Did you know?
More Allied ships were sunk by German submarines in the Gulf of Mexico during World War Two than were destroyed in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. And the only German U-Boat lost during the conflict was sunk off the coast of Louisiana.
Lost among the histories of major World War Two battles with Nazi Germany are a series of attacks on American ships along the Gulf coast of Louisiana and other southern states. The German navy called it Operation Paukenschlag, or Operation Drumbeat. It was Germany’s Second Happy Time, following the success of U-Boat attacks in the North Atlantic.
When the U-Boats arrived in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942, there were no naval escorts and no coastal blackouts. The German subs would remain submerged during daylight hours, then surface and hunt their prey in darkness. Cargo ships appeared as silhouettes against the lights of coastal communities.
“This is part of the reason why they call it a happy time,” explained World War Two historian Martin Morgan, “because it’s extremely easy for them to hunt down a ship sailing by itself hundreds of miles from shore out in the middle of the open Gulf of Mexico”. The only thing blacked out by the U.S. military was press reports of the carnage taking place offshore. “It was because we didn’t want the spies to find out and report word back to German Naval Headquarters that the U-Boats were doing a very fine job”, said Morgan.
At the Regional Military Museum in Houma, President/CEO C.J. Christ points to a map of the Gulf of Mexico that is criss-crossed with dozens of colored lines and black dots. “This plots all of the U-Boats that came into the Gulf of Mexico”. Christ’s interest in this hidden war started in 1967, when a friend told him about a sunken U-Boat. Christ recalls, “He said, Christ, don’t you know that there’s a German submarine out there in 60 feet of water? I said, “No I didn’t”. That started four-decade-long search for the missing U-boat, the U-166. “We never did find the U-Boat …. because it was 140 miles from where they said it was.”
Allied cargo ships and oil tankers traveling to and from the Mississippi River were targeted by the Germans. Christ said, “They sank 58 of our ships and damaged 19 more”.
In July of 1942 the American tanker Benjamin Brewster was torpedoed off the coast of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Twenty-five of its crewmen were killed, and some of the survivors rowed their lifeboats onto the Grand Isle beach. The offshore battles were now hitting close to home. “The ship that was sunk off Grand Isle for instance, two-and-a-half miles off the beach,” said Christ, “you couldn’t keep that a secret. Besides, it burned for nine days.”
Three weeks later, the U-166 attacked and sank the passenger steamer Robert E Lee, 45 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Robert E. Lee was being escorted by the navy patrol craft PC-566. “They spotted the periscope of the U-166”, according to Christ. “They start blowing their horn to try to warn the Robert E Lee.” But it was too late. Christ says a torpedo was already streaking through the water toward the steamship, “The torpedo went into the engine room, 75 feet from the end of the ship and it sank within 8 to 15 minutes”. Historian Morgan details the counter-attack by the U.S. Navy patrol craft, “PC-566 then moves toward and aims at that periscope moving at flank speed toward that periscope. The periscope turns around, looks directly at the PC and then retracts beneath the surface. That area of disturbed water was still visible when the PC-566 drove right over it. They could still see a faint outline of the U-Boat just below the surface of the water.” After making two passes, dropping 5 depth charges each time, Captain Herbert Claudius turns his patrol craft to rescue passengers from the sinking ship. Christ suggested, “He was convinced in his own mind he had sunk the submarine because once he left the scene, he heard no noise at all”. But Captain Claudius was reprimanded by the Navy for botching the attack because depth charges were set too deep.
It wasn’t until the sunken remains of the U-166 and the Robert E. Lee were discovered in 2001 during an underwater oil pipeline survey, that a new examination of the U-Boat’s wreckage suggested a lucky shot. “Maybe one of those depth charges landed on the deck of the U-Boat. The other ones sank past it”, says Morgan, who thinks it’s possible a depth charge may be been sitting on the forward deck near the sub’s torpedoes. Morgan theorizes, “That depth charge went off and it set off one, maybe two torpedoes. Everything was over in an instant. Those men were obliterated before they even knew what was happening.”
In December of 2014, more than 30 years after the death of Captain Claudius, the Navy corrected a long-standing error. Christ attended the long-overdue ceremony, “The Navy Secretary and also the Chief of Naval Operations decided to decorate the Captain posthumously through his son”. That award cast new attention on an almost forgotten battleground where Gulf coast states found themselves on the front line of war.