Decades before boaters rose up during a dire moment in American history to rescue their neighbors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana was under attack from a different foe – Nazi Germany. With the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Seaboard threatened by an enemy hidden under the sea, civilian boaters rose to the challenge and helped change the outcome of the early war.
During a hot and still afternoon on July 30th 1942, the German submarine U-166 raised its periscope off the Louisiana coast about 45 miles due southeast of Port Eads at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Three nights earlier, U-166, under the command of 28-year old U-boat commander Hans-Günther Kuhlmann, had completed its primary mission laying mines at the entrance to South Pass in what’s known as the crow’s foot in the river delta.
Inbound for New Orleans from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee was steaming hard for the safety of the river. Overcrowded with European refugees, American construction workers, and ragged survivors from U-boat attacks on shipping in the Caribbean, the steamship was about to share the fate of 55 other ships sunk by Nazi U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Nazi Germany set its sights on the coastal shipping lanes along the East Coast of the United States and unleashed the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine. Operation Drumbeat streamed an initial five U-boats towards the Atlantic coastline in January of 1942 and by June, another 30 submarines had conducted war patrols from Florida to Maine and 226 merchant ships lay on the bottom in American coastal waters.
Shipyards were ramping up construction of warships, and with the U.S. Navy occupied providing anti-submarine escorts for supply convoys sailing to allied England and Russia and fending off the Japanese in the Pacific, the mostly unchallenged Nazis referred to this time as the “American hunting season.”
Because the oil and gas industry was the lifeblood of the nation’s military and war economy, tankers moving crude and refined oil products were high value targets. Emboldened by their success, the Kriegsmarine turned their gaze on the oil producing and refining Gulf Coast, specifically targeting the shipping rich waters near the entrance of the Mississippi River. By the summer of 1942, the war had come to the Gulf of Mexico in full stride.
With the U.S. military censoring many of these attacks and their efficacy from the press, what was unknown to the American public in the early stages of World War II was how undefended the sprawling coastlines of the United States were, even though ships were regularly exploding from torpedo strikes offshore and in full view of coastal towns and beach communities.
German commander Harro Schacht of U-507 was the first to enter the Gulf of Mexico – what was described to him and his fellow sub commanders as the soft underbelly of a nation unprepared for war. On May 4th 1942, U-507 sank the steam merchant Norlindo due west of the Florida Keys and then two other ships over the next twelve hours including the oil tanker Munger T. Ball.
In his war diary, Schacht described the aftermath of torpedoing the first oil tanker in the Gulf: “The whole sea burns in a wide circle around the spot where she sank. Over it stands a gigantic mushroom of smoke.”
For the residents of coastal fishing communities peppering the marshy coastline of Louisiana near the mouth of the river, these huge fireballs on the Gulf horizon would become regular affairs over the summer of 1942.
Originally destined for Tampa, the Eastern Steamship Line’s 375’ Robert E. Lee under the command of William C. Heath was running full bore for the river at 16-knots – the captain was well aware of the acute U-boat threat, especially in Louisiana’s coastal waters.
The Robert E. Lee had peeled off of a convoy in the Northern Caribbean and was on the last leg of its voyage across the Gulf of Mexico under escort from a U.S. Navy patrol craft. Out of 428 souls crammed onboard the ship, 166 were merchant seamen rescued from three oil tankers sunk in U-boat attacks only weeks before in the Caribbean. As part of the Kreigsmarine’s shifting strategy with the American Navy and with Coast Guard and coastal air defenses scrambling to counter the lethality of their East Coast attacks, long-distance U-boats were refocused to run staggered sorties into the Gulf of Mexico with the goal of having at least two submarines prowling the waters of the northern Gulf at any time.
At the height of the war on the Gulf Coast over the summer of 1942, there were 13 U-boats active in the Gulf of Mexico, including U-166. Grumman J4F1 Widgeon seaplanes armed with a single wing-mounted depth charge and flown by inexperienced civilian auxiliary pilots were deployed in the early summer to counter this fierce U-boat assault on the Northern Gulf Coast. Patrols from Biloxi, MS and Grand Isle, LA were eventually joined by a squadron of depth charge carrying blimps lifting off from sugarcane fields in Houma, LA.
With active military pilots and crews occupied with the war in the Atlantic and Pacific, these Civil Air Patrols were too few in number to be of any real consequence during the height of the U-boat threat. Given the expanse of open Gulf near the mouth of the river, these airmen and their efforts were mostly relegated to heroic recovery operations of merchant mariners after a distress call was made from a torpedoed ship.
After commissioning in March of 1942 and an uneventful initial war patrol in the waters off England, the 252’ long-range IXC submarine U-166 and her crew of 52 sailed on June 17th 1942 from German-occupied Lorient, France and sank three convenient ships in the Florida Straits while transiting into the Gulf of Mexico. U-166 then made way for the mouth of the Mississippi River.
U-boat commanders found Louisiana’s coastal waters to be target rich and ideal blinds for hunting with the muddy water from the river and the bays and estuaries mixing into the Gulf and concealing their dark silhouettes at periscope depth – a sub commander’s greatest fear was to be spotted from the air while submerged at shallow depths in pristine coastal waters. Turbid waters were also thought to interfere with the effectiveness of early sonar systems employed on U.S. naval vessels.
Hunting only a few miles from where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig would explode and crash to the bottom of the Gulf 68 years later, Kuhlmann had the 5,184-ton Robert E. Lee under the barrel of his torpedoes. U-166’s first combat patrol in American territorial waters was, so far, unmolested and a success with its primary mine laying objective completed and three confirmed kills on the bottom.
The standard operating procedure for attacking commercial shipping was to fire one of the 22 torpedoes carried by the IXC class, and then, if necessary, surface and finish the ship with fire from the U-boat’s 105mm deck gun. Unaware there was a U.S. Navy anti-submarine patrol craft escorting the coastal liner about 1,000 yards in the lead, Kuhlmann ordered his crew to fire a single torpedo, and he held position to await the result.
At around 16:30 hours, lookouts and passengers onboard the Robert E. Lee spotted the torpedo’s wake 200 yards out and watched as it drove in and slammed aft of the engine room of their steamship. 404 passengers and crew abandoned ship in the chaos with some lucky enough to climb in or cling on “six lifeboats, eight rafts, and five floats,” but the majority donned life jackets and dove off the side of the ship as it foundered. Within 15 minutes, the Robert E. Lee sank by the stern and carried 25 souls down with it.
Looking to avenge the loss of his escort responsibility on PC-566’s first mission, Lt. Herbert Claudius commanding the Navy patrol craft doubled back to the last known position of the U-boat and dropped two sets of depth charges on a sonar contact he believed initially held position to witness “the sinking of the Robert E. Lee.”
Claudius would later claim a possible kill of a U-boat in his after action reports when an oil slick materialized in the area where he had attacked the sub, but the Navy was incredulous. They completely discounted his claim due to the fact that he and his crew had yet to undergo formal anti-submarine warfare training and took his command from him – a fact that would dog him for most of his otherwise stellar naval career and land him with a desk job.
In 2001, an oil services company conducting survey work for an undersea pipeline investigated two sonar contacts first discovered in 1986 and thought to be the Robert E. Lee and the steam merchant Alcoa Puritan sunk by U-507 on May 6th 1942. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle it was quickly discerned that the second wreck was a German U-boat – the U-166. The two were separated by less than a mile and resting at a depth of 5,000-feet of water, and U-166 had obvious damage from a depth charge towards its bow – vindicating Lt. Claudius.
After six decades Claudius was posthumously awarded the U.S. Navy’s Legion of Merit medal with a combat “V” as well as given credit for the only sinking of a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
24 other ships and tankers lie sunk by Nazi U-boats in Louisiana’s coastal waters and join another 32 sunk throughout the Gulf of Mexico in 1942 – the vast majority trending along the seafloor where they crossed paths with the Kreigsmarine’s classified navigational routes from the Florida Straits to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The United States government was fully cognizant of the magnitude of these attacks on both the East and Gulf Coasts and the military was under extreme pressure, and at something of a loss, to counter this existential threat. By the summer of 1942 and with an estimated 25% of American oil tankers sunk or damaged, the oil and gas industry informed the U.S. War Department that the burgeoning war economy would grind to a halt from a lack of fuel in only nine months due to these unsustainable losses.
During the First World War and facing a threat from early iterations of German U-boats on the East and Gulf Coasts, the military had put out a call requesting the owners of large recreational sailboats and “speedy” powerboats to loan or lease their boats for $1 a month to the government for anti-submarine reconnaissance patrols. Boat owners responded and “mosquito fleets” were organized along coastal waters and ports.
These mosquito fleets weren’t a panacea to the U-boat threat in World War I, but they were a solution that filled a hole in existing U.S. military capabilities. The navy dusted off these plans again in 1939, but with the severe threat from modern and effective German and Japanese submarines in 1942, this quasi-military naval militia, branded as the Coast Guard Auxiliary, was supercharged. American boaters answered the call in droves and a surprising ragtag fleet of recreational boaters and commercial fishermen stepped forward and offered up their boats and themselves for anti-submarine reconnaissance and rescue operations along American coastlines.
These coastal picket forces, made up entirely of unpaid civilian volunteers who were exempt from regular military service due to hardship, dependency or for being too old for active duty allowed the Navy and Coast Guard to free up manpower and resources to focus on the greater objectives in the war. In many ways, this civilian naval militia created and formalized during wartime as the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary would be a harbinger of what is today known as the Cajun Navy and certainly one of the early examples of civilian boaters rising up during a dire moment in American history.
Bar pilot Captain Albro Michell was at the helm of a 122’ sea-going tugboat near the Mississippi River’s South Pass late in the day on July 30th 1942. The legendary tug Underwriter had served in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican-American War and World War I, and was now employed as a tugboat for the Bar Pilots Association. Michell was on a quick supply run delivering food and sundries to the remote pilot’s station, but before his crew tossed lines onto the pilings, a flash call came over the radio that a passenger liner was torpedoed and hundreds of people were languishing in the Gulf.
Michell immediately powered Underwriter out of the river towards the last known coordinates of the Robert E. Lee and into a new war.
This was a working coast, and despite the government’s efforts to censor stories on the effectiveness of the U-boat attacks on coastal shipping, it was a rather poorly kept secret. With hundreds of shrimp and oyster boats plying the Louisiana coastline on any given day, the crews of these trawlers and luggers were growing accustomed to fishing survivors and bodies out of the Gulf as the U-boat toll mounted. Civil Air Patrol seaplanes from Biloxi and Grand Isle were regularly flying over New Orleans filled with burn victims rescued from torpedoed ships. Landing in the Gulf in all weather and sea states to extract these people from life rafts or directly from the oil covered sea, the pilots would then beeline to West End and land on Lake Pontchartrain in the shadow of Southern Yacht Club and deposit them into waiting ambulances. A rash of “flying boats” coming in low over the city from the south was an obvious sign that another ship had fallen victim.
With the hospitals in New Orleans filling with front-line war casualties – these U-boat attacks were an impossible secret to keep on the Gulf Coast. With this exact situation playing out along the Atlantic coastline of south Florida and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the disconnect from the lack of news coverage and the reality on the ground and the water was enormous.
At 20:30 hours, the Underwriter arrived on the scene in the Gulf where seaplanes and the sub-chaser SC-519 had joined PC-566 to rescue survivors. Michell pulled alongside PC-566 and transferred 50-60 men, women and children rescued by Claudius and his crew onboard.
As the 30-year old Michell helmed Underwriter through the dead calm of this late July night to the fishing community of Venice, LA – rescuing these people was personal for him. Two months earlier he was notified that his 26-year old brother Bernard had died in the sinking of the steam tanker David McKelvy after it was torpedoed by U-506 35-miles south of the Mississippi River.
The war was just offshore. Everyone knew it, people were angry and many wanted to do their part.
200 recreational boats were offered up by their owners and registered with the Coast Guard Auxiliary on the Gulf Coast from Key West to the Mexican border before Pearl Harbor and nascent flotillas were organized in every U.S. naval district except for Alaska and Puerto Rico. Initially seen as a reserve force where civilian boats and volunteers would supplement active duty Coast Guardsmen in their mission, war and marauding U-boats changed these calculations.
In 1941, Popular Science magazine ran an article discussing this burgeoning new citizen wing of the Coast Guard. It stated, “These yachtsmen, whose knowledge of seamanship, navigation, and gas engines, plus familiarity with local waters and boats, makes a national defense asset immediately convertible to a useful purpose. These men would be greenhorns aboard a battlewagon, but along the lines of their own hobby, many of them are extremely good, and so are their boats.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was reported that nearly every yacht club along the Gulf and the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts had banded together to form an auxiliary flotilla. From powerboat squadrons to fishing fleets, the exploding ranks of this civilian maritime militia encompassed a true sampling of the boating traditions around the country, from yacht owners in the Northeast, to lobstermen in Maine and shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ernest Hemingway and the crew onboard his 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, were the most famous examples of this citizen force on the Gulf of Mexico. Hemingway “patrolled” for U-boats in the Florida Straits and the Old Bahama Channel from Havana with journalists in tow and armed with grenades, Thompson submachine guns, and Cuban rum. While Hemingway’s actions added to his legacy, the reality is that his anti-submarine efforts climaxed with the sighting of a lone periscope in the distance from Pilar. But he gave a symbolic and romantic face to the thousands of Americans volunteering their time and vessels to defend the coastline of the United States.
Dedicated to new roles in defense of the country, a flotilla of cabin cruisers from Houston patrolled the ship channel within earshot of the 20-inch coastal guns and artillery conducting regular live-fire drills to defend against U-boats from Fort San Jacinto on Galveston Island. In Boston, 60 sailboats and 40 powerboats actively patrolled the coast and harbor. At Cape Fear, North Carolina, the local flotillas toured the area on a 24-hour basis, enduring storms and the blazing heat of summer. Off the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, a convoy of 126 shrimp trawlers had crewmembers on constant watch for submarines while continuing to bring in their hauls of Gulf shrimp.
The flotillas became vital in rescuing seamen from torpedoed vessels, freeing up the Navy and Coast Guard to actively hunt their attackers. In one instance, when the Mexican steam tanker Potrero del Llano lay engulfed in flames and rapidly sinking just off the beaches of Miami, hundreds of citizens watching in horror witnessed the local flotilla “drive their little boats right into the flames” to retrieve survivors.
Utilizing shrimp trawlers, fishing vessels, oyster luggers, and all manner of power and sailboats, the Coastal Picket Forces were equipped with military radios and armed when possible by the government. They were crucial to the Coast Guard as submarine spotters, and highly effective rescuing survivors from torpedoed ships throughout the war.
For many of the unpaid volunteers of the auxiliary, their time was spent patrolling inland waterways hunting saboteurs, policing waterways and conducting rescues for run-of-the-mill boating accidents. With these mundane duties filled by the civilian auxiliary, Coast Guard men and resources could focus on the war effort. By 1943, active duty Coast Guard sailors were drilling with troops on Lake Pontchartrain in the Higgins landing craft built in New Orleans. These sailors would be at the helm of each of these craft in the Normandy invasion in Europe and many other invasions as the U.S. island hopped in the Pacific theater.
These new found duties given to civilians to patrol for Uncle Sam didn’t always sit well. Cajun shrimpers in the Rigolets Pass and Barataria Bay initially balked at being boarded by city yachtsmen, which led to uniforms and official Coast Guard numbering painted on the hulls of private boats loaned to the effort.
Roy Alciatore, the proprietor of the legendary old line French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s, loaned his 31’ Chris-Craft Pepper to the auxiliary and he served 24-hours every week patrolling the Violet Canal area onboard Jerry Schoen’s powerboat the Neolita II, rechristened CGA-20M760. When off-duty, he spent his time cooking gumbos for his fellow crewmembers on watch.
In February of 1943, Alciatore and the crews of over 50 boats ranging from cabin cruisers to yachts from the four New Orleans flotillas participated in the largest coordinated auxiliary maneuver of the war in conjunction with Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. Entering Lake Borgne from Bayou Sauvage and Chef Menteur, the objective was to coordinate the civilian fleet in a training operation simulating the heroic actions of British civilian boaters at Dunkirk in 1940.
Of particular use to the Navy and Coast Guard were large offshore-racing schooners and sloops. They were naturally stealthy, fast, and equipped to handle heavier seas. These racing crews were known to patrol over 150 miles offshore and on spotting a U-Boat, they were asked to maintain contact as long as possible, even if this meant their “certain destruction.”
In 1942, Willard Lewis and his auxiliary crew were patrolling the waters off Fort Lauderdale, FL in his 38’ cruiser when he had one of the more noteworthy run-ins with a German U-Boat. Having been directed by the Coast Guard to search for survivors from a torpedoed tanker, Lewis spotted a U-Boat having mechanical issues with its diving fins, forcing it to repeatedly resurface. After radioing in the sub’s position, Lewis stated to his crew that the Coast Guard would never believe that they’d spotted a German submarine. Within minutes, the sub resurfaced directly underneath his cruiser, hobbling his boat and leaving telltale proof – grey paint smudges – on his hull.
Official historic Coast Guard documents state that “time after time, these auxiliarys took their tiny boats out, a few armed with rifles, others with only boat hooks and flashlights, to haul drowning, burned, merchant seamen from the sea.”
These sunken ships and their war dead lay all along America’s East and Gulf coasts from a forgotten front in World War II. They rest quietly on the bottom and serve as thriving homes for corals, fish, and other marine species and as memorials to the merchant marine and the actions of American citizens and their service throughout World War II.
The argument can certainly be made that the Gulf U-boat war was fought primarily by the volunteers of the coastal picket forces, the civil air patrol and the men and women of the merchant marine.