Navy Lt. Albert David had already spent nearly a quarter of a century in the Navy by the time he deployed to fight in World War II. His courage and leadership helped the Navy seize the first enemy warship to be captured on the high seas since the War of 1812. It also earned him the Medal of Honor.
David was born July 18, 1902, in Maryville, Missouri, and enlisted in the Navy in September 1919 when he was just 17.
For two decades, he served honorably on ships across the fleet. Shortly after his 20th year, he was placed in the Fleet Reserve. About a month later, Germany invaded Poland, which started World War II in Europe, so he was recalled to active duty.
David spent the next few years working stateside and received three promotions. By May of 1943, he was a lieutenant junior grade with orders to help outfit and serve on the newly commissioned USS Pillsbury, a destroyer that escorted Atlantic Ocean convoys into Casablanca, Morocco, and Gibraltar. The ship also served as part of a “hunter-killer” task force formed around the carrier USS Guadalcanal.
A Lucky Find
On June 4, 1944, David was the Pillsbury’s assistant engineering and electrical officer when the task force, using sonar, located a German submarine about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Blanco, a peninsula bordering Mauritania and Western Sahara in West Africa.
One of the task force ships used depth-charges to jam the submarine’s rudder and disable its auxiliary rudder controls. Some of the sub’s compartments began to flood, which forced it to the surface.
The commander of the sub ordered his men to abandon ship and set demolition charges to sink it. However, there wasn’t enough time for that to fully happen because of the Allies’ quick work.
David led a team of nine men from the Pillsbury to board the sub — later identified as U-505 — even though they knew Germans might still be below deck. Once they got onto the still-moving topside of the sub, they went down the conning tower hatch into the flooding boat to discover it was deserted. The sailors quickly gathered all the charts, codebooks, classified materials and Enigma decoding machines they could find. At the same time, the crew closed the opened valves to stop the flooding and disarmed the demolition charges set by the Germans. The flooding was eventually contained, and the sub’s diesel engines were shut down.
Meanwhile, all but one of U-505’s men were rescued from the water and taken into custody. The Pillsbury’s crew later learned that the U-boat had sunk eight Allied ships before its capture.
A Great Impact
The quick work by David and his team ensured U-505 was still seaworthy and could be hauled to the U.S., marking the first successful capture of an enemy vessel since 1815.
Upon inspection, the Navy learned that U-505 had the latest technology in radar, torpedoes, radio code and other advanced systems. With all of . that and the materials found inside the sub, the Allies were able to learn a tremendous amount that would help in the fight against the German U-boat threat.
In one instance, American cryptanalysts were able to take converted German messages from the codebooks and use them to break a special map coordinate code. This helped them find where many other U-boats were operating. The confiscated materials also allowed the Allies to continue decoding German submarine radio messages in real time, which led to greater successes in the European theater.
A Bittersweet Ending
The Pillsbury mission’s success also led to David’s promotion to lieutenant and his recommendation for the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, he would not live to accept it.
David died of a heart attack on Sept. 17, 1945 — less than a month before the ceremony that would honor him with the nation’s highest award for valor. Lynda Mae David accepted it on behalf of her late husband from President Harry S. Truman at the White House on Oct. 5, 1945.
David was buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
About two decades later, the USS Albert David was named in his honor. The destroyer escort was active throughout the fleet for more than 30 years.
Lt. David’s Medal of Honor eventually made its way to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. That’s where U-505 was eventually restored and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The sub is one of only two Type IXC U-boats still in existence.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
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