By Richard Gambino
Sixty-five years ago, on May 6, 1945, the last German submarine sunk by the Allies in World War II, the U-853, was downed by U.S. warships and aircraft about 22 miles from Montauk Point, off Block Island. On the previous day (my sixth birthday) the same submarine had torpedoed and sunk the U.S. coal ship, Black Point, killing 22 of her crew. In fact, after Germany declared war on the U.S., on December 11, 1941, the first Allied ship sunk by a U-boat, the tanker, Coimbra, on January 14, 1942, was also off our shore. And much of the Battle of the Atlantic, in which 2,828 of our ships were sunk by U-boats, and in which we sank 632 of the subs, was fought off Long Island. People here called the police to report debris washed up on our ocean beaches, including the bodies of dead seamen. Appropriately, as it were, on May 7, the day after the U-853 was sunk, the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Doenitz, authorized Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe, the next day. (Hitler had committed suicide on April 30.) Last year, a relic of that war, right here at home, brought me to a standstill.
I’m an amateur nature photographer. So in April ’09, I was hiking alone through Camp Hero State Park about 1.5 miles west of the Montauk Lighthouse, carrying my photo gear. I was inland of the high dunes there when I came to a break in them that allowed me to walk through a winding area that led right to the ocean’s edge. I came to a very rocky small beach, intent on taking photos of where the ocean approached the bluffs on either side of me. Instead I stood there, unmoving. In front of me, to my left, was what appears to be part of a reinforced concrete fortification, of the kind we’ve all seen in films, used against us in World War II by the Germans at Normandy. But this was right here, to protect us from those same Germans. Once sitting high and dry, decades of coastal erosion has brought the ocean to it.
As a matter of fact, the East End was involved in World War II right to the end of its twin forks, and beyond. In the earliest months of the war, civilian boaters in Greenport, with their boats, were recruited as volunteers by the U.S. Coast Guard. The boaters were given military two-way radios, a minimum of training, and asked to sail the ocean nearby at night to find U-boats, and to rescue survivors of ships sunk by the subs. The U-boats stayed underwater in daylight, but had to be on the surface at night running their diesel engines to charge the batteries that powered the subs when underwater. The first of the Greenport “picket boats,” the Two Pals, sailed on its first patrol from the town on July 29, 1942. One night, the crew of one of the boats, using only its sails, to stay silent, heard diesel engines. Then men’s voices. Speaking German. The Greenport sailors quickly calculated their location, then sailed from the area as fast as possible, and radioed the U-boat’s position to our military.
In the early 1990s, I had another surprising reminder of the war, this time in Southold. “Skip” Goldsmith took me inside a large building in which his father’s “The Boat Shop” had made one hundred and thirty-eight 25ft. and 33ft. wooden “Plane Rearming Boats” for the Navy, used to ferry supplies between seaplanes and shores. To my amazement, wood-working machinery was there as it was left at war’s end, and a 1945 calendar still hung on a wall. Nearby, the Greenport Yacht and Ship Building Company made 49 minesweeping vessels for the Navy, eight of them weighing 205 tons each, and 41 of them each weighing 278 tons, all with wooden hulls, which would not set off mines with magnetic triggers.
At Camp Hero there are several wartime structures, as there are also at the Shadmoor Preserve west of it, including big concrete bunkers and small sentry shelters. At Hero one may also see large concrete bases on which once sat coastal artillery aimed out to sea. These included sixteen-inch guns, the largest artillery the U.S. had, meaning they fired 2,000 lb. armor-piercing explosive projectiles, 16 inches in diameter and several feet long, which had a range of over 20 miles. When their crews practice-fired them, the resulting concussions rattled buildings in Montauk village, and the guns’ reports were heard over both forks.
Why coastal defenses here? Well, late on the foggy night of June 13, 1942, a German submarine, the U-202, sat off the beach at Amagansett. From it, four Germans in German military uniforms paddled a rubber raft to the shore. Shortly after they landed, they changed into civilian fishermen clothes. They had come in uniforms so that if they were captured on landing, they would be treated as prisoners of war, and not spies or saboteurs, who under international law, were usually executed. Soon after they landed, a young Coast Guardsman patrolling the beach on foot, alone, came upon them. In perfect American English — each had been raised in the U.S. — they offered him a bribe. Being unarmed and outnumbered, he pretended to go along with it. But when he left them, he ran to alert the military. The four Germans buried their raft and uniforms, and also explosives they had brought with them, intending to come back for the bomb-making material another day. Each carrying a revolver and thousands of dollars in cash, they walked to the Amagansett station of the Long Island Rail Road, bought tickets for $5.10 each, took a morning train to Manhattan, and from there went to locations in the mid-West, to lie low.
But the Germans had been chosen for their mission simply because they spoke American English. Most had little stomach for blowing up American industrial sites, and soon one of them turned himself in. He told all, including where his three comrades were hiding, and they were arrested. He also told FBI agents, to their astonishment, that another four German saboteurs had landed on the coast of Florida from a U-boat on June 18, completely undetected, and the FBI soon caught them. The agency broke the news to the press, causing a shock throughout the nation. In July, all eight were tried before a military tribunal, found guilty as saboteurs, and all were sentenced to death. President Roosevelt commuted the sentences of two of them, who had cooperated, to long prison terms. Without any advance notice to the public, on August 8, the other six were executed by electric chair, less than two months after they had landed in the U.S. Afterward, the White House issued a terse statement: “The President approved the judgment of the military commission …,” which the U.S. Supreme Court had also approved.
A din of warplanes overhead was an East End wartime daily routine. The immense Grumman facility in Calverton — at which many people from both forks worked — during the war test-flew the amazing number of Navy planes it made, mostly east out to the Atlantic and L.I. Sound to avoid more populated lands up-west. These included 12,275 Hellcat and 7,722 Wildcat fighters, and 9,837 Avenger torpedo bombers.
But the sound of a large, four-engine B-24 bomber late on Wednesday evening, December 27, 1944, caught the attention of people on the ground, some sitting around Christmas trees. One, it was flying low over the center of the twin forks. Two, it was flying in a dense snowstorm. And, three, one of its engines was heard to be malfunctioning. The plane crashed and exploded into flames in a farm field in Laurel next to Aldrich Lane, south of Sound Avenue, killing all ten of its crew. The explosion was so violent that it threw plane fragments, and human body parts, over a 500-foot area.
When the war officially ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, the celebration in the U.S. was muted, because fighting still raged on in Asia. In fact, each day Americans, between listening to great swing music, like Tommy Dorsey’s wild “Well Git It!” on the radio, and sad war ballads, like Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” heard news accounts of the battle at Okinawa, which had begun on April 1 and was to last until June 22, killing 6, 821 Americans and wounding 19,217. So in May, East Enders went back to their lives, with anxiety about their loved ones among the more than 14 million American service members — more than one in ten of the entire U.S. population — still at risk. And back to rationed food. People out here, like all Americans, had food-rationing books — their stamps, required to buy food, sporting pictures of tanks and warplanes. (I still have two of my books.) And rationed gasoline, for people’s aging cars — the U.S. did not make any cars for the general civilian market during the war. Finally, celebrations broke out here when Japan surrendered on August 14, but not before the war cost 405,399 U.S. dead and 1,076,245 wounded, at a time when the American population totaled only 132 million, according to the 1940 census. Was it worth it? When you have some time in quiet, imagine a world in which the Nazis and Japanese militarists had won.
RICHARD GAMBINO salutes all Americans who served in World War II, and all those who kept faith with them at home.