Rio History: Hunting German U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico

Special to the PRESS

Over the years, I have heard stories of extensive U-boat activities in the Gulf of Mexico. Old-timers talk of watching the night skies light up as some hapless freighter was torpedoed offshore. In fact, the government quarantined much of Padre Island during these years while permanent coast watchers kept a 24-hour watch for German saboteurs. Citizens would report wreckage that washed ashore and often times the Coast Guard would spend days searching for survivors.

At the onset of World War II, the German high command wasted no time in sending U-boats to harass shipping along the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. In the early months of the War only five ships were sunk in the Gulf waters. But in May 1942, enemy submarines sank 41 ships, totaling almost 220,000 gross tons. Over half were tankers. The German subs were now a major threat in all theaters. They were sinking ships faster than they could be built.

In May 1942, the oil tanker Virginia, carrying 180,000 barrels of gasoline, stopped to pick up a pilot about a mile and a half off the mouth of the Mississippi River. Moments later, she was struck by a torpedo. Twenty-seven were killed outright and the rest of the 41 man crew suffered severe burns.

The U-boat attacks were becoming so bold that no one was safe on the water. By year’s end, several hundred ships had been sunk or heavily damaged in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Eastern Seaboard during U-boat attacks.

The U.S. Navy responded by sending a squadron of light bombers to Jacksonville, Florida and six medium bombers to Miami. A detachment of B-25s was sent to Cuba to patrol the Yucatan Channel. In addition, patrols flew regular missions from airfields scattered all along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas.

In September 1942, the Navy built a lighter-than-air facility, otherwise known as the Miami Blimp Base, at the Richmond Naval Air Station near Homestead, Florida. The massive hangers housed blimps that patrolled the sea lanes off Miami and into the Gulf of Mexico looking for Nazi subs. The combination of these and other advances made it very difficult for the U-boats to remain undetected. Three years later, almost exactly to the date of its construction, the blimp base was destroyed by a hurricane that struck with winds in excess of 150 mph.

The United States Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command became very proficient at seeking and destroying enemy subs. As a result, German U-boats sank fewer than 20 ships between late 1943 and the end of the War.

Several new inventions were put to use. The first, the absolute altimeter, used a modified microwave radar to determine the aircraft’s exact altitude to within 10 feet. This instrument replaced the less accurate barometric device that had been in place at the onset of the War, enabling aircraft to fly safely as low as 50 feet above the surface. Finally, low altitude attacks could be carried out against a moving target whether on or beneath the surface. The tide of battle began to change.

Engineers perfected a device for locating submarines even if they were submerged. The magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) operated by sensing the slightest change in the magnetic field of the earth. Aircraft outfitted with MAD would patrol in areas of known or suspected submarine activity. Radio sonic buoys were used to listen for the sounds of a submarine. A depth bomb with shallow fuses was developed that sank slowly and detonated at a predetermined depth.

Another development, LORAN, (long range aid to navigation) used radio signals from three known points to assist the navigator in plotting the plane’s position within four miles. LORAN coverage was extended over the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and most of the Caribbean.

On June 4, 1944, the U-505 — one of the more successful Nazi subs — was forced to surface off the coast of Africa. Three Allied destroyers were waiting and damaged the boat severely. The Germans quickly abandoned their stricken craft. The Americans were able to capture the boat before it sank. On June 19,, the sub and accompanying destroyers sailed into Bermuda. The U-505 was listed as lost with all hands. The Germans were completely unaware of the fact that the Allies had captured the code books. As a result, the Allies were able to intercept messages and successfully sank over 300 Nazi subs in the ensuing months.

Author’s Note: The U-505 was taken as a war trophy and ended up in Chicago where it was converted into a memorial dedicated to honor America’s fallen heroes of World War II.

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1 comment

    • Michael Jones on January 13, 2019 at 2:13 pm
    • Reply

    The U 505 is at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. You can walk through the submarine. It’s a fascinating experience.

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