When Hitler declared war on the United States, U-boat captains delighted in the opportunity to hunt along the east coast of America. They had roamed the coast of Europe, stalked the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic and guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. Before these momentous events there had been tension and confrontations between German U-boats and American ships as they assisted the English and Canadians in escorting ships transporting goods across the North Atlantic. When war was declared, the U-boats headed for the east coast of the U.S. where they found easy pickings in unarmed and unescorted American merchant ships. The Germans called it “Operation Drumbeat.”
Shipping along the east coast from Maine to Florida, as well as along the Gulf coast, became targets. Along the eastern seaboard One hundred and twenty-one (121) merchant ships were either sunk or damaged during 1942 alone. Why were they such easy targets?
The merchant marine vessels had no protection. They were unarmed and they had no military escorts. Although the war in Europe had been raging since 1939 and the German U-boats had been attacking ships in the Atlantic headed for England, the United States was woefully unprepared to protect vital shipping along her coast line. Also early in the war the United States did not have strict black-out rules. It took a while for many areas to realize that light from the shore endangered ships at sea. German U-boats could target ships at night by tracking the vessel’s silhouette against the light from the shore.
Imagine standing on the shore and watching a ship burning after it had been hit by torpedoes. That’s what happened along the shores of Florida in early 1942. Read an interesting interview with German U-boat Captain Hardegan where he tells of sinking a tanker off the coast of Jacksonville in April 1942. He saw the ship against the lights from the beach and after it was hit he said he could see the people on shore watching it burn.
We don’t often think about the number of ships and the number of lives lost by the Merchant Marines. Their task was vital and their losses were higher than other military branches. But they weren’t technically military despite their critical role in transporting all kinds of materials.
Something had to be done to stop the loss of life and vital cargoes. Initially the focus had been on protecting the west coast, but it didn’t take long to recognize the threat of the German U-boats along the eastern seaboard. The Navy and the Coast Guard increased patrols searching for the U-boats by sea. The Army Air Corps flew patrols along the coast and the Civil Air Patrol was established to fly additional patrols searching for the enemy.
Meanwhile, shippers had to find a way to safely transport vital cargo including shipments of oil. They turned to transport through the intracoastal waterway. This protected route utilized existing rivers, waterways and canals to ship a variety of cargo in barges. Improvements to depth and width of this waterway enabled larger vessels to pass through this route.
The Navy organized escorted convoys of merchant ships traveling along the east coast. That, combined with increased Air Corp bomber activity, reduced the number of ships sunk. By 1943 fewer merchant vessels went down and numerous U-boats were sunk off the eastern coast of the United States.
The remains of sunken merchant ships and German U-boats can be found all along the east coast. See this article and photographs about ship wrecks off the coast of North Carolina.
In my novel, Kitty’s War, the hero floats toward shore in a raft after his merchant ship was sunk off the east coast. Stories of this little known part of the war inspired the opening of my novel where the hero and heroine meet for the first time. You can purchase Kitty’s War on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, iTunes, Kobo and The Wild Rose Press.
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Before heading off to war in the Pacific Theater, the 43rd Bomb Group flew some anti-submarine patrols out of Bangor, Maine during this operation in early 1942. Their planes didn’t have any submarine detection equipment and no one ever spotted a submarine, but it was a good way for them to get more flight time.