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With Veterans Day approaching Sunday, it’s an opportunity to look back at a part of U.S. history that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
During World War II, German U-boats attacked U.S. and Allied commercial ships along our Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico with alarming regularity. The sacrifices made and the lessons learned should be a significant part of history classes in all of our schools.
Statistics regarding the number of ships sunk and the lives lost vary. With the help of Byron Gray in the research library of the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, here are the most accurate figures we could find about the U-boat attacks, most of which occurred from January through June 1942:
— Torpedoes from U-boats were responsible for the sinking of about 170 ships off the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida during World War II.
— About 60 ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
— About 140 ships were sunk in the Caribbean.
— The number of ships sunk off the coast of Florida was 24, according to Michael Gannon, former professor of history at the University of Florida and author of “Operation Drumbeat,” a book on German submarine warfare during World War II.
— Estimates vary as to how many people were killed or wounded in the U-boat attacks. A consensus is that at least 2,400 were killed and 1,100 wounded.
Without coastal blackouts, ships were silhouetted by the lights of U.S. cities, making the vessels easy targets. So brazen were the Germans and so vulnerable were the merchant ships that most of the attacks by the U-boats were made on the surface rather than underwater.
In a 1999 article, Joe Crankshaw of our staff wrote that the goal of the Germans was “to sink more ships than America could build and to reduce the flow of supplies below the subsistence point” between the United States and England. In addition, the Germans hoped to rattle Americans with the notion that the enemy could land on our soil.
It wasn’t until the U.S. military was able to provide convoys and aircraft patrols that the U-boat attacks ended.
Relying on a variety of sources, we found some stunning anecdotes. Among them:
— From its base in Bayonne, N.J., the U.S. Navy placed nets in New York Harbor in an effort to defend the area from U-boats. According to the book “The Battle of the Atlantic” by Samuel Eliot Morrison, a German submarine laid 10 mines in New York Harbor in November 1942. One of the mines was discovered by a Navy sweeper and the harbor was closed for two days.
— In June 1942, four saboteurs from a German submarine came ashore near Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. They buried boxes of explosives in the dunes, then boarded a bus for Jacksonville, Fla. They made their way to Cincinnati, then split up, with two going to Chicago and two to New York. They planned to join four other saboteurs, who had landed at East Hampton on Long Island. They intended to bomb power plants, bridges and factories that manufactured war supplies.
Fortunately, the group in New York was spotted by a Coast Guardsman, who called authorities. Two of the Germans made full confessions to the FBI in exchange for leniency. All eight of the saboteurs were apprehended, stood trial and found guilty of spying. Six were executed. The two who had confessed were given 30-year prison sentences. Both were released in 1948 and deported to Germany.
— In May 1942, the tanker Virginia was struck by a torpedo in the mouth of the Mississippi River by a German U-boat, killing 26 crewmen.
— In the only attack on a mainland American military base in World War II, a Japanese submarine surfaced in the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and fired shells at Fort Stevens. Fortunately, the only damage was to a baseball-field backstop. U.S. aircraft on a training mission spotted the submarine and attacked it before it escaped.
— According to the 1999 Crankshaw article, several ships were attacked within sight of the Treasure Coast of Florida during World War II. In February 1942, the oil tanker Republic was sunk by German torpedoes offshore from Jupiter Island in Martin County. The survivors swam ashore through water covered with crude oil, which was burning in spots. Residents rushed to help the men.
Ernie Lyons, a reporter (and later editor) for The Stuart News, went to the scene and interviewed many survivors. Years later, he told Crankshaw: “I had all these wonderful stories as these sailors rested and were fed. I was all ready to go when a Navy officer and several Navy trucks showed up to get the men and take them to West Palm Beach. The officer learned I was a reporter and told me, ‘You know you can’t print a word of this. National security, you know. We don’t want the Germans to know what they have sunk.’ ”
(Mark Tomasik is the editor of the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Stuart, Fla. E-mail him at mark.tomasik(at)scripps.com.)