During World War II, German submarines in the Gulf of Mexico sank dozens of Allied merchant ships -- killing hundreds of people.
Lt. Cdr. Chris Hogan, chief spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard in New Orleans, and Kenneth Kaiser, head of the Louisiana FBI, say they were aware of Axis attacks on the West Coast and in the Atlantic Ocean, but not in the warm Gulf waters. A Coast Guard historian in Washington also had no data on the Gulf attacks.
"Sixty years ago, the Gulf of Mexico was the deadliest place on earth for merchant ships," says D-Day research historian Martin K. A. Morgan.
Germany declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 11, 1941, and launched an offensive on American coastal waters designed to cut Allied supply lines to Europe.
Beginning in May 1942, 24 German submarines undertook Operation Drumbeat in the Gulf of Mexico. The campaign lasted until December 1943. During that period, the torpedo-laden U-boats successfully attacked 72 out of 100 unarmed Allied merchant vessels in the Gulf, killing an estimated 500 crew and civilian passengers from as far away as Russia, Venezuela, Honduras and Great Britain. Fifty-six ships were sunk by U-boat torpedoes or deck guns. An additional 15 vessels were damaged.
"It was the highest casualty rate the German Navy would impose on any geographical area during the Second World War," Morgan says, noting that during May 1942 alone, Nazi subs sank 41 Allied merchant ships in the Gulf.
"The greatest concentration of attacks and sinkings was just off the mouth of the Mississippi River," Morgan says. "That May was the worst month for Allied shipping during the entire war."
According to an unpublished report by Morgan and co-author C.J. Christ: "The damage was more than just physical. The psychological result of this early rash of sinkings was the introduction of a measure of anxiety into the lives of Americans from Florida to Texas."
During the U-boat campaign, survivors fished out of the water were taken to New Orleans to be debriefed by the FBI, says Morgan. The Germans lost three subs in the campaign including U-166, which apparently was sunk by depth charges from American (Patrol Craft) PC-566, just 45 miles from the jetties of the Southwest Pass in the Mississippi River.
In June 2001, officials from British Petroleum, Shell Oil, the federal Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Department of Interior held a news conference at the D-Day Museum to announce the discovery of U-166 in a deep Gulf grave. The wreckage of the sub was found within one mile of its last victim -- the SS Robert E. Lee.
Morgan and Christ traced the U-boat's deadly visit to the Louisiana coast from the time the vessel's keel was laid down in Bremen, Germany on Dec. 6, 1940. On June 17, 1942, under the command of 29-year-old Oberleutenant See Hans-Gunther Kuhlman, U-166 headed to the Gulf of Mexico to sink Allied merchant ships. On the night of July 24, the sub laid nine mines within 600 yards of the jetties off Southwest Pass. "They never sank any ships, but they are still down in the mud," Morgan says.
U-166 then transmitted a message -- its last message -- to its headquarters announcing completion of the mission.
According to Morgan and Christ and a 1942 Navy memorandum, the following took place: On the afternoon of July 30, 1942, the Lee was 45 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi bound for New Orleans from Trinidad. The vessel was carrying 407 people -- 270 civilian passengers, 131 crew, and six armed Navy guards. Most of the passengers were survivors of ships previously torpedoed.
At 4:30 p.m. Central Time, the Lee was "torpedoed without warning," the naval memo states.
"The track of the torpedo was seen by several of the passengers and crew for approximately 200 yards before striking the ship ... those who saw it argued among themselves as to weather [sic] it was a porpoise or a shark," according to the report.
A single torpedo struck the ship's starboard side aft of the engine room, causing the vessel to sink within 15 minutes, "plunging stern first." Ten crew and 15 passengers perished. Survivors abandoned ship and were rescued by naval escort vessels. They were landed upriver at Venice and transported by bus to New Orleans, where an undetermined number was hospitalized.
Within minutes of the sinking, the PC-566, commanded by Lt. Cdr. H.C. Claudius, charged after a periscope that had been sighted. PC-566 acquired sonar contact with the sub and released a pattern of 10 fatal depth charges that sunk the U-boat and all 52 crewmembers. Historians have been unable to locate Claudius, Morgan says.
For more than 50 years, historians erroneously assumed U-166 had escaped until March 2001, when C&T Technologies Inc. of Lafayette located the sub while surveying an oil pipeline route for BP and Shell.
Morgan says there were no cases of U-boat incursions in the river or local infiltration by German saboteurs. For a time, Morgan and Christ wrote, "U-boats found scores of merchant ships sailing alone and defenseless in the Gulf. ... Many of these targets carried ... petroleum products from the vast oilfields and refineries of Texas and Louisiana."
On Oct. 24, 2002 -- 60 years after the Gulf became a wartime graveyard for unarmed ships -- the FBI issued a global alert warning of al Qaeda plans to conduct "sea-based attacks against large oil tankers [which] may be part of more extensive operations against port facilities."