The Badges from 20,000 Fathoms
by Les Hughes
Am I alone in remembering the television program "The Naked City" from the early '60s? The program, set in New York City (The Naked City), sticks in my mind for its opening: as the camera panned across the skyline of The Big Apple, the announcer intoned "There are 8-million stories in the Naked City, and this is only one of them." Militaria collecting is like The Naked City: there are 8-million stories. And if you stick with the hobby long enough, you'll hear most of them. Many of the stories are variations on a handful of themes, but, occasionally, a story will appear that rises above the others in terms of - depending upon the depth of one's cynicism - its historical merit or its inventiveness and chutzpah. The following is one such story. I leave it to the reader to judge where in that spectrum it falls.
A friend brought to my attention some items that were being offered for sale on a certain internet auction. The items in question were six WWI Austrian submariner badges. As is often the case, these items were accompanied by a story, but in this case, what a story! I quote:
"These unfinished Austrian U-boat badges were recovered from the U-12. The U-12 wreck was discovered in the Adriatic Sea by an Italian fisherman in the 1960's and was salvaged by an Italian scrap company. The U-boat remained in the scrap yard until the 1980's when the Austrian government purchased the wreck and it is now on display at the Arsenal Museum in Vienna. There is a display of items recovered with these identical U-boat badges. These were made in the on board in the ship machine shop but were never finished before the U-boat was sunk. The badges are still on the casting tree as recovered. Interesting part of history, and a very rare badge in any form."
Images of six corroded badges, still in their casting tree, rounded out the presentation.
Let me admit up front that I know zip about submariner badges, of any era or of any country. But I do have functioning gray matter, and elements of the story struck me as, how shall I say, implausible? For example, salvaging a sunken vessel is an expensive proposition; if one is going to go to the trouble, it is for one reason: money. Why, then, after salvaging the sub allow it to languish in dry dock for 20 years, incurring the additional expense of storing it? Furthermore, when I think of submarines, images of cramped quarters, stale air, and silent running come to mind. And yet the U-12 had its own machine shop, where the crew whiled away their spare time turning out badges. Think about that. As the badges were cast from molten metal, our merry band of seafaring badge makers would have had to use an open flame in the subís cramped quarters, in an atmosphere where oxygen was at a premium; in an atmosphere that, perhaps, was heavy with fumes from the subís batteries and diesel engines. And after casting them, our jewelers of the deep, presumably, would have banged and filed away at the badges, chipping off the excess metal flash and bringing the the finish to a level of quality suitable for award and wear. One can imagine the sonarman of a destroyer informing his target-tracking personnel, "Badge making, bearing 060 degrees!" How many submarines were lost because of on-board badge-making? One can only guess: the record is mute.
There were other aspects of the story that struck me as strange. If the stated provenance of these badges was accurate, then they are remarkable artifacts Ė truly of museum quality. And yet the minimum bid, without a reserve, was a mere $300. Okay, so the seller envisioned $300 as just the starting point of a bidding frenzy that would push the price up to a value commensurate with badges of such an impressive history. But in order to realize their value, one would have to be able to prove that it was these particular badges that had been salvaged from the U-12. And yet the seller had provided no information at all regarding how these badges had escaped going to the Arsenal Museum and, instead, had passed into his possession. This, to me, seemed to be crucial information. And so I sent the seller an email asking why these badges had not gone to the Arsenal and asking where had they been since 1980. Even though only one bid had been lodged for the badges at the time of my query, the seller did not respond. For whatever reason, the seller, it seemed, could not have cared less if I bid on his badges. The badges attracted only one bidder, who won the badges for the minimum of $300. My interest piqued, I decided to pursue the matter.
I started by searching the Internet for information on the U-12. It never ceases to amaze me how much information is out there on the "information highway" if you have patience and know how to find it, and I found a few references to the Austrian U-12. What I learned was that the U-12 was sunk in 1915, when it struck a mine while attempting to penetrate the harbor of Venice, and was lost with all seventeen hands. A crew of seventeen? Thatís right: not a particularly big vessel, and yet blessed with its own machine shop! Furthermore, I learned that the U-12 was salvaged by the Italians for scrap, all right, but not in the Ď60s, in 1916. Hmmmm.
I got in touch with a friend in Europe who collects militaria, told him the story of the badges, and he volunteered to make a trip to the Arsenal (Heeresgeschichtliches) Museum in Vienna and check out the story from that end. What he found was quite interesting. The story the seller offered with the badges was not that of the U-12, but rather it was the story of the U-20! As agent Maxwell Smart would have put it, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart, the seller had missed it by that much.
What one will find when one visits the Arsenal Museum, I was told by my contact, is a display featuring just the conning tower of the U-20, the rest of the sub was too deteriorated to display. Indeed, for a modest fee you can rent earphones and an audio tape and listen (in German or in English) as you tour the exhibit to the story of the U-20, of its salvage and return to Austria. That is: you will hear the sellerís story. And if you pay closer attention than the seller appears to have done, you will get the details right: that it was the U-20, not the U-12, and that the sub was returned to Austria two years after having been raised, not after twenty.
Also on display is a 6-foot-long cut-away model of the U-27, a sub that was of the same class as the U-20 and which like the U-20 carried a crew of about 18. The model confirmed that space was at a premium in the U-27 and that quarters were cramped. There was no machine shop on board the U-27; there simply wasnít room for one.
My friend found a few artifacts on display that had been salvaged from the U-20, and while there were badges of the type in question on display, he reports they are not original badges. The badges that are displayed, according to my friend, are copies, artificially aged to make them appear to have been salvaged, thus rendering them compatible with the exhibit. And the member of the museum staff with whom my friend spoke was unaware of any badges having been salvaged from the U-20. Examples of the copies that are on display are also on sale in the museumís gift shop for the equivalent of about $6 each. My friend bought one, an image of which you see above.
I suspect that the seller of the 'salvaged' badges would claim that identifying the sub as the U-12 and not as the U-20 was a minor error on his part, and that if one corrects the sub's designation the story floats, so to speak. I will leave that determination to the reader. The seller might also claim that the buyer was ecstatic with his purchase. This claim is true: I know, because I exchanged email with the buyer. The buyer, it turned out, has an email address that puts him in Austria, which explains his less-than-perfect English in the emails we exchanged. Surprisingly, when he posted feedback to the seller, two weeks after our email exchange, his English was so good you'd have thought he'd been raised in Detroit. But that's another story, one of 8-million.