When springtime arrives and the tranquil gulf waters reflect a beautiful emerald hue, it can be difficult to imagine the history of turmoil, strife, and destruction that haunt the past and the unforgettable War Offshore.
The German U-boats that once prowled the Gulf of Mexico have left a legacy of mystery, tragedy, and intrigue…and 56 sunken ships that still rest on the sandy seafloor today. Two of the ships sunk during the war were torpedoed less than one hundred miles from Marco Island, and the story that follows illustrates both sides of the conflict from above and below the water.
German submariners referred to the year of 1942 as the “Happy Times.” America was mobilizing fast and gearing up for the war against the Japanese, but the coastal defenses of the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico were not prepared for the long-range U-boat and a backyard naval war with Germany.
On June 10, 1942, Kapitanleutnant Horst Uphoff and his crew of German submariners cast off the lines of the U-84 under the fortified submarine pens in France. The U-boat commander and his veteran crew were on their sixth patrol bound for the Atlantic Ocean and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. After participating in a successful “Wolf pack attack” - a coordinated assault with several other German submarines against an allied convoy - Uphoff and the crew of the U-84 cruised unchallenged into the Old Bahama Channel.
Knowing that the Gulf of Mexico and the waters between Florida and Cuba were heavily traveled merchant shipping routes for the enemies of Germany, Uphoff ordered his submarine to prowl north along the Southwest Florida coast.
July 18, 1942 was the last day afloat for the Honduran registered Baja California. The freighter was a 257-foot Norwegian ship built in 1914, and her master and commander was Aage Christensen. There were 32-crew and five armed guards aboard as she departed New Orleans and headed for Guatemala.
Shortly after dawn on July 19, 1942, Kapitanleutnant Uphoff and the submerged U-84 torpedoed the Baja California steaming alone on a southerly heading and brought World War II to within 55 miles of Marco Island. The first torpedo slammed into the old freighter’s port bow and the second exploded near the Chief Engineer’s quarters. The ship instantly began to list and Captain Christensen ordered everyone to abandon ship. Within ten minutes, the surviving crew rallied to lower lifeboats and watched in shock as the Baja California slipped beneath the emerald water. Three of the ship’s company perished when the torpedoes exploded and ten others were injured. The survivors were rescued the following day under a broiling summer sun by a Cuban fishing schooner bound for Havana. The Baja California and her cargo of Willys jeeps, glassware, and war materials, now rest in 115 feet of water approximately 55 miles west of Marco Beach.
On an unseasonably cool April 3, 1943, the USS Gulfstate was steaming south of Marco Island. Her forty-year-old Captain James Harrell had given orders to navigate his 438-foot vessel in the shallow waters north of Key West because of reports of German submarine activity. Although the reports were placing the U-boat away from the Southwest Florida coast, the skipper of the USS Gulfstate was taking no chances. He was in command of a fuel tanker and knew that the Germans considered his precious cargo as valuable as an entire division of men. Harrell also believed that an ocean-going submarine needed at least 60 feet of water to place her periscopes under the waves and no sub-commander worth his salt would dare to maneuver in the near-coastal shallow water.
This was an unfortunate mistake because Korvetten Kapatain Cornelius Penning was wearing his Knight’s Cross decoration as he was watching from the surfaced conning tower of his U-155. Penning knew that he was a wolf among the sheep and that many of the choice lambs would be cruising through the shallows with a confidence they should not feel. Penning was no beginner to shallow water attacks and the only portion of his submarine underwater was the vented decks as his partially surfaced engine of war stalked her prey. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten as Penning observed the silhouette of the USS Gulfstate. With an urgency for speed and stealth, the U-boat commander ordered his officers and crew to make ready for a torpedo attack.
Captain James Harrell, master of the USS Gulfstate, lost his life on that cool April morning, along with forty of his shipmates when two of the U-155’s torpedoes detonated amidships. With a full cargo of fuel oil, the Gulfstate became an instant conflagration as the flames from the stricken ship rose hundreds of feet above the disaster. Only 15 of the tanker crew survived.
There were 56 allied ships sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942, with the loss of only one U-boat. The U-166 was sunk by depth charges 30 miles from the entrance to the Mississippi River.
With the terror of the U-boats obvious, the Commandant of the Coast Guard consulted with yachting organizations to utilize small-armed boats as submarine observation craft.
In Key West, Ernest Hemingway obtained machine guns, grenades, and bazookas for his personal yacht Pilar. As Captain, he routinely went on patrol, but only once saw a U-boat from a distance before the submarine submerged.
Not all of the U-boat attacks in the Gulf ended with casualties, and several reports have surfaced about the behavior of a particular U-boat operating in the Florida Straits. Apparently, when this specific U-boat would discover a smaller ship not worth a torpedo, the submarine would surface alongside for an unusual altercation. The U-boat commander would come on deck with his gun crews and announce in perfect English. “You have fifteen minutes to lower your lifeboats and get away from the ship. Do not attempt to use your radio as my radioman is listening and I will sink you immediately if I discover a call to report our position.”
When all the crew were safely off the ship, the U-boat commander would then order the lifeboats to pull alongside the surfaced hull of the submarine. Many of the reports from the lifeboat crews were almost identical: The U-boat commander was wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, with the only designation of military rank, his white officer’s cap. All the men from the sub that appeared on deck were also wearing shorts and appeared to have dark tans with the captain moving among his men like a leading character in the movies.
When the lifeboats pulled up next to the U-boat, the commander with the Hawaiian shirt would hand out packs of cigarettes and sometimes offer a bottle of brandy. On one occasion, he even gave the stranded sailors a baked cake. Before his deck guns began to shell and sink the abandoned ship, the sub commander would say, “Don’t blame me for this - I’m just a man doing a job. Blame Mister Roosevelt and Mister Churchill and have your shipping company send them the bill for the damages.”
Fifty-six Allied ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. Forty thousand German submariners went to sea in U-boats, 30,000 never returned. The beautifully clear Gulf during the months of March and April can only be described as beautiful, but beneath the surface of the shining sea are the remains of the ships and the sailors from the War Offshore.
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