Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers The Battle for Torpedo Junction (1942) - May 20th, 2003
Posted on 05/20/2003 5:35:30 AM PDT by SAMWolf
are acknowledged, affirmed and commemorated.
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In 1942 the United States fought and suffered one of its greatest defeats of World War II, not in Europe or the Pacific but along the eastern seaboard. As men and war materials were dispatched to foreign fronts the enemy, unchallenged, entered America's front door. Columns of black smoke and orange flames of torpedoed merchant vessels stretched from New England to New Orleans. Explosions offshore rattled windows and the nerves of startled coastal residents. From the surf floated oil, debris, and bodies.
Illuminated by brightly lit beach towns, ships became easy prey for U-boats, while government propaganda kept U.S. citizens in the dark. Merchant seamen who risked their lives to deliver vital, war effort cargoes sailed in constant peril at the mercy of a naive public and an ambivalent government.
America hastily mounted a defense to the U-boat assault. Boys from the fields of the nation's heartland were dispatched into deadly waters. Against well-trained, battle-tested Germans, they bravely took up the fight with small arms, in small boats and on small horses.
Forty years after the radio was pioneered by inventor Reginald Fessenden on the Outer Banks, it became the islanders= bridge, their link to the world that lay over the horizon. The radio played music, and it delivered news of troubled times far away. 1941 had been a quiet year on the Outer Banks. There were no shipwrecks and few storms. Coast Guard surfmen at stations from cape Lookout to Currituck caught up on their repairs, training and sleep. Up and down the the beach miles of telegraph lines that linked the lifeboat outposts hung in relative silence. At once, it all changed.
On Dec. 7. 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and on the radio, Outer Banks families heard president Franklin Roosevelt call it "a date which will live in infamy."
"It was all over the radio," remembers Gibb Gray of Avon. "In fact, when we turned it on. it interrupted NBC Symphony, it interrupted that whole thing. All military personnel were ordered to their bases everywhere."
In those first few months of the war, old-timers on the Outer Banks knew what the radio commentators weren't reporting -- what happened in the last war. They remembered the August, 1918, sinking of Diamond Shoals Lightship 71 and when the Chicamacomico Coast Guard station crew rescued the victims of the British tanker Mirlo. German U-boats would soon appear off the Outer Banks. As it turned out, the old-timers remembered, but the U.S. Navy did not.
In Nazi-occupied France, Admiral Karl Donitz, commander-in-chief of the U'-boatwaffe, heard the news he had hoped for. Donitz steadfastly believed Germany could win the war entirely by the might of his U-boat fleet. Now he could finally wage unrestricted warfare on ships congregating along America's East coast. Donitz quickly organized an operation he dubbed "Paukenschlag," or Drumbeat, intended to have the same startling impact as a sharp beat on a kettledrum.
U-123, led by Reinhard Hardegan, took part in the highly successful 'Operation Drumbeat'
University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, author of "Operation Drumbeat," is the pre-eminent historian on Germany's attacks in the Western Atlantic.
"At the beginning of the war," he says, "Admiral Donitz estimated that he would have to sink 700,000 gross registered tons of shipping per month in order to starve the British into submission. The tonnage war was conducted whenever you had a chain of ships bringing food, raw materials, fuel oil and gasoline. That chain could be broken at any point, and in the first six months of 1942, the point where it was broken was along the American coast.
Donitz' new Type IX U-boats carried just enough fuel to reach America, hunt tonnage for about a week, and return to port six weeks later. The Type 1X and its smaller predecessor, the Type VII, were, in their day, the most seaworthy ships ever built. Not submarines, as commonly believed, but submersible boats, they dived only to attack and evade the enemy or the worst ocean storms. Maximum range underwater was just 64 miles. Every inch of the 251-foot long Type IX boat was devoted to its mission. Food and the crew's personal effects were stowed only after every practical space had been filled with torpedoes, artillery shells and spare parts.
Donitz chose five aggressive young commanders lo assure Paukenschlag's success. They included Reinhard Hardegen of the U- 123 and Richard Zapp of the U-66. A few days before Christmas, 1941, the Paukenschlag boats quietly slipped their dock lines in France. In three weeks, they would arrive in American waters. But before they engaged the enemy, they had to battle the North Atlantic in winter.
"They were driven men," Michael Gannon says. "They had been given a mission by a man they admired greatly -- the Commander-in-Chief of U-boats, Admiral Karl Donitz. And Donitz had developed these men into teams of ship killers, and they went at it with a passion. And I had the occasion lo meet the three officers other than the chief engineer on board U-123. to talk to them, to take the measure of them, and I find that they were very professional men who pursued their goals with keen enthusiasm and with enormous skill. I think Reinhard Hardegen was particularly driven by his desire to sink ships."
Twelve hundred miles from their base, Hardegen briefed his officers. He expected his U-boat to repeat the well-known successes of U boats 23 years earlier, especially U-117 off North Carolina. But the watches on deck had to be vigilant, for the Americans would surely remember their shipping losses in 1918. Presumably worse for the success of Paukenschlag, British cryptanalysts in London knew where the U-boats were and anticipated where the they were headed. Yet this intelligence, passed on to U.S. Naval commanders, was hugely dismissed as insignificant. Five hundred helpless merchant sailors died in the next month as a result.
"It's an odd thing to say that the United Stales Navy was very well prepared in the abstract for a German invasion,'' says Gannon, "but when the attack actually came, the Navy failed execute. On the 15th of January when Reinhard Hardegen had arrived off New York harbor, there were 21 ready-status destroyers, fueled and armed am ready to go at him and the other five boats in the Paukenschlag, the Drumbeat fleet. And yet not a single one of these destroyers went to sea to meet the German invader.
By mid-January, amidst heavy snow squalls, U-123 and U-66 entered U.S. waters. The drumbeat commenced. Seventy-five miles east of Cape Hatteras, with no moon to betray their presence, U-66 waited patiently. Soon, a darkened shape appeared moving left to right across the U-boat's bow. At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 18, two torpedoes tore into the hull of the Allan Jackson, a tanker laden with 72,000 barrels of oil bound for New York. Twenty-two men perished. Eight oil-soaked survivors escaped in a lifeboat only to be pulled toward the grinding ship's propeller.
After claiming five vessels in six days to the north, Hardegen was eager to reach the busy shipping lanes off the Outer Banks, and U-123 groped its way southward. Groped, because they had no charts.
"The German submarine force was not prepared to equip five boats that sailed under Operation Drumbeat with all the maps that would be required to make effective attacks," Gannon says. "The U-boat officers had no sectional nautical maps, had no sailing directions, had no harbor maps. But actually, Hardegen was able to make his way around rather successfully using the large map that was used for the Atlantic Ocean generally. He saw that he had several Capes that he would be able to identify, inlets as he moved south to Cape Hatteras. The Outer Banks would be easily recognizable. When it became difficult finding his way along the coastline, he followed the automobile on shore and just kept abreast of them. At one time he nearly ran aground doing that, but by and large he was just able to move with the traffic as he came in."
On Jan. 18, 23 miles east of Kitty Hawk, the U-123 crew saw an orange glow to the southeast followed by two muffled explosions. Il was U-66 sinking the Allan Jackson. With just three remaining torpedoes aboard, U-123 still had its most destructive night lay ahead. At 2 o'clock on Monday morning, Hardegen chased down the passenger-freighter, City of Atlanta, only seven miles east of Avon.
"We went to bed about 10 o'clock," remembers Gibb Gray, "and about 2 o'clock a violent explosion shook our house all over. And we all got up to the windows, and there was a red, bright red glow."
Of the 47 men on City of Atlanta, only three survived. U-123 found itself in a shooting gallery at Cape Hatteras. Shore lights made the sighting of targets appallingly simple, an experience the crew of the U-boat never forgot
"Von Shroeter, who was a member of Hardegen's crew on the 123, was asked if he remembered Hatteras," savs Joe Schwarzer. "And he said, 'Remember Hatteras? Of course I remember Hatteras. It was remarkable. We would surface at night, we would see the lights on the beach, the targets Would be silhouetted perfectly. The tankers would go by, we'd look at it. We'd say that one's too small. We really want a bigger target.' I think most of the sub commanders could not believe their luck. That they were in an area where not only were the targets post-lively ubiquitous, but there was little danger of being attacked."
Hardegen turned his attention next lo the 8,000-ton SS Malay, a tanker that typically carried 70,000 barrels of crude oil. But unknown to the Germans, Malay was steaming in ballast with no oil in her hold to assist in her demise. The flat seas off Diamond Shoals that night offered Hardegen a rare opportunity to sink a ship with his 10.5-centimeter deck gun. Only Malay wouldn't sink. The next day, news of the shelling spread rapidly up the Banks from an eyewitness out of Hatteras Inlet station.
"He told us in the store they had to go out the next morning to it, it was the Malay," Gibb Gray says. "A submarine had shelled it with deck guns, and he said that looking in the side of the ship, there was such a big hole that the bedding, the mattresses was hanging out side. But they saved her, took her into Norfolk."
Just minutes after shelling Malay, U-123 torpedoed the Latvian freighter, Ciltvaira, which for a while also seemed to resist the pull of the ocean floor. It was towed briefly by the Navy tug, Scieta, but then abandoned to the sea. No less abandoned after U- 123's reign of terror were the merchant sailors clinging to wreckage in the frigid winter waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The American Navy was nowhere to be found. But in Washington, a statement was released that U-boats had been engaged and destroyed.
From a newsreel at the time: "U-boats attack ! German U-boat claims of Allied shipping losses are vast exaggerations, Hitler=s U-boats strike desperately, sinking six ships in one ,week. Hardest hit was the steamship City of Atlanta. The United States Navy announces that some U-boats were sunk and emphasizes the importance of secrecy about counterblows."
Tile Navy emphasized secrecy because there were no counterblows, no U-boat sinkings. Months would pass before a U.S. destroyer sank the first U-boat off Nags Head. Hearing the evening's broadcasts from American radio stations, the irony of the ruse was not lost on the crew of U-123. Theirs was among the U-boats reported to have been sunk.
Thank you, England
The Royal Navy flagship aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal arrives back in Portsmouth, England Saturday May 17, 2003 after leading the country's Persian Gulf task force during the Iraq War. (AP Photo/Gary Davies, Royal Navy Handout)
Britain's Royal Naval flagship HMS Ark Royal arrives in Portsmouth Harbour after serving in the Gulf, May 17, 2003. Family and friends lined the docks on Saturday to welcome back some 850 service personnel, the combined crew of the vessel and her escort ship Type 42 destroyer HMS York. REUTERS/Peter Macdiarmid
A Union Jack is seen in the foreground as members of the crew of HMS Ark Royal lining the deck are greeted by family and friends at Portsmouth naval base, after returning to England Saturday May 17, 2003 after leading the country's Gulf task force during the Iraq War. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Stephen Holden from Sunderland a Petty Officer from HMS Ark Royal hugs his daughter Lauren after the ship docked at Portsmouth naval base, after returning to England Saturday May 17, 2003 after leading the country's Gulf task force during the Iraq War. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Warrant Officer Robert Yeomans, of 820 squadron, is met by his wife Jan, Friday May 16, 2003, after landing at RNAS Culdrose, in Helston, Cornwall, following his return from the Persian Gulf. The officer's squadron, along with 849 and 814 squadrons, left HMS Ark Royal, Friday after the aircraft carrier anchored in Mount's Bay, Cornwall. About 300 personnel from three helicopter squadrons flew off the warship to be reunited with loved ones. (AP Photo/PA,Gareth Fuller)
"Shoulder To Shoulder"
I've done Anti-submarine Warfare exersizes in my Navy days. Very difficult, requires extremely long periods of high vigilance and effort for every contact. And then the contact is more high vigilance and effort. Even in peacetime sixteen hour days plus night watches.
What those CAP people did is real ASW. Makes me proud.
General George Marshall had to read the riot act to Admiral King, Chief of Naval Operations, before King would do his plain duty and protect the east coast shipping and really fight the U-boats in the spring of 1942. This is to the everlasting shame of the United States Naval Service. I for one do not forgive Admiral King, and never will. Nor FDR either.