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True Stories

Her Happy Discovery, the Find of His Career
Archivist Confirmed That U-Boat Captain Learned of Daughter's Birth Just Before His Death
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; Page B01

Michael E. Ruane, a Washington post staff writer, covered the story of how Timothy P. Mulligan, an Archivist confirmed that a U-boat captain learned of his daughter's birth just before his own death.

U-Boat CaptainArchivist Timothy P. Mulligan was back in the stacks that day, running down a long shot.

A National Archives expert on German submarines, Mulligan had already found for a Virginia woman detailed records of her father's service as a U-boat skipper during World War II. But the woman said she still wondered if her father was aware she had been born just before his boat was sunk near Iceland in 1943. Mulligan knew that the allies had broken the German naval code during the war, and that the Archives had copies of intercepted messages to the U-boats. Maybe headquarters had radioed the skipper about his daughter. Commanders did such things.


Mulligan, 56, of Lanham, told the story recently as he approached his retirement after thirty four years of work in the Archives. He has written two books about the U-boats, helped other scholars research the subject for years, and has written a guide that summarizes the stories of 889 of the German submarines that preyed on allied shipping during World War II.

But his coup more than twenty years ago—finding a single decoded radio message for a woman seeking to discover the father she never knew—was, he said, his most gratifying moment.

Amid the gray filing boxes, on the gray shelves, in the orderly sameness of a records repository, it was a researcher's grand slam.

The story began in 1981 with the release of the German movie "Das Boot" (the boat), that depicted the squalid and terrifying life of a U-boat crew. When Mulligan was interviewed about the movie for a story in the Washington Post, his comments caught the attention of Reston's Inge Molzahn, a German native whose father, Hans Karpf, had been the captain of U-632, one of hundreds of boats sunk by the allies in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Inge Molzhan and Daughter Molzahn, then 39, called Mulligan and told him her story: she had been born after her father left on his last patrol, but just a few weeks before his boat was sunk by a British bomber off the coast of Iceland on April 6th, 1943. After the war, she and her mother left Germany for Argentina. Her mother had remarried, and talk of her father was discouraged. "It was not allowed for me to say anything about my father," Molzahn said in a recent interview in her home.

Now she was desperate for information about the man relatives said she so resembled. She said she had little more than some old snapshots depicting a boyish-looking naval officer in an oversized cap, a handful of war medals and letters her father wrote to her mother.

Mulligan knew that the Archives had reams of German naval war documents that had been recovered by the allies in a castle in Germany where they had been sent for storage. Mulligan, who had a doctorate in European history, had become an avid student of U-boat crews, traveling to Germany to interview hundreds of sailors and writing about the working-class submariners and their skippers.

"It's such an extraordinary form of warfare," he said.

Mulligan, a dapper man who started at the Archives in 1972, grew up in the Washington suburbs and had been fascinated by history since he was a child. He speaks in the subdued voice required by libraries, but one which is infused with drama when telling a story. In recent years he's worked at the Archives' facility in college park.

He quickly tracked down data on lieutenant Karpf and U-632, a 220-foot-long type seven-C boat with a crew of forty eight, no shower and one usable bathroom. It was the same kind of boat depicted in the movie. Mulligan turned up one patrol diary penned by the skipper and another compiled by his superiors after he was lost.

Karpf, then 27, had served on two other boats, but had taken U-632 on only two combat patrols and had claimed only two ships before being sunk while stalking a heavily guarded allied convoy.

This was typical, Mulligan said. Many U-boats failed to survive even one patrol, and others were sunk before firing a single torpedo.

"The most common experience aboard a German U-boat was to go out and be sunk with all hands before you ever fired a shot," he said. Two-thirds of the roughly forty eight thousand German submariners in the war were killed in action.

Molzahn was happy to get Mulligan's information. "At least it showed details of what had happened," he said. "It's gripping."

But Mulligan also wanted to check the intercepted messages. "I didn't tell her," he said. "I didn't know what I would find." Then working in the main Archives building in the district, he began pouring over the dozens of messages from headquarters to U-632. Most were about technical details of combat.

But then he found something else. On March 24th, 1943, Karpf's Flotilla headquarters had sent him a simple message: "Hero daughter born on 18 March. Congratulations." There it was. Fourteen days before his death, the skipper learned he had a child.

"Wow," Mulligan said he thought. He called Molzahn immediately. "Guess what I found," he said.

She was stunned. "It was extremely important," she said last week, a small but crucial piece to the story of her life.

Now 63, she said she has long been grateful to Mulligan. "For me, he's an incredible person," she said. "He opened this whole door for me, this whole knowledge. I would have never found out all this. That's all thanks to him."

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