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Diving into Florida's history

Into the Wolfpack

The coasts are littered with the remains of sunken ships from World War II.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003


JACKSONVILLE BEACH -- Phil May remembers that evening in the spring of '42 as if it were yesterday.

"I was 17 and on a double date with a friend of mine," the 77-year-old recalled. "We were on the merry-go-round, and when we came around to face the ocean, there was just this tremendous explosion and ball of fire shooting straight up in the air."

At first, May thought there must have been a collision between two tankers in the busy shipping lanes off Jacksonville. Freighter traffic was a common sight as the United States struggled to keep its ally Great Britain supplied with oil, aluminum and other goods necessary for the fight against Nazi Germany.

"We didn't think that it could possibly have anything to do with the war," May said. "But as we drove north, we stopped and watched as the German submarine came between the beach and the burning ship and finished it off with its deck gun."

The sinking of the Gulfamerica -- an 8,000-ton steam tanker on its maiden voyage from Port Arthur, Texas, to New York City -- just a few miles off the crowded boardwalk at Jacksonville Beach is probably the most famous battle in a war few know was waged so close to Florida's shores.

"Most people don't have any idea what went on here," said Michael Gannon, a history professor at the University of Florida and author of Operation Drumbeat. "But even back then, as the Gulfamerica burned just a few miles off shore, the thousands standing on the boardwalk couldn't believe their eyes."

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean are littered with rusting hulks of freighters and the submarines that sank them in the opening months of World War II. These war relics are the favorite haunts of recreational scuba divers, but few know the full story of the last time hostile warships patrolled American waters.

Paukenschlag

One week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, five German submarines left their secret bases in the Bay of Biscay and set sail for the East Coast of the United States.

It took two weeks for the U-boats to get within sight of land, and when they did, their captains were surprised to see the lights of the coastal cities shining brightly.

"There was no blackout," said Gannon, who is widely regarded as a pre-eminent expert on the War in the Atlantic. "So ships running against the coastline made easy targets."

The German code name for the coordinated attack was Paukenschlag, or Drumbeat. And before it ended on Feb. 5, the five "sea wolves" had sunk 25 ships. The Germans returned to France, refitted and re-armed, then returned later that spring.

"At their peak, the Germans were sinking 100 ships a month," Gannon said. "They were very active in U.S. Coastal waters."

The sinking of the Gulfamerica was not only unique because of its close proximity to land, but also to the boldness and subsequent chivalry of the German captain, Reinhard Hardegan. The young U-boat commander had sunk nine Allied ships on his first sortie into U.S. waters. When he spotted the Gulfamerica 5 miles off Jacksonville Beach on April 11, 1942, the tanker loaded with 101,500 barrels of furnace oil was not running a zigzag course, a standard for ships in a combat zone.

Hardegan's U-123 fired one torpedo, which hit amidships and set the tanker ablaze.

"He wanted to conserve torpedoes," said Gannon, who met with Hardegan after the war. "He knew he had to ventilate the hull to make sure it sank, but he could see the people watching from the beach and didn't want to hit anybody when he started firing his deck gun."

So Hardegan positioned his U-boat between the burning freighter and the crowd on the beach.

"He was probably no more than a mile off the beach," said May, who witnessed the attack. "We could see the outline of the sub clearly. And each time the deck gun went off, the whole thing lit up."

Five of the Gulfamerica's crew were killed in the initial explosion. Another 14 drowned when their life boat tipped over. A Coast Guard vessel arrived the next day and transported survivors to Mayport.

The Germans continued to harass Allied shipping along the Eastern Seaboard, and in June 1942, landed two four-man teams of saboteurs, one of which came ashore in Ponte Vedra, just north of St. Augustine.

"But they were followed and eventually discovered," Gannon said. "They never had a chance to do much damage."

The War in the Gulf

The Germans sank their first ship in the Gulf of Mexico on May 4, 1942, when U-507 torpedoed the freighter Norlindo, west-northwest of Key West. U-boats sank an average of about one ship per day that month.

The next month, German sinkings in the Gulf, Atlantic and Caribbean theaters of operation totaled 131 ships.

A headline from the July 19, 1942 edition of the St. Petersburg Times proclaimed, "Ship Toll Pass 400-Mark."

An accompanying photograph shows a burning ship with the caption, "Flames and smoke burst from a sinking U.S. cargo ship, which was torpedoed by an enemy submarine in the Gulf of Mexico while lying close to shore and blacked out ... Fifteen crewmen struggled to a partially burned lifeboat and escaped, but 27 perished."

That same morning, while St. Petersburg residents read about the freighter, another ship had troubles of its own.

The Baja California, a Honduran-flagged steam merchant owned by a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, was en route from New Orleans to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, when it was hit by two torpedoes fired from the U-84.

The freighter, carrying a load of military vehicles, tobacco and several tons of glassware, turned on its side and sank in 10 minutes about 40 miles northeast of Rebecca Shoals.

According to one account of the sinking, three men were killed and 10 wounded in the initial attack. The survivors abandoned ship in one lifeboat and two life rafts. They drifted for a day, were rescued by the Cuban fishing schooner San Ignacio and taken to the Havana Naval Station.

Another account, however, claims the survivors were rescued by a daring seaplane pilot who was forced to fit the 21 survivors into his nine-passenger plane.

The U-84 damaged another ship two days later, then returned to base. Capt. Horst Upoff would claim one more ship in November 1942, then his U-boat was sunk the following summer off the Azores by a torpedo dropped from an American Liberator aircraft launched from the USS Core. All 46 men aboard were lost.

But while the stories of the men who served aboard the Baja California may be lost to history, the ship still has a tale to tell.

Jeeps and empty bottles

"The Baja is a great place to find artifacts," said Steve May, a Fort Myers diver who has taken extensive photographs of the wreck. "People still find bottles, especially after a storm."

According to the ship's manifest, the Baja carried a general cargo, which included tobacco and cotton, as well as military vehicles and several tons of empty bottles.

As the ship was sinking, the bow section split off and now rests about 50 feet from the rest of the wreck. Salvagers removed the ship's 14-foot steel propellor years ago.

The .50-caliber machine gun that was mounted on its foredeck also is gone, but the 4-inch deck gun that guarded the stern is intact.

Dive charters from Fort Myers Beach make regular trips to the Baja California. The wreck lies midway between Fort Myers Beach and the Dry Tortugas in 115 feet of water, which makes it a trip for "advanced" divers.

The Baja is completely encrusted in barnacles, sea anemones and other marine life, the decks having collapsed decades ago.

If you dive the Baja today, you undoubtedly will encounter large schools of amberjack that seem to serve as silent sentinels for the sunken ship below. The Baja also has a resident barracuda population, which can make it difficult for spearfishermen to get their catch to the surface.

If you make it all the way down to the wreck, you can see what is left of the jeeps and trucks that were lost in the sinking, as well as 1940s era glass bottles, especially after a storm.

The Baja isn't the only World War II relic accessible to divers. The Empire Mica, sunk off the Panhandle, as well as a half-dozen wrecks off Canaveral and Fort Pierce, also are popular diving destinations.

The U-boats, and there are three known to have sunk off Florida's coast, tend to be in deeper water and, as a result, only are visited by technical divers trained in the use of mixed gas.

The Germans sank their last ship in the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 4, 1942, but the War in the North Atlantic continued into the following year.

Eventually the convoy system, combined with the use of attack aircraft and fast surface vessels, turned the tide against the Germans. Gannon wrote a book about the German naval defeat called Black May.

"There has been a lot written about what happened in Europe," the retired professor said. "But the real war was fought at sea."

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