…more recent history
Russell B. Guerin
There has always been some interest in this subject among members of the historical society, especially those of us who are old enough to remember 1942.
I recently attended a lecture at UNO’s Eisenhower Center given by C.J. Christ, the foremost authority on U-boat activity in WW II, especially connected to the Gulf sinkings.
Eddie Coleman’s article in the November ’08 issue of the newsletter is an excellent overview. These notes are not to substitute in any way for that piece.
Christ’s primary focus was to present some information that he has accumulated over many years that may not be in most articles.
Christ shows that the subs came into the Gulf from two directions, one through the Florida straits and the other off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. They were equipped with fuel and supplies to travel 11,000 miles, while they only needed to go 4,000 each way to and from Germany.
Their primary purpose was to sink tankers. Petroleum was being produced in Texas, Louisiana, and in Mississippi, at Pascagoula. It was not their intention to fire on passenger ships, or to kill refugees from an attack. The one case that violated this resulted in trial at Nuremberg and the captain was convicted and hanged.
One passenger ship was sunk in other waters, that being off the Atlantic coast.
No military ships were attacked in the Gulf.
The Gulf attacks lasted only four months of 1942, from May to September, but by way of concentration, the attack was not equaled anywhere else. 54 ships were sunk, 41 during the month of May alone. In addition, 18 were damaged. At least 400 people died; there were more that could not be accounted for who had been taken to area hospitals and died subsequently.
At least 24 U-boats were active. One had a mission of laying mines outside the mouth of the Mississippi River, but the others attacked in the shipping lanes. My brothers and I recall seeing the fires on the horizon at night during those months. I asked whether it was possible for us to see over that distance, perhaps 100 miles. Christ said it was certainly possible, and that one ship took nine days to burn.
Torpedoes were used sparingly, as they were few in number. In most cases, the weapon of choice was the deck gun. The sub would surface close to the ship and just open fire.
They were said to come into shallow water, usually at night to charge batteries. That makes me wonder whether sometimes they might have come into the Sound and fire on barges in the intracoastal waterway. If that had been so, it could account for the fires being seen from the seawall of Clermont Harbor and elsewhere. Also, we sometimes saw powerful searchlights darting across the water, obviously searching for something just off our coast.
A few anecdotes were sometimes humorous, but most often tragic. One serious story brought some laughter. It was about the very first attack, in which one boat radioed another 11 miles away that he had been torpedoed and to be aware. The most aware person was the captain of the U-boat, who promptly went the 11 miles and sank the other ship. I’m not sure why that was funny, maybe because it was such a stupid thing to do on the part of the captain of the first ship. Anyway, so much for the principle of radio silence.
Equally void of reason was the fact that ships continued to sail with their lights on, making them easy targets to find through a periscope.
Tragically, 82% casualties resulted among U-boat personnel. (I think he referred to mortality.) Veterans of the war, including U-boat survivors, were not considered heroes in Germany, and very little fanfare has accompanied their history.
Only one sub was sunk in our Gulf waters, plus two others, one near Florida and the other off Cuba.
Christ dispelled some of everyone’s favorite legends. No sub came up the Mississippi River. There were no “Bond” bread wrappers found floating to the top, products of accomplices on shore supplying the subs. Blimps out of Houma, LA were employed in the searches, but got into the action late, only after the subs left.
One of the more fascinating stories has to do with the one and only sinking of a U-boat in our area. It was believed to have happened south of Houma in only about 60 feet of water. Coast guardsmen clearly saw it and dropped depth charges and saw fuel oil surface. They were given credit for the kill – until recently.
About the same time, and I think the same sub was involved, a military ship – Navy – was escorting a tanker which was torpedoed. The Navy officer dropped depth charges, but there was no evidence that they were successful.
Later, back in port, that officer was severely reprimanded for not going by the book in its escort maneuvers. It had something to do with zig-zag or not – I d id not fully understand – but he was highly criticized through the balance of his career.
A couple of years ago, Shell Oil was laying a pipe line in deep water in the Gulf, and came upon a sunken sub. This was 140 miles from the supposed kill by the Coast Guard out of Houma. Investigation proved that it was the sub that was in fact destroyed by the Navy escort.
Unfortunately, by this time, that Navy officer had died, never knowing that his maneuvers had been correct and successful.