National Geographic : 2005 Feb
Paying Proper Respects Six decades of abandoned fishing nets blanket Steuben's stern (above). "It's a shroud of sorts," says photographer Christoph Gerigk. The team knew that from stern to bow (right) the wreck would be full of human remains and chose not to enter out of re spect. "It's a grave," says Gerigk. "We have been there to see the necessary minimum to document it. I am not willing to return." Pleased with his success, Marinesko re turned to Turku convinced that sinking two Nazi ships within two weeks would be the turning point of his career. He was even hoping to be awarded the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union. "There was a huge feast waiting for him, with two roasted pigs for two sunk ships, when he came back to port," says Boris Medvedev Marinesko, a stepson of the S-13 commander. But despite his achievements Marinesko's superiors hadn't forgotten his earlier insub ordination. So Marinesko was awarded the less prestigious Combat Order of the Red Banner. "He kept his disappointments to himself," says Medvedev-Marinesko. "But you could tell he never accepted that." After the war, headquarters lowered Mari nesko's military rank by two grades and tried to transfer him to a minesweeper. When he refused, he was removed from the Navy. He attempted to work in the merchant marine but resigned because of problems with his eyes. Later, as a deputy manager at a blood trans fusion institute, he fell into trouble again: One freezing winter he let his employees take home briquettes of peat from a courtyard. Accused of stealing state property, he was sentenced to three years in the Far East at Vanino harbor near Vladivostok. "A snowstorm covered our entire house up to 50 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2005 its roof," he wrote one day to his wife. "In order to get out, we had to crawl through a hole in the roof." Released after a year and a half, he returned to Leningrad. He died of cancer in 1963. Three decades later, just before the Soviet Union fell apart, Mikhail Gorbachev award ed Marinesko the title Hero of the Soviet Union. His tomb in St. Peters burg is granite with gold letters, his bust positioned high above the ground. As I stood before it, I tried to understand the man. Was he a killer of refugees, as some people in Germany would describe him? Was he a tal ented sailor who made "the attack of the cen tury" on an armed ship carrying enemy soldiers, as his supporters say? Or was he perhaps a free spirited warrior for whom battle was simply an opportunity to shine? And finally: Did he have the right to shoot at those ships? I pose this question to Heinz Schon, a survivor of the Gustloffand the author of a dozen books on German naval warfare during World War II. After hesitating for a long time, he answers with a resolution I find surprising. "We were the oppressors," he says. "We attacked Poland; we started the war." Our ten-day expedition was nearly at a close when Heinz Peters, a diplomat at the German Embassy in Poland, came to pay his respects to the dead. "May the peoples living on the shores of the Baltic Sea never again witness war. It was the war, started by Germany, which as a last and tragic consequence claimed the lives of those whom we today remember," he said, laying a large bouquet of red and white flowers on the dark water. The flowers floated for a long time before they vanished beneath the rising swells. D DEEP DANGER Hear photographer Christoph Gerigk talk about the deadly hazards of diving on Steuben's net-shrouded wreck at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0502.