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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
from the very people he was hired to protect, so he spent most of his evenings
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.
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
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
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
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 --
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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