Photo Above: German unterseaboot, abbreviated U-boat
Information derived from personal interviews and Melanie Wiggins book, “Torpedoes in the Gulf.” For a more in-depth accounting of the war in the Gulf of Mexico I highly recommend Melanie Wiggins’ book. I was told by Andy Hall that it was the best resource available. C. J. Christ, journalist for the Courier, wrote in 2002, “The only book written -- so far -- exclusively about the Gulf of Mexico in World War II, Melanie Wiggins' "Torpedoes in the Gulf", emphasizes the consideration some U-boat skippers gave to their victims. She cites many incidents in which survivors were approached in their lifeboats and given food, water, cigarettes and bottles of spirits. She goes on to repeat such quotes as, "You can blame Mr. Roosevelt for this" or "Sorry I had to sink your ship,but this is war. I hope you make it in".”
When our thoughts drift back to the horrific events of World War II, we are often inclined to focus on the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, or the insurmountable losses suffered on the beaches of Normandy, places far removed from our homeland. Seldom do many pause to remember the danger that secretly lurked nearby, and 23 U-boats entered the Gulf of Mexico.
“Most of what was operating in the Gulf was fuel tankers and Liberty ships. The Liberty ships were large transport ships used as troopships to bring the military home,” said Richard Hatch, past president of the Texas Navy Association. “The main target of the U-boats was the fuel tankers,” Hatch continued. Melanie Wiggins, author of “Torpedoes in the Gulf,” recorded that Erle Halliburton, president of Halliburton Oil Company, came up with an idea for a radical new petroleum carrier. He proposed to the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, the building of “trailer tankers,” which could be hooked onto merchant ships or other vessels plying between the Gulf of Mexico and eastern ports.” These made prime targets.
“The refineries and factories in the Texas Gulf Coast sent their products directly to England, so it was a supply disruption operation by the Germans to cripple the war effort, or at least slow it down. We were flying about 12,000 B-17s, and they were flying every day, so the fuel had to be continuously replenished,” continued Hatch. “They needed the fuel not only for the planes, but the trucks, carriers, etc. If the enemy could stop the fuel from getting there it would help their position a lot,” he explained.
“That would be the most logical cause for focusing on the Gulf, I’m not saying it was a priority,” Hatch clarified, “but it was certainly something Hitler wanted to do. He was thinking, “How am I going to keep the beaches of Normandy. There were also munitions plants in Texas. The ammunition would be sent by railroad down to the docks where it would be loaded onto ships and set sail. That was another reason for the enemy to be interested in the Gulf,” Hatch added.
“The German’s knew the United States was not significantly protecting the Gulf,” continued Richard. I was told by my grandmother, who lived in Mobile at the time, that you could go to the beach at night, and you might catch a big blast of something being hit out in the Gulf. It was happening over the horizon, but you could still see the flash and she remembers thinking, somebody got shot,” said Hatch.
On April 30, 1942, just minutes after ten a.m., U-507, under the command of German Captain Harro Schacht, entered the Gulf of Mexico. He had sunk the American tanker Federal in the Atlantic earlier that same day. Between May 4th and May 16, 1942, in the Gulf of Mexico, he sank another 5 American vessels: Cargo ship Norlindo on May 4th, both the tanker Joseph McCadahy and the tanker Munger T. Ball on May 5th, the cargo ship Alcoa Puritan on May 6th, and tanker Virginia on May 12th. On January 13, 1943, U-507 was sunk by the US Naval Squadron VP-83 off the coast of Brazil and all hands were lost.
The American citizens were not yet prepared for the realities of war and at night the coastal towns were ablaze with lights, as life continued in normal fashion during the beginning months. These lights served to illuminate the waters offshore, silhouetting the ships and making them prime targets for the U-boats. The military quickly responded and on June 1, 1942, announced in Galveston, “Galveston Dimout Orders are Given!” Lighting was to be kept an a bare minimum and although an inconvenience, Galvestonians wholeheartedly conformed to the order, knowing the trivial inconvenience would save lives.
“May through September 1942, the German submarines relentlessly attacked ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, sinking an average of one and one-half vessels per day,” wrote Melanie Wiggins. Passengers rescued from sunken vessels in the Caribbean in the first months of 1942, secured passage back to Tampa, Florida aboard the US passenger vessel, SS Robert E. Lee, in July of 1942. The ship was diverted to New Orleans, escorted by USS PC-566 which was under the command of Captain Herbert G. Claudius.
The following excerpt from Melanie’s book tells of the demise of the Robert E. Lee. “The escort broke radio silence to advise the commander of the Gulf Sea Frontier that the Robert E. Lee could not get a pilot at Tampa and was continuing to New Orleans. The commander replied that the escort should stay with the ship to New Orleans and advise the port director of their arrival. At 7:16 that morning the frontier commander instructed the Pensacola Naval Air Station to send air cover for the ship and her escort, but the planes were unable to find them.”
“U-166, under the command of Hans-Günther Kuhlmann, had been setting mines afloat and had gone undetected. Kühlmann reported on July 27 that the minelaying operation was completed. On July 30 the message from PC566 to the New Orleans harbormaster was overheard and they knew exactly where to find the Robert E Lee.”
That afternoon, July 30, with clear weather, calm seas, and excellent visibility, the escort was a half a mile in front of the Lee as they approached the Southwest Pass. PC 566 radioed New Orleans to inform them what time they would be getting to the pass and to ask for a pilot. As they were sending the message, a group of passengers and a few of the crew on the Lee noticed something streaking along in the water parallel to the ship and close to the surface. They were having a lively discussion about whether it could be a shark or a porpoise when the object made an abrupt ninety-degree turn and smashed into the ship just aft of the engine room.
“When the torpedo struck, I happened to be just finishing getting dressed after taking a bucket bath,” said Captain Barton Holmes, “and in fact, I was in the act of strapping on my watch…I remember saying, ‘Here we go again.
”The ship started going down so quickly that many passengers and crew members frantically donned life jackets and jumped overboard. The crew did manage to lower six lifeboats and sixteen life rafts, and these were quickly filed. “We were badly overloaded, and the boat’s freeboard was only a couple of inches; however, the sea was smooth as glass,” said Captain Holmes. “The water was filled with people, rafts, and boats. The Lee was now standing on its stern and going down fast.”
Minutes after the ship disappeared, the escort crew saw a periscope and dropped six depth charges, resulting in a small oil slick where the periscope had last been seen. As the survivors scrambled for safety, PC 566 sent a distress signal.
“The escort was underway at full speed dropping depth charges close by,” said the Lee’s captain. Although they saw an oil slick, they could not confirm they had sunk the U-boat.
“After all the racket stopped, we padded around looking for anyone alive in the water. Those we reached were dead, either from the concussion of the depth charges or having their necks broken by jumping into the water with a cork life jacket on. Then the sharks came and took over.”
One of the Lee’s crew members, G. D. Vernial, said that after the torpedo hit, chaos and confusion reigned. He jumped overboard with a sprained ankle and bleeding head and made it into a lifeboat. “The vast area off the Mississippi River was littered with debris and floating bodies. Oil and blood stained the sides of our boat.” Vernial helped pick up bodies from the water and carried the wounded on board the corvette. “With my hospital experience, I applied first aid to the most critical ones. I dressed those dying from blood loss and wounds.” He recalled. The ship’s doctor had no time to even speak as he untiringly treated those in dire distress.
Survivors of the ordeal filled the naval hospital in New Orleans, where some of them died. “To my great surprise, none of the men that I took care of died at all,” Vernial said. “I felt very proud—it was the crowning glory of my career.”
Two days after the Robert E Lee went to a watery grave, Henry White, pilot, and George Boggs, Jr., radioman, were patrolling in a Coast Guard plane off the swampy Louisiana coast, twenty miles south of Isles Derniers. At 1:37 P.M., White saw a submarine sitting on the surface. “His conning tower and part of his deck were exposed,” said Boggs. White immediately sent an SSS message telling its position and began circling to make an attack from the stern. The submarine (assumed to be U-166,) took a dive. The plane dropped a depth charge which landed about twenty feet away from the sub. The plane observed an oil slick in the aftermath of the depth charge. After the fall of the German Empire, it was reported that they had destroyed U-166.”
Captain Claudius, of PC-566, was admonished by his superiors for breaking radio silence and not following proper attack protocol. It was also stated in the military report of the incident that “it is not considered probable that any except minor damage could have been sustained by the submarine”. He was stripped of his command and sent to anti-sub warfare school in Miami Florida for additional training. This would be a very sad commentary on his military career were it not for . . . The Rest of the Story!
Andy Hall of the Texas Navy Association said, “U-166 was a German U-boat that entered the Gulf right around 1942. Most of the U-boat operations in the Gulf off the Texas-Louisiana coast in this part of the Gulf happened in a very short period of about 4-6 months after the United States entered WWII. After that the focus of the U-boat world shifted back to the Atlantic. But in that six-month period, from the spring of ’42 to the summer there was a lot of activity here.
“U-166 is the only U-boat that was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico,” continued Hall. “It was the subject of a lot of mystery for many many years because where it was assumed to have been sunk was very close to shore off the Louisiana coast in very shallow water. If it had been there, it should have been very easy to find, but no one ever found it. It turns out it was actually sunk a little further off the Louisiana coast but in extremely deep water about a mile deep. It was not realized at the time that that was when and where it sank,” Hall explained.
“It was some friends of mine who at the time worked for an underwater pipeline survey company that actually found it,” said Hall. “They were doing a survey on federally managed oil lease lands. When they are going to do drilling or lay a pipeline, they have to do a survey to make sure they don’t hit what is referred to as culturally significant material which is a fancy word for historic shipwrecks,” explained Hall. “They were trying to plot out what was in the area where they were going to put this pipeline and they found the wreck of the SS Robert E. Lee which they knew had been sunk by U-166. A very short distance away they found some other targets. When they initially did the survey in 2000-2001 they weren’t sure what that was, but it seemed to be so close to the Robert E. Lee, the transport that had been sunk, and they thought “it has got to be somehow associated with that.” The next time they went out hey did a higher resolution scan,” continued Andy Hall. “They were looking at the results and it was still just a blob on the screen. They were back in their offices in Houston going over the data and one of them turns to the other and says, “you know, we’ve got these two targets and there’s this one that’s so many feet long and then this one is so many feet long. You know, if you add those up it’s just about exactly the length of a type 9 U-boat.” So, they went back again and did another survey with a higher resolution sonar so you could actually make out details, and by George, they found the U-boat and concluded that it had been sunk by the escort just a few minutes after the U-boat had sunk the transport, but the escort was never given credit for it,” said Andy. “After the war when they started comparing reports about ‘this escort attacked the target here and the airplane attacked the target there’ they miscredited the sinking of U-166 to the Coast Guard plane. These nautical archaeologists sitting at their desk looking at data on their computer screen in Houston, rewrote that part about the U-boats in the Gulf. This happened a couple of years after Melanie wrote her book, Torpedoes in the Gulf,” explained Hall, “and Texas A&M would not publish an updated edition with the new information. So, you won’t find this information anywhere except on the internet,” he added.
“There are lots of shipwrecks in the Gulf and some of them contain human remains. Off the coast of Freeport there’s the wreck of the SS Hatteras and somewhere down there are the remains of two soldiers who were killed during the Civil War,” Hall said. “That is a protected wreck site because it is a former U.S. Naval vessel, and the navy never relinquishes authority over its vessels or aircraft even if they are sunk and lost. You will often hear people say it’s a protected war grave, but that’s not why it is protected. It would still be a protected site even if there were no human remains there because it is a navy vessel,” he clarified.
“Another thing to know is the state of Texas maintains authority in Texas waters over historic shipwrecks,” continued Hall. “That authority extends out about ten and a half miles from the beach. Anything ten miles or closer to the shore, if it is a historic wreck, if it’s over 100 years old it’s considered to be a protected shipwreck. So, there are restrictions about diving or interfering in any way with those wrecks as well, but again, that’s not based on whether or not someone died there. That’s just a historic preservation law,” Hall noted.
National Geographic reported after the discovery of the sunken U-166, “On Tuesday, Claudius was posthumously vindicated at the Pentagon, thanks in part to exploration supported by the National Geographic Society. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy announced that his ship had indeed fired the depth charges that sank German U-boat U-166. "Seventy years later, we now know that Claudius's report after the action was absolutely correct," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, said in a small ceremony attended by members of Claudius's family.
"Claudius's ship did sink that U-boat, and it's never too late to set the record straight," Mabus said, as he presented the late captain with a posthumous Legion of Merit with a Combat "V" device, which recognizes heroism in battle.
Claudius's son, Gordon Claudius, accepted the medal and said that he wished his father could have known about the correction to a largely forgotten chapter in American history. Claudius passed away in 1981, after a 33-year career in the Navy. "He would have felt vindicated," Gordon Claudius said.
Once the Navy increased the number of armed escort ships and added air escorts equipped with night vision radar protecting the shipping vessels in the Gulf, and constructed the Texas-East Coast Big Inch Pipeline, the Germans moved most of their U-boats back to the Atlantic. However, in the months preceding the increase in security, the German U-boats wreaked havoc on the coastal waters of our homeland. Within the first three months of 1942 the German U-boats had sunk 100 ships off the east coast of America, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean with 267 ships being sunk there by the end of 1942. Fifty-three of those ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo above of the Mounted Coast Guard on Bolivar Peninsula ~ 1943. Photo courtesy of Bill White. Dogs in foreground probably belonged to Goonie Mayes, who used his dogs on patrol.
Galveston Bay has been fortified since the days of Jean Lafitte, who founded the colony of Campeche on Galveston Island in 1817. There are three local forts guarding the Galveston vicinity: Fort Travis (1898) located on the western side of Bolivar Peninsula, Fort San Jacinto (1836), directly across the channel from Fort Travis on the eastern end of the Island, and Fort Crockett (1897) located at 39th St. and Seawall Blvd. Their guns stood as faithful sentinels with Travis’ three batteries and San Jacinto’s four, guarding the Galveston Harbor and Crockett’s three guns, the Gulf.
“There’s actually quite a bit of history on World War II operations on the Gulf Coast that most people don’t know about, because during World War II it was forbidden for any newspapers or media to put anything out about the troops, where they were at, what they were doing, anything about the war,” said James Morton of the Bay area Military Museum. “I talked to a man who was in the artillery unit that was stationed at the fortifications at Fort Travis and he told me what they did down there,” continued James. “If you go there now you will see concrete pads and those pads are what the barracks were built on. He said every time they completed building the barracks a hurricane would come in and knock them all down. They would stay in the bunkers during the hurricanes but when they came out, after the hurricane, the barracks would be completely knocked down. While they were rebuilding them, they would stay in tents. I had some photos of the WWII tent barracks, but I gave them to a gentleman to reproduce for me and unfortunately, he disappeared, so, there went my pictures,” James said forlornly. “I spent some time down there and I have to tell you, those people must have gotten eaten alive by mosquitoes, ‘cause they were the worst I’ve ever seen in my life when I was at that place,” he said shaking his head.
“The Texas State Guard was actively involved in training soldiers in both installations in Galveston at that time and also helped man those installations,” explained James. “The Coast Guard patrolled the beaches on horseback with a M1903 Springfield on their back, looking for anybody coming ashore. They used the 1903 Springfield because there was not a sufficient supply of the faster-firing M1 Garands available to arm all the troops,” said Mr. Morton.
“Submarines had to come up at night to recharge their batteries,” continued James. “They rarely came up in the daytime unless their batteries were low. One of the German sailors said every time they would come up here would come one of those little yellow airplanes. Those little yellow airplanes were the Civil Air Patrol,” said James laughingly.
The introduction in the book, Beaumont’s Civil Air Patrol During World War II, Penney L. Clark wrote, “Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Coastal Base No. 10, located at the Municipal Airport in Beaumont, Texas, in 1942-1943, helped alleviate the submarine menace by logging over 14,000 hours in the air over the Gulf. CAP was unconventional. As a part of the Office of Civilian Defense, CAP's members were civilians, many of whom were too old for the military. Other members owned airplanes or had experience flying to help go on missions patrolling the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico searching for enemy submarines or survivors of sub attacks.”
Jimmy Sterling’s mother Betty Sherman Sterling was attending nursing school in Galveston during WWII. Jimmy said, “Mom said she and her friends would walk on the beach t night and hear the U-boats on the surface charging their batteries. She said they would row ashore and shop for fresh fruits and vegetables and go to the movies. She said they were very handsome.” James Morton was also told that when some German soldiers were searched a ticket stub for the Corpus Christi theatre was found in the pocked of one of them.
“When the Coast Guard was rolled into the Department of Defense during WW II they were used in both Theatres,” said James Morton. “At the beginning of the war, they were scrambling like crazy for guns to issue to soldiers. The Coast Guard and the Navy needed weapons so badly that they were using a weapon known as a Lewis gun, a light machine gun that was used in WW I by the British. A lot of seamen didn’t have helmets because they didn’t have enough equipment. We saw a WWII movie of the U.S. Navy using lever action Winchesters, 1894 I believe it was,” Morton said, “and I thought to myself, ‘that’s not right, the movie company made a mistake’. Later I found out that movie company was exactly right, the U.S. were using those in combat in WWII. They were also using several different models of 12-gauge shotguns. Most of the ones they used was an 1897 Winchester. Army troops were training and using 1873 trap door Springfields like Custer had at Little Big Horn. You’re probably familiar with Little Big Horn,” laughed James, “one of the reasons he lost was because the Indians had the Winchester lever action repeating rifle, which was a better rifle at that time. It’s surprising how many really old weapons they were using in WW II and the British were far in far worse shape than we were,” James exclaimed. “They were begging for anything that would shoot, including muzzle loaders from the Civil War era. I’ve never been able to find that the U.S. used them, but the British were begging for anything that would fire, because they had gun control that was issued in 1925, and, as a result of that, a lot of the civilians didn’t have firearms. With Hitler sitting on the other side of the channel, that was 10 miles wide at the narrowest point, they were in bad shape. They had been pushed out of the continent and at that time period there probably wasn’t 500 sub-machine guns in the entire British Army” concluded James.
After Hitler instituted “Operation Drumbeat” the Coast Guard’s Mounted Beach Patrol was put into operation along the coastal boundaries of the United States, to keep a lookout for Hitler’s U-boats an rescue shipwreck survivors. The Coast Guard put out a call to those who could ride horses and many of our local ranchers and cowboys in in the Gulf Coast area answered the call. Two of those young men were Jamie White and George B. “Podgie” Hamilton. Podgie’s son, Scott Hamilton, donated a copy of Melanie Wiggins book, Torpedoes in the Gulf” to our museum.
Melanie Wiggins wrote in her book, “Galveston had very few horses, but Bolivar Peninsula had some reliable steeds and expert riders as well. The Coast Guard took over the old Sea View Hotel at High Island, twenty-seven miles down the peninsula, and set up a stable of area horses. Two local families, the Lynns and the Whites, donated their beach or ranch houses to use. “They had another camp at Breeze Inn down the beach toward Sabine Pass,” recalled George Hamilton, one of the volunteers. The inn was an old beer joint leased from a rancher named Broussard, and the men slept on cots set up on the dance floor the first night.”
“We rode our own horses, then later they sent some cavalry horses in . . . we had to ride those old things,” said Hamilton. He said the cavalry nags hadn’t been ridden for “Lord knows how long,” and they had old army McClelland saddles, which were “little bitty, with nothing on them and a crack down the middle where you sit.”
“Hamilton and his mates rode in pairs from White’s Ranch at High Island down the beach until they met the riders from Breeze Inn, about fifteen miles, then rode back. They did this every night and stayed at White’s getting off for weekends. “I don’t know what the deal was. We didn’t run into any Germans or anything,” he remarked.
“One day, as Hamilton and his buddy were riding along, they spotted a large object sitting on the sand. “We didn’t know what it was, and we were kind of scared of it. And we only had our shotguns,” he recalled. They rode back to the main post at the Sea View Hotel and reported it, whereupon a crew in jeeps drove down to the site to investigate. It turned out to be old ship’s boiler.
“Coastguardsmen at the Sea View Hotel played Ping-Pong or boxed in a big upstairs recreation room. Some of them, after finishing a long patrol, occasionally stopped at “This is It,” the “Green Light,” or “Windy’s Place” for refreshments. The old man who ran “Windy’s” would let them in the back door if they were in uniform, sell them a beer, and tell them to lock up when they left because he was going home. “Windy’s” was their favorite place.”
Late in August of 1942, the Coast Guard geared up its “Dogs for Defense” program with the training of eighteen hundred canines for beach patrol. Another of our well-known local ranchers to answer the call of the Coast Guard was Wallisville’s George Clinton “Goonie” Mayes. “Goonie was renowned far and wide for his skill in training horses and dogs,” said his daughter, Virginia Mayes Loya. “People were always stopping by the house wanting to buy his horses and dogs,” Virginia continued, “but Daddy wouldn't sell them. After he enlisted in the Coast Guard, they sent him to Bolivar and Galveston. He took his own horse and personal dogs with him to look for enemy U-boats and trained his dogs to carry messages up and down the beach undetected. Daddy didn’t talk much about his time in the service, but he did tell us he wasn’t very happy when he had to ride the government horses,” chuckled Virginia.
Pause to Remember
Whether the WWII activity in the Gulf is new information to you or a memory revisited, I encourage you the next time you stroll along our beautiful Texas beaches and enjoy the salt-sea air, pause to remember . . . and Give Thanks.
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