Archive for June, 2018

Submarines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

This summer will mark the 60th anniversary of Nautilus’ historic journey to the North Pole. After making the journey, USS Nautilus sailed into New York harbor to reunite crew members with their families and meet the president. Only three short hours from her first home in Groton, CT, Nautilus would dock in one of the most famous cities in the world at the Brooklyn Navy Yard- a piece of New York and Naval history. Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard no longer welcomes celebrated ships but has been converted into a hub of business where the community can come together. While now home to a countertop manufacturing company, a distillery, and a produce farm, in its early days, the Brooklyn Navy Yard played a vital role in the Navy and would see its fair share of submarines pass through her docks.

Figure 1 Navy Yard workers in the 1940’s. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The land the Brooklyn Navy Yard sits on today was originally purchased by Dutch settler Jansen de Rapelje in 1637. The 335 acres on Wallabout Bay was purchased from the Lenape Indians that were Native to New York harbor. During the American Revolution, Wallabout Bay was occupied by the British. According to the Brooklyn Navy Yard website, the most famous of British ships, the Jersey was moored here where American soldiers, merchants, and traders were imprisoned for disobeying the British embargo. It was 1801 when President John Adams saw the potential in the Wallabout Bay area. A New Englander, Adams knew the importance of the sea and of having a strong Naval Force. He established the first five Naval shipyards, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1833, Commodore Matthew C. Perry founded the Naval Lyceum (the predecessor to the U.S. Naval Academy) at the Yard. The first Naval publication was published there in 1836 with contributors such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. It was 1872 that the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw its first submarine.

During the Civil War, the Union Navy was looking for ways to counter the CSS Hunley and Pioneer. They looked to a prototype submarine aptly titled Halstead’s Folly or, the Intelligent Whale.  In 1863, Scovel S. Merriman, Augustus Price and Cornelius Bushnell began work on the Intelligent Whale in New Jersey.  In 1864, the American Submarine Company replaced Price and Bushnell. Due to soaring costs and legal battles, control of the boat went to trustees of General Nathaniel Halstead and Col. Edward W. Serrell in 1865.

Figure 2 The Intelligent Whale in the Brooklyn Navy Yard circa 1898

Despite ongoing financial issues, Halstead finished the project by April of 1866. The submarine was staffed by four men who turned cranks attached to a propeller. Compressed air was kept in two tanks that allowed for ten hours of submerged operation. “Two large ballast tanks fore and aft were connected to the air tanks and to the water surrounding the craft. A rudder and aft trim planes allowed the pilot to control the boat’s course, diving, and surfacing. A short conning tower with bull’s eye glass provided the skipper with limited visibility while partially submerged. Other navigational aids included a compass, a depth gauge, and air pressure indicator. The crew embarked via a central hatch topside, but the craft’s divers deployed through two wooden “gates” in the floor. To submerge Intelligent Whale the crew filled the water tanks by opening a valve. To anchor the submerged craft the crew deployed two 15-inch shot (weighing 350 pounds each) by working windlasses attached to wire cable in two watertight boxes. To maintain air quality while submerged, the craft had a device for spraying water through the air, and thumb valves at the top of the boat, which could be opened to release foul air. To surface, the crew pumped the water from the tanks by hand or forced it out with compressed air.”[1] Halstead’s bad luck would follow the Intelligent Whale. Despite legal battles, The Navy purchased the vessel from Halstead. However, before official trials could be done, Halstead passed away. Due to personal issues in his life, his death lead to a scandal and a tainted name for his submarine. This along with the small number of people who knew how to operate the vessel, caused tests to be delayed. Once they were able to commence, flooding saw her short career end as the Navy marked the vessel a failure. Despite this fact, Intelligent Whale became a curiosity and would be displayed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She would remain at the Yard until 1968 when she was moved to Washington D.C. and then finally to her current place in New Jersey. This means that the Intelligent Whale was in view of the Nautilus as she returned home from her historic journey marking the coming together of two vital points of submarine history.

While no submarines were ever built in the Yard, the dry docks were a frequent home for repairs and short stays. The USS Porpoise and the USS Shark, built in 1903, spent time being refitted in the Navy Yard dry docks. It was also here that they were disassembled in 1908 to be transported to the Philippines where they served until 1919. During World War I, German U-boats were brought to the Yard to be dismantled and gain valuable information on how German submarine technology worked. This work allowed U.S. Forces to strip away German dominance in the submarine field at the time. The early 1900’s was still an experimental time in submarine development. While today’s vessels see few accidents, this was not the case for the early boats. In June of 1915, the USS Sturgeon (also known as E-2 and SS-25) arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to complete a refit. E-2 was the first submarine to be equipped with a diesel engine.  However, this new engine had problems. The vibrations caused damage to the battery system which could leak lead acid that, when mixed with salt water, could create a deadly chlorine gas. When she entered the yard that June, E-2 was supposed to have its engines replaced and batteries upgraded. A new battery system had been created by Thomas Edison that would allow the boat to travel further while submerged. The unit was also made of nickel iron instead of lead-acid, getting rid of the chlorine gas issue. However, this new battery did create hydrogen gas. Tests run on December 7th, 1915 found the batteries to seem to be a better fit. Initial reports found that they ran faster on less fuel.

Figure 3 Crewmembers atop the (E-2) submarine’s conning tower, after returning from a patrol during World War I.
Courtesy of the Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, Connecticut, 1972.

E-2 was in Dry Dock No. 2 in January of 1916 still undergoing tests. On January 15th, an explosion in the battery compartment claimed the lives of five crew members. Investigations found the hydrogen gas to be the culprit of the explosions. Once repairs were completed, E-2 went back into service as a training vessel. This incident caused the Navy to abandon the Edison technology and redesign a safer lead-acid cell battery. These redesigns would become the foundation for the technology that is still used in submarines today. As a side note, the chief of submarines at the Navy Yard who oversaw the investigation was one Chester W. Nimitz- Fleet Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. We remembered those who lost their lives that January day, as their names are Guy Hamilton Clark Jr. (Machinist’s Mate), Roy B. Seaber (Electrician, third-class), Joseph Logan (Navy Yard plumber), James H. Peck (Navy Yard plumber) and John P. Schultz (Navy Yard Workman).

Figure 4 USS E-2 (Submarine # 25)
Fine screen halftone reproduction of a photograph of the submarine underway prior to World War I. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The Yard would triple during World War II in order to help with the war effort. Despite the numerous ships built during her years and the historic moments she witnessed, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Yard for good in 1966 after announcements about base closures came out in 1964. At the time, the Yard had over 9,000 workers and was the oldest active industrial plant in New York State. In 1969, New York City along with a non-profit group took control of the property turning it into a large scale industrial plant which it continues to operate as today. There are still dry docks at the Yard to service ships, continuing its legacy for years to come. Today, Bldg 92 serves as an exhibition center and reminds visitors of the property’s historic past. For those of us here in Groton, we will always remember the Nautilus sailing into New York Harbor, headed to the Yard to greet family and friends after one of the most historic trips ever made. Thus, solidifying a place in history for the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


For more in-depth information on the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history and current business you can visit



Swimmer Delivery Vehicles

You don’t have to walk through the doors of the Submarine Force Museum to begin your experience. Outside you are met with several large artifacts that allow the visitor to quickly jump right into Submarine and Naval history. For instance, outside of its doors, hung towards the sky are the hull rings of the Holland and Ohio class submarines. These give the visitor a taste of how far submarine development has come from 1900 to now. A recent addition is the NR-1 whose bright orange paint can’t be missed. But alongside these large representations of submarine history is a smaller vehicle. It can be passed right over due to its size but plays a key role in military missions, many of which are still kept top secret today. The Swimmer Delivery Vehicle or SDV is used on clandestine operations by a group that is shrouded in mystery just as much as the Silent Service.

SDV in front of Submarine Force Museum.
Picture Credit: Erica Ciallela

Looking inside the SDV from above. at the Submarine Force Museum.
Photo Credit: Erica Ciallela

The U.S Navy Seals are a volunteer unit, just like the Submarine Force. Part of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Command, the number of Seals is small when compared with other forces. Officially established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, Seals stands for Sea, Air and Land, the fronts that any seal member must be prepared for on any given mission. Today’s SEALS find their heritage dates back to five groups that played large roles in World War II and the Korean War. These groups were the Army Scouts and Navy Raiders; Naval Combat Demolition Units, Office of Strategic Services Operational Swimmers, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, and the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons. These groups were used in missions that included reconnaissance, explosive destruction of underwater obstacles, and marking mines for minesweepers. During their time, they made advancements in closed-circuit diving, underwater demolitions, and mini-submarine operations. While established by Kennedy, the modern SEALSs come from a long evolutionary line of forces that shaped the group to its current state. Today’s SEAL teams spend much of their time getting as close to the enemy as possible without being detected. This calls for special equipment that not just any team can have. Enter the SDV. Today’s submarines are large enough to cover entire football fields. And while they are extremely quiet and are great at remaining hidden, there are just some jobs that require a much smaller vehicle. The SDV allows Navy SEALs to exit a submarine and get up close to an enemy.
According to the Navy SEAL Museum, the purpose and need for SDV’s was explained in a 1952 report titled “Underwater Swimmers.” It stated that “Whenever it is necessary to operate near an enemy-held shore in as complete secrecy as possible, the approach to the object must be made under water. The first part of the approach can be made in a fleet-type submarine, but these 1500-ton vessels cannot operate submerged in water shallower than 60 feet, and depths less than 150 feet are considered hazardous. The final submerged approach must be made by swimming or in a small submersible. On many coasts throughout the world, depths less than 60 feet extend out several miles from shore. In these areas even, men equipped with SCUBA would not have enough breathing gas to swim the distance and return. Moreover, they would be seriously fatigued when they reached their objective after their swim of several hours. To supplement their swimming, they must have a small, powered submersible.” The SDV is a manned submersible that allows Navy SEALS to execute their missions. The submersibles are free-flooding which means that the unit is filled with water during the whole mission. Team members breathe compressed air from an internal life-support system or from Scuba equipment. The predecessor to the SDV was developed by the British during World War II. This original design, while used in training and exercise, never saw combat. It could only carry one crew member and its military potential was minimal. However, a similar concept would be used to help create the design for today’s SDV’s. Out of the approximately 2600 active-duty SEALs, only around 230 are qualified to operate or serve on SDV missions. Besides being filled with water, the vessels have no windows. Navigation is done through sonar. Having to work in tight conditions and extremely cold temperatures, only a few SEALs are qualified to handle these circumstances.
Officially commissioned in 1983, the first modern SDV was the MK 7. There were six different models of this type, each one changing and adapting as new upgrades were found. This first design could carry a pilot and three additional crew members. The instruments and battery compartments were kept in water-tight compartments that were pressure-proofed to deal with variable depths. The early models were operated with an electric motor, powered by a rechargeable silver-zinc battery. The first model began experimental service in 1967 and had its first mission in 1972.

A Mk VIII Mod 1 minisub operated by members of a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team maneuvers into a dry dock shelter fitted to USS KAMEHAMEHA (SSN-642), a U.S. Navy submarine.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle

Following the MK7, the MK8 and MK 9 made electrical improvements but since the beginning, the design has mainly stayed the same. Today’s SDV’s run on lithium-ion batteries and utilize state-of-the-art navigation systems. Newer models carry a crew of six. The SDV is a clear example of how each unit within the military depends on each other to accomplish its missions. We may joke about being surface or submariner or Army or Navy, but each branch plays a vital role and are intertwined, just like the SDV and the submarine.

SEAL divers from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two (SDVT-2) getting ready to launch a Mk VIII Mod 1 SDV minisub from the back of Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Philadelphia (SSN 690).
image sourced from public domain | U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Andrew McKaskle

the X-Craft and D-Day

Last week marked the 74th anniversary of Operation Overlord. Also known as D-Day, Codenamed Operation Overlord saw 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces land on the northern beaches of France. The invasion, which began on June 6, 1944 and lasted until late August, saw the liberation of Northern France. The landing at Normandy has come to mark the “beginning of the end” of the war in Europe. Many facts about the fateful day are widely known. The Higgins landing craft has become synonymous with the invasion as the boat that won the war. But first-hand reports from the day recount so many different boats waiting to take the beaches. However, one type of vessel that is often forgotten from the narrative is the British midget submarines that played a key role in the landing efforts.

Figure 1 Credit: Imperial War Museum

Preparation for D-day had been extensive. Operation Neptune, the codename for cross-channel portion of the invasion, was pushed back 24 hours due to bad weather. But by June 6th, paratroopers and glider troopers were already in position behind enemy lines. U.S. Forces would go in at Utah and Omaha Beach. The British and Canadian forces were to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Under Neptune was Operation Gambit, the use of two X -class British submarines that would mark the ends of the British and Canadian invasion beaches. The X-craft submarines were built at a secret submarine training base at Lock Erisort on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. By 1943, the Royal Navy had developed a 52-foot midget submarine they called X-craft. The submarine could carry a four-man crew and remain at sea for days. She could dive up to 300 feet. Due to her small size, the X-craft had only one access hatch and a small periscope that was mostly unreliable. Navigation was done through a Browns A Gyro Compass and Auto Helmsman. The X-craft could either be towed by a conventional submarine or launched from the deck of a submarine to reach its intended target. Two 3,570-lb mines were attached to its sides. A hand crank could release them when they were positioned below the hull of an enemy ship. The small crew consisted of one commanding officer, a first lieutenant, an engineer, and a diver.


Figure 2 Figure 3 Inside an X-craft submarine

In the months leading up to Operation Overlord, it was up to the x-20 to gain as much recognizance as possible to prepare for the mission. During the day the submarine would monitor the beaches using its periscope and at night divers would swim to shore. Echo sounding measurements were taken to find distance and landing positions. Over two nights, the divers surveyed the beaches at Vierville, Moulins, St. Laurent and Colleville- the beaches that made up “Omaha” beach. Plans were to have the divers make a third trip. However, bad weather and lack of food forced the commander to return to the HMS Dolphin where she would be towed to Scotland. Two X-class submarines would return to the beaches of Normandy leading up to the invasion to help aid in what would become the eventual downfall of the German troops. HMS X-23 and HMS X-20 would be the first vessels off the shores of Normandy leading up to the attack. Arriving on June 4, the X-crafts fixed their positions and waited for nightfall to surface to begin their mission. It wasn’t until they surfaced that they received the message that the operation had been postponed due to bad weather. According to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, “On 6 June at 0445 the submarines surfaced in rough seas. They set up the 18 feet high navigation beacons that each were carrying and switched them on. These shone a green light indicating their position away from the coast, visible up to 5 miles away although undetectable to anyone on land. They used the radio beacon and echo sounder to tap out a message for the minelayers approaching Sword and Juno beaches. The incoming fleet appeared on time and roared past them.” Sailing out of Hayling Island in Hampshire, the two submarines were nervous hearing that the mission had been delayed. The conditions inside were cramped and there was not even enough room to stand. There was fear that their oxygen levels wouldn’t last them another day. The men survived on rations of tea and baked beans as they waited for word. The crew would sleep in four-hour rotations in the battery compartment. Each evening they would surface to receive the secret code worded message on the BBC broadcast that would tell them when it was time. At the darkest of night, they would surface so the men could walk on the deck to get some air. Leading up to June 6th, the crews watched the German troops play football on the shore through the periscope. And then the message came to be ready to surface at 4am on June 6th.
Operation Gambit was a success, the British and Canadian forces were able to land on their respective shores without falling off course or hitting any rocks, thanks to the beacons from the X-crafts. In 2011, the small crews of X-23 and X-20 were honored with a granite memorial donated by Prince Charles on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Today, only one X-craft vessel remains- the X-24 which can be seen at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. While the X-20 and X-23, served only a minor role in the D-Day invasion, it shows the vital role a submarine can play in a nation’s arsenal.

Figure 4 X-24

PT Boats

When it comes to U.S. Navy boats, you often think of aircraft carriers and destroyers. Here in Groton we automatically bring up the large list of Submarines. But throughout the Navy’s long and proud history, there have been an array of different types of vessels used to help support war efforts. One such type of boat are the PT boats of WWII. Nicknamed “Devil Boats” by the Japanese, these small torpedo boats helped the U.S. Navy in its war in the Pacific.

In 1938, the U.S. Navy realized its need for a mobile attack boat. PT’s or Patrol Torpedo Boats were small, fast vessels that could be used for scouting. They were armed with torpedoes and machine guns to cut off enemy tankers and transports. Their effectiveness at targeting Japanese armored barges that were used for inter-island transport gave them the “Devil Boat” nickname. During the war, there were forty-three squadrons with 12 boats each. The work was dangerous, and the squadrons suffered a high loss rate during the war. On board each boat were four Mark 8 torpedoes. Two M2 .50cal machine guns were mounted for anti-aircraft defense. Throughout the war, Elco (Elco Moto Yachts) in Bayonne, New Jersey and Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana would become the dominant builders of the PT boat.

The Elco boat was 80 feet long and the Higgins came in slightly smaller at 78 feet long.   Elco’s design was based off a purchase of a Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat. They shipped the boat to Electric Boat in Groton and began working with the prototype that would be dubbed PT-9. Over two years the PT-9 would go through numerous sea trials in order to improve the design, eventually meeting Navy standards. To keep up with the production demand, Elco would employ more than 3,000 men and women during the height of the war. The Elco company would build 399 PT boats and Higgins Industries would end up producing 199 PT boats by war’s end. Andrew Jackson Higgins is said to be the man who built the boat that won the war. The famous Higgins Boats were used during the storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The use of his LCVP’s (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) are what allowed the allied troops direct access to the beach on D-Day. But before this, Higgins’ PT boats were used against the Japanese in the Battle of Aleutian Islands and in the Mediterranean against the Nazis. For most of the war, PT boats would provide fire support for landing troops and carry out rescue missions.

Today very few PT boats survive. Most were destroyed shortly after the war’s end. Stories about their missions and crews can be hard to find. One of the best-known PT boats was the PT-109, skippered by the late President John F. Kennedy. According to,”PT-109 was operating in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and joined 14 other PT boats for a nighttime ambush of 4 enemy destroyers and supply ships of Japan’s “Tokyo express”.   Most of the PT boat attack force fired their compliment of torpedoes and headed for home, but three boats stayed behind including the 109.  In the confusion and darkness at sea, Lieutenant Kennedy noted a vague shape approaching him.  He assumed it was a sister PT boat, but soon discovered it was a Japanese destroyer.   Kennedy attempted to swing his boat into position to fire a torpedo, but was not fast enough.  The much larger destroyer hit the 109 broadside at full speed nearly splitting the much smaller wooden boat in half.   Kennedy and the survivors swam nearly 3 miles to a small island.   After a week of surviving on small islands with the help of natives, Kennedy and the 109’s surviving crew were rescued by PT-157.”[1]

While stories about PT boats are less common than larger vessels, the number of physical PT boats around today are even fewer. The PT-658 which was built but never saw action is housed in Portland, Oregon at the P-658 Heritage Museum.  She was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

PT-658 Heritage Museum located at the Swan Island Industrial Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office/National Park Service

She is fully functional and up until recently was the only restored and operational US Navy PT boat.  At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, you can take a ride on the PT-305, a Higgins PT boat that has been fully restored after being in dry dock in Texas for a number of years.

The December 8, 1944, commissioning photograph of PT-305’s first crew. Top row: Leonard Martyr, James Nerison, Benedict Bronder, Joseph Cirlot, Percy Wallace, William Minnick, William Borsdorff. Second Row: George Miles, Frank Crane, Donald Weamer, Fernando Ferrini. Bottom: William Schoonover. Gift of Mitchell Cirlo

The PT-305 served in European waters from 1944 to 1945. According to the National WWII Museum website the “PT-305, along with PT-302 through PT-313, was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 22 (Ron 22). Ron 22 was commissioned on November 10, 1943 under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling and was assigned to the Mediterranean. MTB RON 22 operated in the Mediterranean along the coast of Southern France and Northern Italy. Boats from Ron 22 participated in the Invasion of Elba on June 18, 1944, where PT-305 sank a German Flak lighter. The squadron acted as a diversionary force in Gulf Juan, and as an anti-E-boat screen in the Nice-Cannes area. Ron 22 was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. They landed French Commandos on the coast of France in preparation for the invasion. The squadron was also involved in action around Leghorn, Italy. To harass the enemy Ron 22 fired torpedoes into harbors between Genoa, Italy and the French-Italian border. On the night of April 24, 1945, PT-305 sank an Italian MAS boat. In late April 1945, the squadron was returned to the United States to be overhauled in preparation for deployment to the Pacific. The war however ended while the squadron was still in New York Harbor. The Squadron was decommissioned November 15, 1945 still under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling. On June 18, 1948, PT-305 was sold along with the rest of the squadron.”[2] After the war, PT-305 was used as an oyster boat until 2001. Transferred to the museum in 2007, she is now fully restored.

Ensign Bleeker Morse (left) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Allan Purdy on the bridge of PT-305 in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, on March 16, 1945. The “kill plaques” on the chart house signify the two enemy craft sunk by PT-305 prior to that date. Gift of Joseph Brannan.





Torpedo Junction

America has seen little war fought on its shores. For the most part, the major battles have been brought to the enemy leaving little destruction in the U.S. While many times our forces have gone overseas, this does not mean that America was left unscathed in the World Wars. Besides Pearl Harbor, there were U-boat sightings off the Atlantic Coast for much of World War II. In fact, German U-boats were so common in areas of the Atlantic that the area became known as Torpedo Junction (Torpedo Alley).

World War II was not the first time that German U-boats creeped along the Atlantic shores. During World War I, a U-boat came dangerously close to the coast of Cape Cod. Three U-boats sank ten ships off the coast of North Carolina and navigated along the coast asserting German power. The Outer Banks of North Carolina would become a hot spot for German U-boats, leading to the nickname of “Torpedo Junction” in World War II.  The name U-boat comes from the German word “unterseeboot” meaning submarine. Despite being categorized as submarines, u-boats were technically warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could only submerge for limited periods of time which was usually to avoid enemy detection. When they would attack, U-boats were usually above the surface and used deck mounted guns. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Germany came up with a plan they called Operation Paukenschlag. The plan called for a submarine assault on the American seaboard. The operation was the brainchild of German rear-Admiral Karl Donitz. He believed that the Germans could take advantage of an unsuspecting American coastline. The plan focused on the North Carolina coast line near Cape Hatteras due to its large merchant ship sea lanes. Without wasting any time, the Germans took advantage of America’s vulnerability after the attack on Pearl Harbor and sent five submarines to begin the operation in late December 1941.

Why pick the Carolina coastline? The Atlantic Coast was unprepared for a U-boat assault. Merchant ships had no training in defensive maneuvers, and onshore no preventions such as blackout restrictions were put in place. Coastal lights provided easy targeting for the German Navy. U.S. Naval patrols in the Atlantic were few due to the needs in the Pacific. Only one vessel, the Dione, patrolled the area. Designed to catch rum-runners, she would be no match for the might of the U-boat. The German crews had already been at war for two years by 1941, leaving them highly trained compared to the few defenses left on the Atlantic coast. Between January and June of 1942, 397 merchant ships were sunk. It was said that the attacks off the Outer Banks were so frequent that “Flaming tankers burned so brightly…one could read a newspaper by the glow at night, while the grim flotsam of war-oil, wreckage, and corpses- was strewn across local beaches.” Authorities kept reports of the attacks classified in order to not strike fear with the rest of the American public. Even after the war, many people had no idea how close the war had come to them. In a report by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, it was said that “The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort….I am fearful that another month or two of this will so cripple our means of transport that we will be unable to bring sufficient men and planes to bear against the enemy in critical theaters to exercise a determining influence on the war.” The U.S Navy was in a difficult position. It could not afford to take men away from the frontlines in Europe and the Pacific. However, after months of assaults on the merchant lanes off the Atlantic Coast, it was clear that if something wasn’t done, the rest of the war effort would mean nothing.

Marshall’s plea would not go unnoticed. As time passed, little could be done to keep news of the attacks from circulating. One attack that struck the fear of those along the coast line was that of the Canadian Steamship “Lady Hawkins.” Because of the U-boats’ aggressive attacks, the steamship stayed close to the coast throughout its trip from Canada to Bermuda. It was around Cape Hatteras that she would make the turn towards Bermuda.  On January 19, 1942, U-66’s searchlight briefly lit up the Canadian Steamship. Within moments two torpedoes were bringing down the vessel carrying some 300 civilians. Only 130 miles from land, six of her life boats were destroyed and only 76 survivors were able to make it to the remaining life boat. It would be five days before the S.S. Coamo would rescue the survivors.  The same day that news broke of the steamship, a Coast Guard ship arrived in Virginia with the survivors of the American merchant ship ‘Francis E. Powell.”  The Powell had been headed to Providence, Rhode Island from Texas when it had been attacked on January 27. Something needed to be done about the U-boats before mass panic spread across the country. The U.S. Navy (along with British assistance), sent long-range aircraft patrols to the area along with a deployment of anti-submarine vessels. The defenses would quickly come in handy.

On January 28, 1942, Donald Francis Mason, a pilot with Patrol Squadron Eight-Two, and his crew took off for a continuing series of patrols over “Torpedo Junction.” At first the mission took on its quiet scanning of the waters with nothing much to see. But shortly after 1:00pm, Mason spotted a flash of light. The crew saw a periscope appear above the surface of the water. Mason, without thought or hesitation, began his attack on the U-boat. Here is an excerpt from a report filed on the attack:

 Plane turned and attacked at once.  Submarine was apparently completely surprised, as periscope was visible throughout entire attack.  Approach was made from astern submarine on a course about 20 degrees across submarine’s course.  Bombs were released at estimated altitude of 25 feet, indicated air speed 165 knots.  Two bombs were dropped with a spread of about 25 feet.

Plumes of the explosions were seen to spread, one on either side of periscope, estimated distance 10 feet from wake line and nearly abreast the periscope.  The submarine was lifted bodily in the water until most of the conning tower could be seen.  Headway of submarine seemed to be killed at once and she was observed to sink from sight vertically.  Five minutes later, oil began to bubble to the surface and continued for ten minutes.  At this time it was necessary to leave area in order to return to base by dark.  Plane landed at 1628.

Detailed employment of crew during bombing attack was as follows:
(1) Pilot at the controls:
(2) Co-pilot in the cockpit alongside the pilot, armed bombs, stood by manual release.
(3) Plane Captain attempted to take photographs of target with F-48 camera during glide approach and after attack. Pictures of this attack were poor because of greatly reduced lighting conditions.
(4) Radioman in bow at the Navigator’s Desk, acting as lookout with binoculars.[1]

While an official report of the incident was not released publicly until April 1, 1942, A Time’s article in February about the sinking of “Lady Hawkins” alludes to the attack. In the closing of the article, it was quoted that a report radioed by Mason saying “Sighting sub, sank same” [2]

By the summer of 1942, the anti-submarine patrols had done their job. While merchant ships were periodically lost throughout the rest of the war, it never compared with what had occurred in the early days of 1942. By the end, more than eighty ships had been lost with hundreds of innocent lives lost off the coast of North Carolina. In most discussions of WWII, the U-boat attacks of the Atlantic coast are often forgotten. While history is quick to focus on the larger battles that were waged, these few months in early 1942 kept the people along the Atlantic coast, and especially in North Carolina, in constant fear. For them the war was at their doorsteps, giving these citizens a much different way of remembering the war.


[2] In post-war records it was discovered that Mason had not sunk the U-boat on January 28, 1942. He would go on to sink a German U-boat on March 5th, which he would receive a Flying Cross for. Despite the records correction, his quote of Sighting sub, sank same has lived on and is no in the list of famous naval quotes.