World War II, Just Offshore

Amazing journey of discovery maps out wrecks of German U-boats and their quarry on the Gulf seabed.

By John Nova Lomax July 14, 2014

It’s easy to forget that the Gulf of Mexico was the scene of vicious submarine warfare during World War II, but you can see the evidence right now, thanks to an ongoing deep-sea tour of the Gulf’s graveyard of ships.

Bow of the SS Robert E. Lee

Sponsored by BP and with a small army of leading scientists aboard, the Exploration Vessel Nautilus is scouring Davy Jones’s Locker and webcasting astounding footage of anemone-encrusted wrecks from its two submersible craft. Here’s the link to the live footage.

Over the weekend the Nautilus shot high-def footage of the doomed passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee as well as the German U-boat that torpedoed it about 45 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi in 5,000 feet of water in July 1942. 

The Nazi sub U-166 was sunk shortly after it claimed the Robert E. Lee. All but 15 of the 283 passengers and crew aboard the Lee survived; all of the 52 German submariners perished, and the site is now classed as a war grave.

Right now the Nautilus is mapping the Alcoa Puritan. Laden with bauxite, the Puritan was steaming towards Mobile, Alabama from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad when it was sunk by the U-507 in April 1942. (The German “Wolfpacks” were then gorging on Gulf shipping; 129 ships were torpedoed over the course of three months in mid-1942.) Harro Schacht, the German captain, surfaced his boat and barraged the unescorted and unarmed Puritan with his deck guns, eventually disabling the ship. After waiting for the men to abandon the Puritan, Schacht ordered that she be finished off with a torpedo amidships, which quickly took the Puritan to the bottom.

Deck cannon on the U-106.

Schacht then yelled to the men in the lifeboats that he hoped they all made it back home, sealed up his submarine, submerged into the depths, and made a clean getaway. (For a time, at least: after rampaging off the Brazilian coast for a few weeks in the summer of 1942 and early 1943, his boat was sunk by depth charges dropped from an American plane. There were no survivors.)  The Puritan survivors—everyone aboard, albeit some badly injured—were soon rescued.

Kapitänleutnant Harro Schacht

Image: Wikipedia

Among them was a man named Genaro Vidallon from Houston, who, like several others aboard both the Puritan and the Lee, was a survivor from another ship previously torpedoed by other U-boats. Of all the rotten luck, to get torpedoed twice (and maybe even more) right there in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Nautilus expedition is headed by oceanography professor and Navy veteran Robert Ballard, who has discovered a few shipwrecks you might have heard of: the Titanic, the Bismarck, the Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109

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