Immediately after Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, Hitler began a submarine naval campaign to strangle Allied shipping and prevent the flow of oil, Aluminum and other key commodities from Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard ports to the theaters of conflict in Europe and the Pacific.
From early 1942 through 1943, German U-Boats terrified the East and Gulf Coasts.At least 56 ships were sunk along the Gulf Coast, while only one German U-Boat was sunk by the US Navy and US Coast Guard in the Gulf.
CNN had a report from a couple of weeks ago (that, sadly, this history buff missed):
Silent and shadowy, two hulks lie under the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters, unmoved since their deadly encounter 72 years ago during World War II.
Now, the future has come to take a closer look.
From July 6 to 14, the 211-foot research ship Exploration Vessel Nautilus conducted dives to the final resting places of the American steamer SS Robert E. Lee and the German U-boat U-166, about 45 miles south of the Mississippi River delta.
The Robert E. Lee was torpedoed by the U-166 while ferrying victims of other U-boat attacks from Trinidad to New Orleans. The sub succumbed to depth charges fired from an escort ship. These doomed ships are now separated by only two miles of seabed.
I touched on the terror campaign conducted by the Deutsche Kriegsmarine U-Boat campaign in this post, during coverage of the BP Macondo Oil Spill in 2010. A great many of the ships sunk were oil tankers, ill-equipped to deal with a torpedo amidships.
The point of that post was to explain that tar balls washing up on such pristine beaches as those found from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Apalachicola, Florida are not unusual, and this has been true for decades.
When my father was a boy during WWII, he and his father could see the glow of burning, sinking ships on the horizon at night, and columns of black smoke during daytime hours. In fact, the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway systems were built to prevent or blunt attacks on shipping between Gulf and Atlantic Coast ports, with no regard to their economic viability. Shipping between coastal ports in the US was deemed a matter of national security. For all intents and purposes, a relatively shallow draft vessel or barge shipment can travel from Brownsville, Texas to the Manasquan River in New Jersey, virtually unmolested by submarine-based attacks.
In July 1942, a passenger ship converted into a civilian transport vessel, the Robert E. Lee, was torpedoed and sunk by U-166 during the height of Operation Paukenschlag (Operation Drumbeat). At the time, there were at least a dozen German U-Boats prowling in the Gulf of Mexico, and potentially many dozens more prowling the East Coast from Maine to Miami.
When the US finally managed to organize a legitimate coastal shipping defense system in 1943, which included airplanes armed with torpedoes, PT-type boats armed with depth charges and coastal batteries, the carnage dropped off significantly and Germany moved its focus back to the central and northern Atlantic Ocean.
But not before the US got its pound of flesh by sinking U-166.
Today, both sites—located within two miles of each other—are designated as graveyards and are not subject to marine archaeological investigations or salvage.
Click the image to watch the haunting minute or so of imagery.