.
"On every patrol," he says, "I had depth charges by destroyers, I had bombs by airplanes, and I had artillery fire.
"I had a lot of hits on my boat from artillery, but always not so serious damage, so I could always come back.
"Also a midshipman on the bridge quite near to me died. Hit by artillery. He lost his leg and so on. Half an hour, he died."
On the second patrol, U-123 was badly damaged by depth charges in 60 feet of water. Captain Hardegan lay silent on the bottom, then slowly eased U-123 into deeper water out of danger, a fearsome task.
"It was war," he says. "War is not a funny thing at all."
He sank two ships while on his way back to Germany for repairs.
"The artillery [on his submarine] was OK," he says. "The gun was OK."
Captain Hardegan's exploits have been chronicled by Michael Gannon, a University of Florida history professor, in a book called, appropriately enough, "Operation Drumbeat." As a boy, Mr. Gannon had watched the Gulf Atlantic burn off Jacksonville Beach.
In his book he calls the early U-boat campaign a disaster worse than Pearl Harbor for the United States. Captain Hardegan agrees.
"Here on the East Coast," the German says, "in the first six months we sank nearly 400 ships. There were more than 4,000 dead. It was double Pearl Harbor."
The civilian merchant marine had a far higher casualty rate than the armed forces in the first year of the war. Eventually 6,000 would die.
Captain Hardegan agrees with Mr. Gannon that much of the VTC blame belongs to Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of U.S. naval operations in World War II.
"Adm. Ernest J. King, he knew that we came," Captain Hardegan says. "He got every day my position."
British intelligence had cracked the German naval code. The British knew all about Captain Hardegan, even that he was married and how many children he had.
"They plotted my position every day," he says. "And they gave this information to Adm. Ernest J. King. But he didn't like the British and he left this information on his desk and did nothing.
"He had 25 destroyers and he left them in port. He made no blackout of the coast, no dimming. All the light ships, the light buoys, full of light, all the ships with full navigation lights, so it was very easy for us to navigate on the coast.
"He did nothing. And it was incredible, astonishing, for us. But it was true.
"The failures of Adm. Ernest J. King [are] the only reason I am sitting here and can answer your questions."
Lights of Coney Island
Even on his second patrol there was no real blackout. Some ships were blacked out, but not all. Coney Island was still alight. Ships were still silhouetted against the lights on shore.
Off Coney Island he operated in waters as shallow as 20 feet, his conning tower clearly visible.
"I saw all the pilot boats, the fishing boats, the tugboats. And they saw me! But they never noticed that I was a German submarine."
But by the end of 1942, the Allies were overcoming the U-boats with radar, aircraft and improved anti-submarine tactics. Losses mounted for the Germans. Of 1,171 U-boats, about 700 were sunk.
"About 42 [thousand] or 43,000 were on board the submarines, and about 30,000 died," he says. "That was the highest rate of all the [German] services."
But Captain Hardegan was out of the fighting by the middle of May 1942. After his second patrol, he had mainly training, research and staff assignments at U-boat bases on the Baltic Sea. He ended the war as an infantry battalion commander fighting the British in southern Germany.
"My work in the Baltic Sea was over. The Russians had come, and so I was unemployed," he says.
After the war he made money selling lubricants, chemicals and marine paints. He retired in 1982 here in Bremen where he was born.
During his U-boat campaigns, British intelligence had him pegged as an "aggressive commander." That conclusion clearly still pleases him. He took his work seriously, but he never enjoyed it.
"Enjoy is not the right expression," he says. "Enjoy? You see: War is not fun. It's not enjoyment. It's a very earnest, severe and hard thing. You cannot say a soldier will enjoy the war. That's impossible."