Around 3 a.m. a Marine first sergeant shone a flashlight in Cpl. Edwin Glasberg’s face and shook him awake. He ordered the corporal to get dressed, get a weapon from the armory, grab plenty of ammunition and a steel helmet.
On the morning of May 12, 1945, Glasberg knew only that something unusual was happening at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, naval shipyard, the largest submarine base on the East Coast. On the dock, a two-star admiral gave Glasberg and five other Marines their orders.
“You guys have been selected for this mission because it says in your record book that you can speak German,” he said. “There’s a German submarine, No. 805, that wishes to surrender.”
The admiral told the Marines to go out to sea and get the U-boat.
Glasberg jumped onto a Navy tender and headed out 25 miles into the Atlantic. Twenty-five miles out to sea, he saw a German submarine floating on the surface, surrounded by six Navy destroyers. Glasberg, five more Marines and a Navy chief climbed aboard.
“We jumped onto the submarine, onto the deck. I was the second one down the conning tower into the ship’s hold,” Glasberg said. “I said in my high school German, ‘Alle deutschen Krauts, raus und schnell! (All you Germans, get out, and fast!)’ I was waving this submachine gun around, so they vacated quickly.”
Glasberg pulled aside the skipper of the U-805, Korvettenkapitan Richard Bernardelli, who spoke fluent English. Then he gave the German captain a piece of his mind. “We’re Marines, not murderers,” he said. “We’re not going to kill you guys. If the tables were turned, you’d kill us, but we’re not going to do that to you.”
As the 31 German sailors were taken prisoner, Glasberg stayed in the submarine. At the time, U-boats were considered some of the most advanced naval technology on Earth. In four years of war, German submarines had sunk 2,779 Allied ships.
“I went to the captain’s quarters. We went through all their maps, and I read them in German, the detailed instructions of their combat patrol,” Glasberg said. “I read the German report. They had sunk three of our ships on their patrol, one off of Nova Scotia, and two in the Saint Lawrence estuary.”
While a Navy ship towed the U-805 to the Portsmouth harbor, Glasberg and the Navy chief took charge on the submarine’s bridge.
“I stayed up in the conning tower because the submarine is so musty. You can hardly breathe in it,” Glasberg said. “Plus I got seasick because a submarine on the surface, it’s bobbing up and down in the Atlantic swells.”
Today Glasberg, who lives in North Naples, is one of the few surviving World War II veterans at the Naples Marine Corps League. At league meetings the 92-year-old tells the stories of his unique combat experiences, including his two Purple Heart medals for wounds suffered in Pacific battles, and his Presidential Unit Citation medal, awarded for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.”
Born May 14, 1924, in the Dorchester section of Boston, Glasberg enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he’d graduated high school. He trained as a .30-caliber machine gunner, and he was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Division.
Glasberg got his first taste of combat on Nov. 20, 1943, on the island of Tarawa in the Western Pacific. It was a hot island, almost on the equator, 1½ miles long and half a mile wide. Glasberg ran ashore with the first wave of 18,000 Marines.
“We hit the beach the first day. Believe it or not, we had no resistance,” he said, “because our naval gunfire had blasted away on the beaches. We ran as far as the seawall, and we crowded behind the seawall. It was 4 feet high, made out of coconut logs.”
The island was defended by 4,500 Japanese soldiers. With a group of Marines, Glasberg climbed over the seawall and advanced another 75 yards. Then he dived for cover in a shell crater created by the Navy’s artillery.
“You had to take cover so you wouldn’t get your head blown off,” he said. “The enemy was on trees above us, on trees on each side of us. I would say maybe 20 yards away.”
When Glasberg spotted a Japanese sniper hiding in the foliage at the top of a nearby palm tree, he decided to attack. He ran to the base of tree, and he pressed his body against the tree trunk. That’s when he saw a wounded Marine lieutenant just yards away.
“He was moaning and groaning, but I couldn’t do anything for him, or I’d get shot,” Glasberg said. “I’m hugging the tree because the guy on top of me couldn’t depress his machine gun straight down.”
As Glasberg waited for a chance to shoot back, he was showered by the spent shell cartridges from the Japanese soldier above. “The cartridges would bounce off my helmet and down the back of my neck. They were red hot.”
Then Glasberg fired his rifle up into the tree. “I don’t know if I hit him or somebody else did, but he stopped firing,” he said. “I wasn’t going to climb up to find out.”
Later in the battle, as Glasberg maneuvered with a handful of Marines, a Japanese soldier leaped at him from behind a pile of wood and stabbed a bayonet into his right thigh.
“The Marine behind me, he took his .45 out and blew his head off,” Glasberg said. “The bayonet went in about a third of an inch, just enough to make it bloody.”
Despite the trail of blood running down his trouser leg, Glasberg stayed in the fight.
“I didn’t realize I got bayonetted,” he said. “You’re so excited, you don’t feel anything.”
The next year, in June 1944, Glasberg had another brush with death when the Marines invaded Saipan.
“We were advancing on Hill 101. I was halfway up the hill when the enemy opened fire,” he said. “I got shot by a Japanese machine gun on the left side of my face. It just glanced. It was kind of bloody, but it didn’t hurt.”
Following his second wound in combat, and his second Purple Heart medal, Glasberg was shipped to the East Coast and the submarine base in Portsmouth, a location that was considered much safer.
“When you come to think of it,” he said, “not too many Marines in World War II were intermingled in combat with both the Germans and the Japanese.”
After the war, Glasberg raised a family, including three daughters — Bonnie, Lisa and Andrea. He founded and worked as president of the Brynel hairbrush company, which still exists today in Massachusetts. Although he doesn’t brag about it, he still remembers vividly his pride in serving in the Marine Corps in World War II.
“I felt proud and lucky because, remember — I got shot in the face, and I got bayoneted here,” Glasberg said, pointing to his thigh. “With all those bullets whizzing around and shells, I was lucky. The experience was unique. It was kill or be killed. I was never nervous during combat. I was cool as a cucumber. But when it was over, I fell apart. I just was lucky, that’s all.”