Dixie Arrow off Cape Hatteras, 26 March 1942
National Archives and Record Administration
It is a running joke in my US History 1302 classes that “untertseeboot” is the coolest German word ever. I first say it when we get to World War One, and then I randomly figure out a way to insert the word as many lectures as I can. Hey, you gotta do something to break the monotony. Right? Anyway, though the Germans did not invent the submarine, they damn should came close to perfecting use of said unterseebooten. Yes! Twice in one paragraph!
Did you know, Dear Readers, that we had German submarines close to our shores during World War Two? And when I say close to our shores, I mean close enough to see our shores. The United States Navy and the German Kriegsmarine had already crossed swords before Germany declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941. I know I am going to take some flak for saying this, but Franklin Roosevelt had been seemingly trying to get the US into the war in Europe. His Pan-American Security Zone went all the way to Iceland. US warships passed intelligence regarding submarines over to the Royal Navy. A few US merchant ships had been sunk already, but by and large the Kriegsmarine didn’t take the bait. Maybe because of what happened during the First World War. That changed when Germany declared war. The following day, Der Fuhrer ordered an operation that came to be known as Operation Paukenschlag or Drumbeat. It would carry the Battle for the Atlantic to US shores.
USS Reuben James (DD-245) sunk by a torpedo intended for a merchant ship
31 Oct. 1941. 115 Americans KIA
Of course, getting to the Eastern Seaboard was quite the chore. The Germans did not have very many long range submarines available and so only five would make the first trip. But what a trip it was. Despite warnings by the British that we needed to blackout coastal cities and use convoys in coastal waters, this is Murica and we don’t need those Redcoats giving us advice! Well, we should have listened. Attacking on the surface at night, the German submarine commanders were shooting fish in a barrel. Ships left silhouettes as they passed in front of brightly lit coastal towns like Miami Beach. Radio operators on ships chatted back and forth about their direction of travel, all broadcast in the clear.
Reinhard Hardegan's U-123 following her 2nd Drumbeat Patrol
(Note: At last check, Hardegan is still alive at 102!)
When the five German submarines returned to port, four of them had sunk over 25,000 tons of shipping each! The fifth got under 10,000 tons and received an ass chewing from Admiral Donitz. The next wave of attacks (under a different operational code name) ventured into the Caribbean where they feasted on tankers traveling back and forth from Texas to Florida. The US government did no permit information regarding ships lost to be made public lest it start a panic. However, some ships were sunk so close to land that flames from burning tankers were clearly visible. Some even reported seeing German submarines firing their deck guns at merchant ships. That, Dear Readers, is too close for comfort! German sailors were said to have called this The Great American Turkey Shoot. The area off the Outer Banks of North Carolina came to be known as Torpedo Alley.
MS Pennsylvania Sun
By April the US Navy and Merchant Marine began to get their act together and the East Coast became a dangerous place for German subs. At least 9 were sunk between the middle of April and the end of July 1942. But they wreaked havoc on coastal shipping up to that point. German submarines sank over 400 ships, mostly merchant marine vessels. And herein lies the sad part of the tale. The US Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any other branch of service during World War Two. A higher percentage of them were killed that Marines, Soldiers, and (Navy) Sailors. (The Air Force did not exist as a separate branch of the service yet.) FDR promised them veteran status during the War, but he died before any provisions were made for them. When they came home after the war, many of them were seen as draft dodgers though they were subject to the draft if they spent more than 30 days ashore. Also, given the desperate need for qualified mariners, the Army would release a drafted mariner to return to the merchant fleet. I will make a long story short. Congress established a review board to determine which civilian occupations should receive veteran status. It was presided over by the Secretary of the Air Force. The Merchant Marine was turned down every time they requested it, even though in a few limited cases, certain people (like those who took part in Operation Overlord) did receive veteran’s benefits. Finally, a lawsuit filed in 1987 broke through the red tape. A Federal judge found that the Secretary of the Air Force abused his position in refusing status to merchant mariners. In January of 1988, member of the USMM in oceangoing service between Dec. 7, 1941 and August 15, 1945 were finally granted veteran status. That was later extended to Dec. 31, 1946 which is when President Truman declared hostilities to be at a formal end.
Merchant Marine survivors of an unknown sinking aboard a life raft
Of course, I wonder about the members of the Merchant Marine who were killed prior to the US entry into the war? What of them? According to this source, one out of every 26 merchant mariners died during the course of World War Two, as opposed to one out of every 34 marines, 48 soldiers (which included Army Air Corps), and 114 sailors. It is a sad thing that their sacrifices were not recognized until 1988. Very, very sad. But we didn’t apologize for locking American citizens of Japanese ancestry in camps until 1988 also, so maybe it is par for the course.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would like to say one more thing. UNTERSEEBOOTEN!
Survivors of U-701 rescued off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
7 July 1942