An Interview with Steel Boat, Iron Hearts Co-author John Vanzo
Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-boat Crewman's Life Aboard U-505 is the remarkable memoir of a sailor who made every patrol on U-505, perhaps the most famous U-boat of World War II. Hans Goebeler, with the help of John Vanzo, wrote this account describing his experiences in the Kriegsmarine, including many U-boat war patrols, U-505's dramatic and historic capture by Daniel Gallery's Task Group 22.3, and time as a POW. Sadly, Hans died in 1999. Vanzo, however, was recently interviewed by Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC to share Goebeler's reasons for writing this memoir and why it is unique.
: Many war veterans have remarkable experiences during their service but never write memoirs. Why did Hans decide to publish a memoir of his wartime service?
JV: Well, Hans always loved his old boat. He sailed with U-505 on every one of her war patrols, from her first mission out of Lorient harbor in 1941 until the day in 1944 when she was captured by an American aircraft carrier task force. During the war, he sent numerous news articles and service mementoes to his parents for safekeeping. After the war, he networked with fellow crewmates to keep the story of their experiences alive. When he retired, Hans actually moved his family to Chicago to be near U-505, which was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. Once in Chicago, Hans helped arrange the first German and American crew reunions there.
: Why did he wait so many years after the war to begin his book?
JV: Hans was generally satisfied with histories written about the boat, but when he read a certain error-filled book, he became frantic to "set the record straight" before he died. He started hand-writing a manuscript of his wartime experiences, enhanced by a copy of the U-505 logbook, letters written to him by crewmates, and his own private photo collection. His manuscript, along with many taped interviews I conducted with Hans, formed the basis for Steel Boat, Iron Hearts.
: How did you meet Hans?
JV: Actually, that's a funny story. I was at a gun show in Tampa, Florida, in the early 1990s looking at German equipment. I was trying to figure out how it arranged on a belt when this gregarious older man came up and showed me the proper way to do it. I noticed his thick German accent and asked him if he had served in the Germany army. He told me that he was in the German navy aboard the submarine U-505.
: Did you have a previous knowledge of U-505 and its famous World War II history, including its capture by the USS Guadalcanal Task Force?
JV: I remembered some historical details about U-505 because I built a plastic model of her as a kid. So, Hans and I struck up a conversation. Hans began telling me some of his experiences aboard the boat, including that he was the one who "pulled the plug" on U-505 to scuttle her on the day of capture, and I was hooked. We eventually became good friends and the collaboration to work on Steel Boat, Iron Hearts came from that.
: Sounds like you were both in the right place at the right time. How would you describe Hans to those who read your book?
JV: Hans was an amazing man. He was small but powerfully built, with a barrel chest and incredible strength for his age. A spirit and energy radiated from him; I guess you would call it charisma. As I got to know him, I learned that he was not only a fascinating guy, but also one of the most intelligent, courageous, and honorable men I've ever known . . . and I don't use these terms loosely. Hans left a lasting impression on everyone he met, and he is sorely missed. People who enjoyed the earlier private distribution of his book tell me they can hear Hans' voice when they read his words, and it makes me feel good that the book keeps his memory alive in people's hearts.
: How does this edition differ than the privately published edition?
JV: The private edition was never introduced into the book trade. We sold it privately and at shows, etc. This new Savas Beatie edition is hardcover with a color jacket, the text has been revised and updated, and some new photos have been added. We also included a letter Hans received many years ago from U-505's first and beloved commander, Alex-Olaf Loewe about writing a book on the U-boat, and a really special Foreword by Keith R. Gill, the curator of U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Keith knew Hans very well.
: So it is really quite different than the first edition...
JV: Yes, it is very nice. I think people who own the first will really also want a copy of the second edition, as it is uniquely different.
: How did your friendship with Mr. Goebeler lead to your agreement to co-author Steel Boat, Iron Hearts?
JV: Hans had tried unsuccessfully to get help writing his book twice in the past. I asked Hans if I could write a magazine article about his experiences. After several interviews I wrote Saga of U-505: A Crewman's Story, for World War II magazine. It appeared in the July 1997 issue. The publishers said the article was the most popular they had ever printed.
: And you had the same positive feedback when the paperback was published for private distribution, correct?
JV: Yes, Hans' widow Erika published 3,000 copies of the book a few years ago and they sold like hotcakes, just by word-of-mouth advertising! Tragically, Hans passed away just before this first edition was published. He heroically tried to hang on long enough for us to finish it, but he just couldn't quite make it. Erika and I are certain Hans would be proud of the final result.
: What do you think Steel Boat, Iron Hearts offers readers?
JV: This book is original because it is the first and only U-boat memoir written from the viewpoint of an ordinary crewman. Dozens of other U-boat histories were written by commanding officers, war correspondents, and so on. An ordinary crewman's perspective gives this book a special quality, not only in the historical sense, but also in terms of the reader's enjoyment. Basically, if you liked Das Boot, you'll love Steel Boat, Iron Hearts. It has that same flavor.
: Did you experience any pitfalls while writing the book with Mr. Goebeler?
JV: No real problems. I must say, though, I tried to get Hans to delete or at least soften some things in the book. As a young sailor, Hans was quick to start a fight and had several dalliances with those who used to be termed "women of the night." I didn't think these episodes reflected well on him, but Hans was determined to tell the whole truth of his experiences. Looking back, I know his decision was a brave one, and the right one.
: How do you think this decision to include all of Hans' experiences enhances his memoir?
JV: What emerges from the book is an absolutely authentic slice of life, fascinating from both the human and historical perspective. The book might disappoint some readers who expect the German fighting man to appear cruel, like the bloodthirsty fanatic from wartime propaganda. Steel Boat, Iron Hearts might also disappoint a few who want him to look like some sort of heroic superman. What the book really shows is that the average German fighting man was a human being, no different essentially from kids all over the world who were caught up in World War II.
: Hearing the stories detailed in the book firsthand must have been a memorable experience for you. Without spoiling too many surprises, can you share a few of the events in U-505's naval career?
JV: Yes, being a part of this work was truly amazing. Let me give just a few examples of what's in store for readers. The boat had an excellent run of successes against Allied shipping, nearly sank in an air attack, and was the most heavily-damaged submarine to make it back to base during World War II-all of these stories are explained in detail in the book. In my opinion, the second skipper was mentally unstable, and the boat had numerous encounters with saboteurs back at base that almost killed the crew several times! And, of course, there's the story of the capture of the boat itself, in which Hans played a central role...
: It sounds action-packed! Any plans for a follow up piece in the future?
JV: Well, Hans actually wanted to write two books-one on his experiences with U-505, and the other about his experiences in a P.O.W. camp and postwar Germany. Hans' widow Erika is currently translating a compilation of German naval short stories that we hope to publish next year. And I am writing a book on Peter Zschech, U-505's second skipper, who had deep psychological problems. It is a fascinating story and one I'm excited to tell in more detail. For now, Steel Boat, Iron Hearts is not one to be missed.
: I am sure readers will agree. Thank you for your stories and your insight.
JV: Thank you.
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