The U-505 Experience
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The U-505 Experience

More than 15,000 people gathered outside of the Museum of Science & Industry in 1954, when the U-505 World War II German submarine arrived at the Museum at the urging of Chicago native Daniel Gallery, the U.S. Navy captain who led its capture.

Paul Holmes

More than 15,000 people gathered outside of the Museum of Science & Industry in 1954, when the U-505 World War II German submarine arrived at the Museum at the urging of Chicago native Daniel Gallery, the U.S. Navy captain who led its capture. Chicagoans were enthralled by the move of the sub from the waters of Lake Michigan, across Lake Shore Drive and to its new home stationed outside of the Museum. Today, the U-505 is a Registered National Landmark, the world’s only remaining Type IX-C submarine, and the Museum’s most popular exhibit, toured by more than 24 million people.

After nearly 50 years of exposure to outdoor elements, the sub’s condition was deteriorating and threatening the icon. In response, the Museum launched a $35-million project to preserve the 700-ton, 252-foot sub. The effort, unparalleled in the Museum’s history, required constructing an underground exhibit hall to house the sub, restoring the vessel’s exterior to its original condition, and moving the icon around the building.

The communications team developed a strategic PR plan to generate public interest in the sub’s big move. The objectives were to: raise awareness of the Museum’s dedicated stewardship in its mission areas of science and industry, secure regional and national media coverage of the World War II icon’s move , build anticipation for The New Experience exhibit opening in 2005 and Attract public attendance to watch the historic, multi-day move of the submarine.

Planning for The U-505 Experience involved integrating the goals of several Museum departments, including curatorial, interpretive, membership, marketing and public relations staff. Research underpinned all aspects of the project and included researching the history of the sub. It also included researching details of the long restoration project and the complex move directed by NORSAR Inc., an engineering transport and lifting company that specializes in moving barges and other large industrial objects. 

The team reviewed past media stories about the sub to gauge its public image then interviewed people connected to the sub in 1954 to determine their potential as 2004 media spokespeople. They also interviewed the WWII sailors who captured the sub and recorded their stories for press materials and potential media opportunities. Most notably, Museum staff met with officials at the United States Navy to research traditional, ceremonial Navy events surrounding submarine launches to incorporate into the plans for the U-505’s final voyage. 

The first challenge was the announcement that the submarine, a large draw for visitors, would be closing for more than a year during the renovation. Communications were designed to tell visitors of the last opportunities to see the sub before it closed and messaging was developed to explain why the sub would be closed for many months.  The sub’s moving plan – contingent upon fluctuations in the weather, heavy machinery and multiple work crews – continually changed. The communications program had to be flexible as launch dates changed several times.

The team reported daily progress to the media, which came slowly as the sub traveled on 18 self-powered dollies guided by remote control, moving one inch per minute. Finally, the sub was lowered into the 42-foot deep exhibit hall, a dangerous process that required the communications team to prepare for possible failure or problems. Fortunately, none occurred. 

To ensure maximum exposure, the Museum and PCI began contacting media six months prior to the sub’s relocation. The media plan consisted of three phases. Early media outreach helped position the U-505’s move as one of Chicago’s most highly anticipated 2004 events. The plan’s first phase announced the Museum’s intent to close, move and renovate the U-505 submarine. Phase two included media relations to announce the last chance to visit the sub prior to its temporary closure. Phase three closed the sub for renovation and culminated in its move.

The Phase one announcement included a well-attended news conference at the Museum in November 2003. In January 2004, the Museum publicized the last chance to visit the sub prior to renovation. News stories generated by these efforts triggered widespread public interest in the sub’s upcoming relocation.

On April 5, 2004, the Museum held a press conference to detail logistics of the sub’s move. The Museum and PCI described the dramatic effort required to move the sub by using visuals and updates from associated relocation officials. Museum staff offered media tours of the sub, its moving path and the construction site of the sub’s new home.

On April 8, the Museum launched the U-505’s move with a ceremony attended by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley; World War II veterans, including some on the capture crew; and other guests crowded onto the sub’s deck. With support from the US Navy, the Museum chose two female civilians to break a ceremonial bottle of champagne against the boat’s side. The boat immediately began to move. During the sub’s slow but steady move over the next several days, spectators flocked to the Museum to see the science and technology needed to move a spectacularly massive artifact.

The Museum and PCI’s efforts created communications results surpassing the objectives. A total of 394 media placements, reaching an estimated audience of 90,140,876, include: hundreds of people watched the sub’s moving and lowering over several days, extensive media placements, including national coverage of the sub’s move by USA Today, CNN’s “Newsnight with Aaron Brown,”NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the Associated Press in a story picked up across the country, local coverage included multiple cover-page stories in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald and Daily Southtown and blanket coverage by Chicago television, daily visits from local broadcast helicopters documenting the move from above and a media content analysis that showed coverage of the Museum’s commitment to restoring and preserving this rare icon and the public anticipation of seeing the sub open again in 2005.

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