April 20, 2004

German U-boat revitalizes Museum, attracts history buffs

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) may pale in comparison to the underground train systems of other metropolises, but how many other cities can boast German U-boats in their basements?

On April 8, the Museum of Science and Industry began moving its U-505 German submarine the 2000 feet from its outdoor location at the north side of the Museum campus to a new underground exhibit space at the south end. Countless visitors, many of them U of C students, have viewed the submarine since the Museum acquired it in 1954.

"The U-505 is a symbol of what the Museum does best," said David Mosena, Museum president and CEO, in a November 13, 2003 press release. "We present unforgettable educational experiences that are one-of-a-kind. But, most of all, the submarine is an important part of our world history and a rare example of naval technology. We are committed to its preservation for years to come."

The decision to move the submarine underground is intended to protect it from damage from the elements. The public, meanwhile, is invited to watch the submarine as it is moved to its new home at the breakneck pace of approximately 14 inches per hour.

Even though the two-week process of moving of the submarine will continue until April 22, many University students have already taken a trip to see the U-boat in motion. "[The submarine] is one of my favorite exhibits at the museum," said Jane Shiu, a first-year in the College. "It's not every day you get to see a submarine moved. It's really cool how they're preserving it for others to see."

There are five remaining German U-boats in the world. The other four are in outdoor locations in Germany and England.

The submarine will be part of a new exhibit, scheduled to open in 2005, that will discuss American involvement in World War II and the lives of soldiers living on a U-boat. The museum projects that the exhibit will attract over 2 million visitors annually. The new exhibit will include up-close views of many artifacts, including real torpedoes, periscopes, German medals, binoculars, and cigarettes. Visitors will also have the opportunity to squeeze into a recreation of a U-505 bunk.

Despite the fact that the new exhibit will have a strong historical component, its appeal is widespread. "Even though I'm not a history person, I think there's something I could learn from it just by being there," said Patricia Tam, a first-year in the College.

To move the submarine the Museum hired NORSAR, an engineering firm specializing in transporting and lifting large industrial and marine objects. "Our crews have mapped out every angle and square foot that this sub will maneuver over the course of several weeks," said NORSAR's vice-president of operations Ralph DiCaprio in an April 5, 2004 press release. "This is a sophisticated move that requires science, technology, and ingenuity."

The submarine is 252 feet long, 37 feet wide, and it weighs 700 tons.

In addition to moving the submarine, the Museum has gone to great lengths to restore it, using photographs, paint chips, and veteran accounts to discover its original color. "We are taking extraordinary efforts to restore and conserve the submarine and make it part of a brand new visitor experience that will be a wonderful mix of science, technology, and history," said Kurt Haunfelner, the Museum's vice-president of exhibits and collections in a press release.

The Museum first announced plans to move the submarine in 1997, predicting that the project would require $35 million. To date, over $24 million have been raised, more than 25 percent of which has come from 4,000 individual donors.

The Museum's submarine was captured on June 4, 1944 off the coast of West Africa by US Naval Captain Daniel Gallery of the USS Guadalcanal Task Force.

Film of the submarine's engine was included in the movie "U-571" (2000), starring Matthew McConaughey.