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The Gwendolyne


Harry Buschman

The "Gwendolyne" was a World War I net tender, not a fighting ship. It was designed to sleep three crew members, but no one had ever spent a night on it. It had a small galley and a ship to shore radio that none of the crew could operate. Except for three Colt revolvers, similar to those used in the Spanish-American War, it carried no armament.

During World War II, many U.S. harbors were protected by tiny boats like the Gwendolyne. A swinging net or gate was drawn across the harbor's access to the ocean and prevented the entrance of enemy submarines. They were effective only if the entrance was narrow, major harbors were too broad so they were limited to places like Portsmouth up in New Hampshire. Tech. Sergeant Lee McNamara was the 'Captain' of the Gwendolyne and tended the net across the mouth of the Piscataqua River at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor.

If the crew was inattentive and an enemy submarine was foolish enough to gain entrance to the Piscataqua river, it would have to negotiate 15 miles of rock lined and rock bottomed waterway. Hidden shoals, and right angle turns made passage up to the naval base a tricky course for any mariner on the surface of the river -- it would have been a nightmare for the underwater captain of a submarine. Even if he was successful and fulfilled his mission, he would have to fight his way back out again. But, leaving no stone unturned, the Allied Command thought it necessary to station Sergeant McNamara, his crew, and the good ship Gwendolyne on net duty for the duration of WWII.

In addition to keeping German submarines at bay, the net succeeded in infuriating the local fishermen, who could not sail in and out with their catches as they pleased.

Sergeant McNamara was pushing sixty. He was a World War I veteran and lived in nearby Kittery, Maine. He and his wife, Martha had six children and lived on a two acre root vegetable farm. He knew the waters of the Piscataqua as well as any man thereabouts, and Colonel Watt, from the Harbor Defenses of Portsmouth showed up at his door shortly after Pearl Harbor and asked him to reenlist.

The Colonel was loaded with Machiavellian deception. The war would be over before a man could be trained for such a job. Trawlers and lobster fishermen had to continue operations outside the net as far as Cape Neddick to the north and Cape Ann to the south. They had to come and go, war or no war, and Lee McNamara knew all of them by name. If the navy took over they would have assigned some dumb ensign Pulver to do the job and the fishing industry would grind to a halt. Seafood restaurants from Portland to Boston could not exist without their cod, striped bass, and lobsters -- an enemy submarine in the harbor would have been preferable.

McNamara was not a particularly patriotic man. He was a Yankee, a staunch defender of human rights, and he looked with a Yankee eye at any hint of government restraint -- from the allies or the axis. Colonel Watt, on the other hand, had sold insurance to tougher men than McNamara and by invoking the "old boy" technique, he broke him down. If McNamara could help, he would, and since he could earn a Master Sergeant's pay and another army pension without risking his family and himself, he saw no reason to refuse. He signed up -- all five feet four and 275 pounds of him.

The Harbor Defenses issued him two young crewmen, (sons of New Hampshire Democratic Congressmen) and a newly painted boat of doubtful bloodline. It was re-christened the "Gwendolyne." Each of the two young crewmen men were issued a .45 caliber revolver, a firearm neither of them had ever seen before -- they were given a week's target practice at the Harbor Defense post, and although each received credit on his service record for qualifying satisfactorily with the weapon, neither had hit a target during the week's practice. Both of them
returned to ship with numb forefingers.

For nearly three years Tech Sergeant McNamara and his crew pushed off from the dock at Fort Foster in Kittery at the crack of dawn and headed for the net's gate. The lobster boats and fishing trawlers would already be waiting for them impatiently, and choice Yankee expletives would be hurled at them as McNamara and the Gwendolyne's crew fumbled with the complicated lock mechanism. They would open it a crack, and the fishing fleet would scuttle through. The Gwendolyne would then stand by watchfully all day until their return in late afternoon. Then the process would be repeated in reverse.

The Nazi "Wolf Pack" paid little heed to the goings on in Portsmouth Harbor. Their assignment was to raidconvoys far out at sea. A thirty foot lobster boat is not a prime target unless it's cargo can be captured intact and eaten. Additionally, the prospect of sailing up the Piscataqua to destroy the shipyard and getting back out again was not on its agenda. McNamara's three long years, therefore, seemed a waste of time and money.

Evenings in the local Portsmouth barrooms McNamara and his crew were belittled by the hard working fishermen of Portsmouth. The lonely days at the Piscataqua gate and the growing hostility of his old buddies in town alienated him from the very people he was hired to protect, so he spent most of his evenings at home in his own bed. His crewmen were quartered on the Gwendolyne, and although they sneaked into town occasionally disguised as local fishermen, they would often spend the evening with the McNamara's. Lee McNamara's two youngest daughters were of marriageable age, and with Congressmen for father's-in-law it would have pleased him no end to play cupid. Unfortunately, both sisters were short and fat like their father and inherited their mother's sharp tongue.

But, as history tells us, fighting men and material became exhausted and the war in Europe ground to a conclusion. When it did, many U-boats were stranded at sea. Their Fuhrer was dead in a Berlin bunker and supply ships would no longer seek them out to refuel and replenish their dwindling provisions. Hans Ottermann von Freiberg was one of these "hung-out-to-dry submarine captains. Hans and his crew were fresh out of everything and if they were not to starve at sea they would have to throw themselves at the mercy of their cursed Yankee conquerors. Portsmouth harbor was just twenty nautical miles southwest of them.

So Hans Ottermann surfaced on a warm August afternoon at the entrance to the Portsmouth Harbor gate almost in the face of Technical Sergeant Lee McNamara and his stalwart two man crew. Ottermann's three inch cannon was pointed backward at his own conning tower and the last of his nearly white T-shirts was hastily run up the mast.

McNamara was not prepared for such an event, and he quickly unholstered his revolver and squeezed himself through the cabin door. Why had they not prepared him for such an eventuality! Training for active duty always omits the unthinkable possibility of peace. Captain Ottermann himself was as unprepared as Captain McNamara and the two men faced each other like strangers at a cocktail party with nothing to say.

Captain Ottermann with the wind behind him, bellowed whatever the German equivalent for "I surrender my ship and crew" is, in the downwind direction of the Gwendolyne, hoping for a sportsmanlike acceptance from his former adversary. Instead, he was astonished to see Captain McNamara draw his service revolver, and point it in his general direction in an attempt to sink his submarine. The revolver would not fire. It had been in McNamara's holster for three years exposed to the salt spray of Portsmouth harbor. It was as deadly as a water pistol.

The situation had its dangerous aspect -- who knows, like a smoldering brush fire, another war could well have been touched off again. While both men were aware that the present war had played itself out, neither of them knew how to make a peaceful gesture to the other.

Moreover, the lobster fishermen had completed their day's work, and they were gathering at the gate anxious to beat each other to the many hotels and seafood restaurants that have made Portsmouth and Kittery famous for food in both war and peace. There were fourteen of them with Captain Ottermann jockeying in the tricky tidal currents for a prime position when the gate opened and Sgt. McNamara was trying vainly to keep things under control. He was using his useless revolver as a hammer to beat on his equally useless ship to shore radio. That, too, had not been used in the three years he'd been at sea and he couldn't get a peep out of it.

The colorful obscenities voiced by Yankee seamen and Teutonic submariners were thick as broadsides in the August air.

To the vast relief of Sgt. McNamara and the future peace of the world in general, the situation was spotted by the Harbor Defenses of Portsmouth personnel and the Coast Guard forces in Fort Constitution. Had they been on the ball earlier, their sophisticated underwater sonar would have informed them of the submarine's presence in their area before the unpleasantness began. But -- better late than never.

Reinforcements were dispatched to the scene -- an armada of outdated and unseaworthy craft were sent to the aid of Sgt. McNamara. The Gwendolyne was told to "give way," (the precise words were more in the form of language used by taxi drivers in the pick-up lane at Kennedy International Airport). Captain Ottermann along with the gaggle of overloaded lobster boats were escorted to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. The sight of this unbelievable Armada was one that elderly residents at that end of the Piscataqua River still recall with warm affection -- and ever increasing elaboration.

Captain Ottermann and his crew had undoubtedly sent many ships to the bottom. He may have widowed many wives and destroyed much needed allied war material. But looking back on it after fifty years a calm and reasonable person might say it was his duty to do so. Cest la guerre! Those tragedies of war have faded and are set aside in the dusty bins of history. But on that one warm summer afternoon, Captain Ottermann and his submarine was of far less importance to the people of Portsmouth and Kittery than the loaded lobster boats that chugged along by his side.

1996 Harry Buschman

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