by Jim Marquardt
During World War II, we lived near the ocean on the south shore of Long Island, closer to New York Harbor. The beach was my playground and I often browsed the shoreline to see what the waves had washed onto the sand. Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, after Germany joined Japan in the war against the U.S., something different showed up along the high water mark. Mixed with the familiar driftwood and clumps of seaweed were globs of congealed oil that stuck to my feet, occasional life jackets and hundreds of olive-colored cans. Markings on the cans identified them as C-rations, the loved and hated provisions intended for American soldiers overseas. Most of the cans I found contained chocolate bars, powdered coffee, chewing gum and little cigarette packs which led some of my buddies to take their first hesitant puffs. It dawned on us that the C-rations probably came from allied ships torpedoed just off the Atlantic shore.
In his book Mayday, author Van Field says that when war broke out, German Admiral Karl Donitz ordered submarines, referred to as U-boats, to interrupt shipments of war materials from the U.S. to England and Russia. Fortunately Hitler had other priorities for the submarine force and Donitz could spare only five of the craft to range along our East Coast. I say fortunately because that handful of German subs sank 25 ships in January 1942, most of them within sight of land. Thinking America was too far away to be affected, merchant ships and tankers in those early months of war sailed with their running lights on, silhouetted against a brightly lit coast, making them easy targets for U-boat kapitans. Most of the sinkings were in busy sea lanes off Nova Scotia, Cape Hatteras and Florida, but on January 15, 1942, U-boat 123 sank the 6,700-ton tanker Combria off Long Island, her cargo of oil illuminating the sky near Shinnecock Inlet, her 36-man crew drowned or burned to death. The day before, the same submarine torpedoed the 9,577-ton tanker Norness 60 miles southeast of Montauk. The German captain had only a tourist map of the New York area, but was able to take navigational fixes from the still-operating Montauk Point lighthouse.
The January 14th New York Times blazoned the Norness story across the front page and carried the sub-head, “Navy Says Peril Extends Pretty Well Up and Down East Coast.” U-boat 123 was a long range, diesel-driven craft able to travel at 18 knots on the surface, and, propelled by batteries, a little over seven knots submerged. Prime targets were tankers sailing up from Caribbean and Gulf Coast oil ports. According to author David Kennedy’s American People in WW II, a single U-boat off New York Harbor sank eight ships, including three tankers, in just 12 hours. For months we found debris from sinkings all along the shore. The U.S. responded feebly with old, wooden subchasers, antique aircraft and a flock of private yachts dubbed Hooligan’s Navy. The carnage continued until Admiral Ernest King, the top U.S. Naval commander who hated everything British, reluctantly took their advice and introduced a convoy system, greatly reducing losses and even sinking a few of the German attackers. In August that year Donitz reassigned the subs to other parts of the Atlantic. The tally — in 1942, 121 ships were sunk off the East Coast, in 1943 the number dropped to 22. (In a separate submarine operation, German saboteurs landed on Amagansett and Florida beaches in June 1942, as told in the Express May 31, 2012.)
Casualty reports of the submarine war vary depending on sources, but a best estimate is that in the Atlantic alone, from late 1939 to 1945, U-boats sank over 2,400 cargo ships and oil tankers, representing 18-million tons of shipping. Civilian crews that manned the ships are seldom mentioned as war casualties, but in fact, according to the American Merchant Marine Association, over 9,000 merchant mariners lost their lives, a higher casualty rate than regular military forces. When peace came, Winston Churchill admitted that the submarine threat frightened him more than anything else during the global conflict. If the Germans had built more submarines earlier, they might have completely cut off supplies of war materials to England, Europe and Russia, and Hitler could have won the war.
As innocent kids, picking through the remains of sunken ships along the Long Island shore, we were only remotely aware of the terrible sacrifices men and women were making to preserve our freedom. Memorial Day gives us a time to remember and honor them.