In the photograph, I am wearing my much-vaunted black LandmarkScout t-shirt, standing at location 30.327396, -86.166762, or rather, Grayton Beach, Florida, looking seaward 225 miles away toward location 28.616667, -90.75, the scene of a short naval engagement which occurred between the Kriegsmarine and the United States Navy in July, 1942. Because my grandfather was a submariner in WWI aboard the USS K-2, I have heard enough stories to appreciate any man who went into a craft that, more often than not, would eventually not go back to home port without loss of life, or for that matter, the loss of the entire boat and crew. Therefore I have outlined my photo in black. More German sailors died and are buried in that sea grave than did Dutch flyers whom I have written about in my previous story about the Dutch Air Base cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi. The two locations are about 300 miles apart.
During 1942 the kriegsmarine sent U-Boats to the coast of North America to attack ships at will. One coastal area of combat was the Gulf of Mexico which is partially bordered by the state of Florida to the east and to the north, bordered by the Florida “panhandle,” and the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. To the west the gulf is bordered by Mexico and and other Central American nations. To the south and south east, the gulf is connected to the Caribbean Sea (where U-Boats were also active) which is then connected to the Atlantic Ocean. Any boat, both large and small, was fair game during times of unrestricted naval warfare including small wooden sailboats, of which U-Boat 166 sank at least one near the southern tip of Florida.
The U-166 in port, Captain, Hans-Günther Kuhlmann saluting the national naval ensign. Although the Kriegsmarine was the legal, national navy of the nation of Germany, the crew hoists the altered national naval ensign which bears the swastika of the Nazi Party. Photo provided by http://www.mille-sabords.com
Farther into the Gulf, the U-166 sank two more ships during the summer. From there, in July, the U-166 moved toward the mouth of the Mississippi River where, as the war progressed, war material transport ships were coming from war industries in New Orleans, just 50 miles upstream from the Gulf, and other cities located farther north along the great river. At that time in the war the United States Navy and Coastguard had not figured out how to successfully combat the U-Boat threat along the coast because very few navy patrol craft which were dedicated to providing protection against the threat of the Kriegsmarine’s submarines.
In late July the captain of the U-166, Hans-Günther Kuhlmann spotted the largest ship he had yet encountered in the Gulf, the SS Robert E. Lee. The U-166 had certainly not had to be concerned by anything that could protect the boats it had sent to the bottom and it is quite possible that Captain Kuhlmann did not see the second boat steaming immediately north (or to the port side) of the Lee. The Lee was being accompanied by one of the few Navy patrol crafts, the USS PC-566, that might have given Kuhlmann second thoughts about making his impending attack.
U.S. Coast Guard recognition photo of the passenger/freight ship, the SS Robert E. Lee taken January 20, 1942. Photo provided by http://www.mille-sabords.com
The U-166 fired off a torpedo which ran straight and true, hitting the Lee and doing enough damage with that initial torpedo to send the Lee quickly to the bottom. But moments later the USS PC-566 went into action against the U-166, dropping depth charges around the suspected position of the submarine. The crew’s guesstimation was correct and the U-166 was mortally hit by one. The action was over quickly and the U166 went to the bottom of the Gulf just about a mile from where the Lee was descending.
Perhaps it was the excitement of sinking the submarine along with the shock of seeing the Lee go down while under their care that made the PC-566’s record come off badly. For whatever the reason, the precise location of where the Lee was sunk was not recorded. For the next seven decades the action between the U-166, the PC-566 and the Lee became more legend than documented, factual history. I lived for a year in Biloxi, Mississippi during 1979-1980 and often heard the stories which put the sinking “somewhere near New Orleans.” Because New Orleans has the Gulf of Mexico on three sides at varying land distances, the U-166 could have been anywhere out there, becoming more myth than legend. However, a few years before the infamous Deep Water Horizon British petroleum oil rig disaster which killed 11 men and sent raw, natural oil flooding into the Gulf, an underwater seismograph exploration in search of a good route for a natural gas pipeline on the gulf floor was in progress. Sonar sent back images of a large sea wreck which was not chartered on the most recent maps of the gulf. Subsequent scanning of the wreck showed that it was beyond a doubt the Lee. And along with that there was the realization that the U-166 was somewhere near by.
Photo of the USS PC-566
the U.S. Navy patrol craft PC-566, built for fighting anything it would encounter in the Gulf of Mexico or any coastal region of the United States. The background indicates that she could be sailing in the Mississippi River or near New Orleans where the Higgins Patrol Torpedo Boat factory was located. Higgins built the famous landing craft known as the Higgins Boat and other larger vessels. Photo provided by http://www.mille-sabords.com
Another expedition finally found the U-166 a mile away. The changes on the gulf bottom had not obliterated the distinct outlines of the submarine or its conning tower or deck gun. With that discovery photos were taken giving us a clear look at the submarine, the first good look since the crew had taken their last looks at the outside of their boat. The news quickly resulted in the wreck becoming a registered war grave which means that no divers or salvage crews will legally be allowed to take pieces of the wreck or to go inside of it.
I first learned of the location of the U-166 before the Deep Water Horizon disaster and saw a map location. When the Horizon disaster occurred news of that tragedy was usually accompanied by maps of the location of the oil spill. I wondered if the oil was affecting the wreck because the Deep Water Horizon ruins were shown to be in the same general vicinity as the wreck of the U-166. Other people with the means to find out for sure also wondered about the threat of oil on the wreck were able to send underseas cameras down to photograph the U-166. Those detailed images are published online and provide a very good look at this U-boat.
For more information on the sea battle between the PC-566 and the U-166 as well as amazing photographs, look online.
Article provided by Cliff Leverette