A Trip To Fredericksburg Texas

Chester William Nimitz From Fredericksburg Texas

museum fredericksburg texasFredericksburg Texas, in the middle of the beautiful Texas Hill Country, is one of the most popular stops for those on Texas vacations. Fredericksburg TX is a very unique and historic location with excellent restaurants (German fare is a big draw), beautiful and historic bed and breakfast lodgings and is the home of the Admiral Chester Nimitz Pacific War Museum.

Chester William Nimitz was born on 24 February 1885, in Fredericksburg, Texas. Young Chester, while in high school and even though his grandfather was a retired sea captain, decided on a career with the Army. While a student at Tivy High School in Kerrville Texas, Chester tried for an appointment to West Point. Unfortunately no vacancies existed and Nimitz then took a competitive examination for the Naval Academy at Annapolis and was selected.

Chester Nimitz’ appointment to Annapolis in 1901 was from the Twelfth Congressional District of Texas. This was prior to his high school graduation. Chester Nimitz attended Annapolis and graduated the academy in the class of 1905. He graduated seventh in a class of 144.

national museum of the pacific war

Outdoor exhibit at National Museum of the Pacific War

Nimitz moved up through the Naval ranks and held a variety of positions including Commander of Cruiser Division, Commander of Battle Division and in 1939 was appointed as Chief of Bureau Navigation which was to last for four years.

A fast change in command occurred shortly after Pearl harbor. In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was designated as Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, where he served throughout World War Two. On 19 December 1944, he was advanced to the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral, and on 2 September 1945, was the United States signatory to the surrender terms aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Chester Nimitz has been credited with supervising some of the early successes the U.S. enjoyed such as James Doolittle’s raids on Japan via a flight carrier as well as the victories in the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. At Midway, Japan lost all four of her aircraft carriers engaged in that battle. The Battle of Midway of course is another entire story in itself.

nimitz museum texas

Nimitz World War Two museum

After World War Two

Chester W. Nimitz and his wife eventually moved to Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, between San Francisco and Oakland and home of the Treasure Island Naval Base. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz passed away at his home on Treasure Island on February 20, 1966 at the age of eighty. He was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno California, just south of San Francisco. He was the last surviving five-star admiral.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

Touring the Texas Hill Country

The Alamo in San Antonio

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

Visit Luling Texas / Railroads, Oil and Watermelons

nimitz hotel fredericksburg texas

Historic Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg

Visit the National Museum of the Pacific War

The mission of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg Texas as stated on their website is “dedicated to perpetuating the memory of the Pacific Theater of WWII in order that the sacrifices of those who contributed to our victory may never be forgotten“.

The museum chronicles the story of Japan’s rise in military power, the beginning of World War Two in the Pacific and the advance of the Allied military to final victory in 1945. There are also very interesting exhibits regarding the home front and the war’s effect on both Texas and the nation. Many artifacts are on display including newspaper articles, and mementos. There are real guns, tanks, planes and even a submarine exhibit. You’ll see the “live” exhibits where real WWII veterans have recorded their stories for you to listen to, or you can hear a re-enactment of the bridge chatter on a cruiser during battle, or look through a simulated periscope.

nimitz museum memorial

Memoral at the National Museum of the Pacific War

The National Museum of the Pacific War traces the roots of the events leading up to World War Two. The museum really does an excellent job of sharing information about the causes of World War Two as well as the numerous details about the various aspects of the war. There is no other museum like the National Museum of the Pacific War.

Lots of interesting information about the Nimitz family is found which helps you place his accomplishments in context. The museum is quite large and three hours or even more might be set aside for a partial exploration. In  reality, to take full advantage of all the unique exhibits, you might plan on a full day visit and possibly come back again the next day.

It’s very unique to have such a large museum available in a smaller town like Fredericksburg Texas. It’s a real treasure and a must see if you’re touring the scenic Texas Hill Country. The National Museum of the Pacific War is located at 340 E. Main St., Fredericksburg Texas.

Fredericksburg is located about 69 miles northwest of San Antonio and about 77 miles west of Austin.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Trips Into History)

 

World War Two Attacks on America’s West Coast

Japanese Submarines

There is very little written about the three separate incidents during World War Two in which attacks were carried out along the west coast of the United States. The action in the Pacific War was taking place far from America’s shores and, while these incidents were reported on, the big news was happening in the Solomon Islands, Iwo Jima and the Philippines.

japanese float plane in world war two

World War Two Japanese floatplane

Since the beginning of the war, the West Coast had a case of anxiety which had it’s impact on the thousands of Japanese living mostly in California. Some of the Japanese immigrants were older and had been born on the Home Islands. Many more were younger and were born here in the United States and were naturalized citizens. There were many situations where the children were citizens yet the parents were not.

Fears on the West Coast

California’s anxiety finally manifested itself with the internment of all Japanese residing on the coast. This occurred after much debate and was not something decided on overnight. The California state government put quite a lot of pressure on the federal government to begin the internment program. Native Californians and to a degree the federal government were concerned about security. Speculation at the very beginning of the war was that a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was not out of the question. Although in hindsight it would probably have been a very difficult if not impossible thing to pull off successfully.

 

anti submarine mine

Size 48 Anti-Submarine mine on display at Oregon's Fort Stevens

The primary security concerns were the possible signaling by clandestine radio to enemy submarines off the coast as to U.S. ship departures including troop departures.

The West Coast was also home to nearly all of the military installations engaged in the Pacific therefore sabotage was also not out of the question. Sabotage was carried out during both World War’s but mostly in the east by German agents. While researching I found nothing regarding sabotage carried out by Japanese immigrants in the west. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war involved many western states and was a very controversial program which remains controversial even today.

Attacks on the American Mainland

Regarding the attacks on the American mainland, the first occurred off Santa Barbara California on February 23, 1942. News reports at the time reported that 16 shells were fired on the Ellwood Oil Fields about 12 miles north of the city. Some property was destroyed as well as pumping equipment about 1200 yards inland.

japanese attack on santa barbara california

Map of the Ellwood Oil Fields off Santa Barbara California

The first reports were from a woman who actually observed the submarine through her binoculars. She reported the submarine about one mile offshore. There’s actually an interesting story that was reported about the incident. The story goes that a Japanese tanker captain during peacetime was having his ship loaded at the Ellwood fields and that during a welcoming ceremony he fell upon some cacti at which time the American attendees let out laughs. It’s thought that he was the commander of the submarine involved with the attack therefore attaining some degree of revenge. The attack also happened just minutes after one of president Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” on the radio. Most specific information regarding Japanese attacks became known after the surrender. If the story is true, it’s quite a tale.

world war two searchlight

World War Two era searchlight on display at Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast

The second Japanese submarine attack on the American mainland occurred on June 21, 1942 when an attack occurred on Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The only damage that was reported in this attack was the baseball field’s backstop. The batteries at Fort Stevens did not return fire because it would have enabled the sub to better pinpoint it’s target. Military planes set out and located the submarine but it eventually submerged and escaped.

There was also an attack with the goal of setting our forests on fire in the northwest.on September 9, 1942. A special seaplane was launched from a Japanese submarine aircraft carrier. The plane shown at the top of this post dropped two incendiary bombs near Brookings Oregon but the goal was not achieved. There were no forest fires as a result. There was another attempt on September 29th with similar results.

There was actually another prolonged attack not involving submarines. This was the Japanese balloon bomb campaign whose goal was also to start forest fires in the American west.

japanese balloon bomb monument near bly oregon

Monument at the site of the Japanese balloon bomb explosion near Bly Oregon

During 1944 and 1945 the Japanese launched about 9,000 fire balloons toward the U.S. Carried by the jet stream about 300 reached the U.S. mainland but caused little damage. One tragic exception were six deaths (one adult and five children) when a child while on a family picnic started tampering with one of the balloons on the ground and it exploded. This occurred near Bly Oregon and today there’s a monument at the site as a memorial.

Links to two photo articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting include:

San Francisco’s World War Two Defenses

Visit to Fort Point in San Francisco California.

 

Visit the World War Two Submarine USS Pampanito

Interesting Venues to Explore

To see World War Two artifacts from the World War Two West Coast defense effort there are several interesting places to visit.

Fort Stevens State Park on the Pacific coast just west of Astoria Oregon features many interesting exhibits both indoors and outdoors.

Another interesting stop is Fort Point National Historic Site in San Francisco located directly under the far south portion of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort was originally constructed by the Spanish, taken over by the U.S. in 1848 and was the home to 6th U.S. Coast Artillery during World War Two. Plenty of great exhibits there.

Another excellent venue in southern California is the Fort MacArthur Military Museum in San Pedro.The museum exhibits photos, drawings,and memorabilia from 1920 through World War Two. Fort MacArthur housed giant 14 inch guns behind walls up to thirty feet thick capable of firing shells at a distance of fourteen miles.

(Photos of Fort Stevens cannon and anti-submarine mine are from the author’s collection. Remaining photos are from the public domain)

New Mexico Guard / Bataan Memorial Museum

bataan memorial museum in santa fe

Bataan Museum, Santa Fe New Mexico

There is a small gem of a museum in Santa Fe New Mexico, operated by the New Mexico Guard which is a must stop for anyone interested in the military as well as the history of the New Mexico National Guard/ Militia. The Bataan Memorial Museum is one of the more interesting New Mexico museums…a one of a kind venue and a real trip into history, displays an enormous amount of genuine military artifacts from centuries  past to today’s modern times. In addition to the amazing displays of uniforms, weapons, personal items, flags, patches, photos and more, the Bataan Museum also tells the story of the New Mexico National Guard/Militia from 1598 until today.

While this museum is named the Bataan Museum, the venue essentially honors the sacrifices made by the New Mexican’s in all U.S. wars. According to the museum, their goal is “to preserve the past, present and future of the New Mexico National Guard and to educate visitors about our proud history both in peace and war time”. The museum began as a tribute to the Veterans of the infamous Bataan Death March and has grown to showcase the contributions and sacrifices of soldiers in many theaters of war.

bataan memorial museum

Bataan Memorial Museum

Displays include Civil War weapons and uniforms, Japanese and German military artifacts, flags and weapons, United States military weaponry and uniforms which not only span the earlier times of the 1800’s and the first half of the 1900’s but also through the Vietnam and Desert storm eras. Also included is a 1859 McCellan saddle, a WWI Harley Davidson motorcycle, a WWI freight wagon, a Korean War commemorative Thompson submachine gun, two AK-47 assault rifles, and much more.

You can also view the 24 minute video titled, The Tragedy of Bataan, which was developed in conjunction with PBS.

Bataan Memorial Museum Exhibits

m61a1 cannon

M61A1 Cannon

One fascinating exhibit inside the Bataan Museum is a M61A1 six barreled rotary cannon firing a variety of electrically primed 20mm cannon shells. This cannon was used by aircraft during the late 1950’s into the 1960’s. Weapons such as this were designed after the Second World War with the creation of the Air Force. It was widely recognized that military aircraft needed improved weapons systems. The M61A1 weapon largely replaced the Colt Mk. 12 20 mm gun. The Colt had good muzzle velocity but was known to jam, especially in a dogfight.

The M61A1 could be mounted either inside the aircraft or mounted outside on a pod. It has also been used on land based vehicles and trailers as essentially an anti-aircraft weapon. As you can see from the photos, the gun is quite a complex bit of engineering. The M61A1 can be driven hydraulically, electrically, or by ram air. The rate of firepower  is between 4,000 and 7,200 rounds per minute.

civil war sword

Civil War Bayonette Sword

Another very interesting exhibit at the Bataan Memorial Museum is a collection of Civil War artifacts. The collection is large and impressive and includes a Civil War Bayonette Sword, a three inch cannon ball which was found at Glorieta Pass, twelve miles northeast of Santa Fe. The Battle of Glorieta Pass was the decisive Civil War battle in New Mexico which stopped and turned back the Confederate advance in the territory. Also featured in the Civil War collection is a Union Army cap.

The Bataan Death March

The Bataan Memorial Museum tells much about the story of what was referred to as the “Bataan Death March“. The Bataan Death March was one of the most brutal events during World War Two in the Pacific. The Japanese military captured and force marched 12,000 Americans and 68,000 Philippines from the island of Corregidor to northern Luzon. The prisoners were denied food and water and many stragglers were killed along the way. It is estimated that the Japanese killed about 1,000 Americans and more than 10,000 Philippine soldiers during the Bataan Death march. Many of those who did survive the initial march died later while being transported to Japan on what were called “hell ships”. It was beyond a doubt, one of the largest atrocities of World War Two.

civil war cannon ball

Three inch Civil War cannon ball found at Glorieta Pass New Mexico

The New Mexico National Guard

The history of the New Mexico National Guard goes all the way back to 1598 as the Spanish militia. The citizen soldiers were involved in their particular vocation during the day and were ready to serve when called to duty. The New Mexico Guard units were involved during the Indian War campaigns of the old west as well as during the Civil War years. The two most significant battles of the Civil War was the battles of Valverde and Glorieta Pass. New Mexican units were also involved in the Spanish American War as part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

In addition to the above, New Mexican Guard units were involved in General John Pershing’s pcampaign in Mexico against the forces of Poncho Villa. Their duty extended to World War One, World War Two, and Vietnam. The 188th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the New Mexico Air National Guard spent one year in Vietnam. New Mexico Guard units were also involved in the Desert Shield and Desert Storm actions in 1990-1991.

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting are the World War Two Sinking of the Robert E. Lee in the Gulf of Mexico and on our Western Trips site, the World War Two Defenses at Galveston Texas.

world war two japanese hand grenade

Exhibit of World War Two Japanese hand grenade

Visiting the Bataan Memorial Museum

The Bataan Memorial Museum is dedicated to the bravery and sacrifice of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery regiments who fought at both Bataan and Corregidor until ordered to surrender to the much larger force of the Japanese Army. It should be noted that New Mexico’s World War Two involvement extended past the Philippines. New Mexico’s 804th Tank destroyer battalion and the 120th engineers battalion fought in Europe.

The Bataan Memorial Museum, operated by the New Mexico National Guard, is located at 1050 Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe New Mexico. Admission is free and the hours are 10A-4P, Tuesday through Saturday. The location is just a very short drive south of the Santa Fe plaza in the direction of Museum Hill.

The Bataan Memorial Museum is an extraordinary museum and would be a great addition to your things to do in Santa Fe trip planner. When you’re deciding which of the many New Mexico museums to visit, be sure to add this one to your itinerary.  Your stop there will be an interesting trip into history.

(Photos from author’s private collection)

 

Balloon Bomb / World War Two

japanese submarine

Japanese Imperial Navy "Sen Taka" World War Two submarine

 

World War Two is often times considered an event that occurred many miles away from the shores of North America. For the most part this is correct. German U-Boats operated not far off the shores of America and did indeed inflict damage to Allied merchant shipping. The action in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example. Action off the east coast of the United States is another good example. What about the west coast of the U.S.? Did Japanese submarines lurk there as well? The answer is yes. Was damage caused along the U.S. west coast? The answer again is yes although the Japanese activity there could be classified as more of a harassment operation rather than something of a tactical nature.

The Japanese Balloon Bomb

japanese fire balloon

Japanese Fire Balloon that was shot down and reinflated by American military

One element of this harassment actually didn’t originate from a submarine but rather from mainland Japan itself. This involved a weapon known as the “fire balloon” or “Balloon Bomb“. It’s a fact that the Japanese actually used balloons in warfare since the 1800’s. These devices were constructed of “washi“, a paper obtained from mulberry bushes that was considered impermeable and extremely tough. These were hydrogen filled balloons carrying a charge of perhaps a 33 lb antipersonnel bomb. Other charges carried may have been a 26 lb incendiary device. These balloon bombs were built at many locations throughout Japan.

The balloon’s direction was at the mercy of the jet stream which was most favorable during the winter months. Because of this, the first balloon was launched from Japan in November of 1944. Based on the jet stream speed it was anticipated that the fire balloon would travel for about three days before reaching the U.S. west coast. The balloons were equipped with a control system that operated the balloon bomb through three days of flight. It was figured that by that time the balloon  would likely be over the United States. After three days aloft the balloon’s ballast was expended.

Why a Fire Balloon?

The question was…why a fire balloon? Why attack the U.S. west coast with a balloon bomb? Also, what was the goal of this weapon? Could this long distance weapon possibly be intended to change the course of World War Two? It has been estimated that about 9,300 of these balloons were launched by Japan between November 1944 and April 1945. This was during the latter part of the war and at a time when Japan was slowly but surely on the losing side. Out of this very large number of fire balloons launched, some three hundred were observed over the western U.S. Over the years after the war, several of these devices were discovered. Eight balloons were found during the 1940’s, three during the 1950’s and two in the 1960’s. Parts of one balloon were also found as late as 1978. Japanese Fire Balloons were found as far east as the state of Michigan.

artillery gun at fort stevens state park

World War Two coastal gun battery at Fort Stevens Oregon

One goal of the Japanese fire balloon campaign appeared to be to start forest fires, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Their stated aim was also to “destroy” U.S. and Canadian cities in North America which seems to be a long shot at best since the steering of the devices were left to the whims of the jet stream. As late in the war that this occurred, it would be outlandish to think that the course of the war could be altered by the balloon bomb campaign. The several small forest fires that did occur because of the fire bombs were quickly put out. Nothing strategically was accomplished by the fire bomb effort.

Two additional articles with photos on our Western Trips site you’ll be interested in are the Defense of San Francisco Bay and the USS Pampanito Submarine.

Fatalities in the United States

Outside of the fire balloon attacks, the Japanese offensive on the U.S. west coast caused little damage. Attacks did include a submarine shelling of an oil platform just off Santa Barbara California, a night time attack on Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and an attack by a very small aircraft launched from a Japanese submarine.

mitchell monument in oregon

Mitchell Monument

One very unfortunate incident that occurred on May 5, 1945 did involve a balloon bomb that had landed in a southern Oregon forest. A group of adults and children headed out for a picnic and while looking for a suitable site discovered a balloon on the forest floor. Part of the group approached the balloon and as they did it exploded. The result was that five children and a pregnant woman were killed. Records indicate that this was the only fatal incident involving Japanese fire balloons launched against North America. The photo at right is of the “Mitchell Monument” located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Bly Oregon where the wife of Reverend Archie Mitchell and five Sunday school children were killed in 1945.

What the Public Knew.

Much has been written about what the public did and did not know about the Japanese fire balloon bomb program. When Japan began sending fire balloons eastward toward the U.S. there was not a lot press about the subject. One reason could have been concerning perceived Japanese experiments with biological warfare. Another was that the American military didn’t want to broadcast to the Japanese that indeed some balloons actually did reach North America. Although the effectiveness of the balloon campaign was quite low, why publicize anything about them to the Japanese. Why have the enemy learn through the media just where some of these balloons have landed? Publicity could only encourage a continuation of the program and possibly excite the population on the west coast as well.

japanese float plane

Japanese float plane launched by submarines

As a result, the Office of Censorship asked the media to refrain from reporting on the balloon bombs. After the deaths in Oregon, the government lifted the censorship. If for no other reason to warn people of the potential dangers if another one was discovered. Some thought that it was wrong for the military to cover up the balloon attacks since knowledge of it by the public could have prevented the unfortunate Oregon fatalities.

Interestingly enough, some in the public actually thought that the balloons were launched from U.S. soil, possibly from beaches along the west coast where submarines landed launching parties. Some believed it impossible that the balloons could travel that far from the Japanese mainland. This launching from U.S. beaches was very unlikely and there has never been any evidence found whatsoever that balloons were launched from American soil.

Exhibits of the Japanese Fire Balloon

Parts of Japanese Fire Balloons or Balloon Bombs that were found in Oregon in 1978 are exhibited at the Coos Historical and Maritime Museum. The museum is located at 1220 Sherman Avenue, North Bend Oregon. The museum is operated by the Coos County Historical Society. Founded in 1891 as the “Coos County Pioneer Association”, it is considered the second oldest historical society in the State of Oregon.

An excellent book on the subject of the Japanese Balloon Bombs is The Cloud Atlas by author Liam Callanan.

The Boat That Sank / The Robert E Lee and World War Two

Sometimes a name became so famous it finds itself attached to more than just one boat. Such was the case with the name of the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee. One famous Mississippi steam boat was named the Robert E. Lee and much has been written about it’s famous race against the steamboat Natchez in 1870. There was another vessel of the same name whose story almost faded from history and then suddenly reappeared about sixty-years later in 2001. This story is about the World War Two sinking of the passenger ship Robert E. Lee. This is also the story of the U-Boat U-166. Both vessels ended up being the boat that sank and all of this occurred in the Gulf of Mexico during 1942.

The Steamship Robert E. Lee

ss robert e lee

SS Robert E. Lee, courtesy Mariner's Museum, Newport News, VA

There’s an interesting story about a ship named the Robert E. Lee that took place during World War Two, long after the Mississippi River steamboat race. The Robert E. Lee was a combination freight/passenger steamship owned by the Eastern Steamship Line. One of the things that make this particular story so unique is that it occurred not far off the shore of the southern U.S. and it involved combat…combat against German U-Boats… something we typically associated with events that happened far away from America’s shores. This historic incident took place within fifty miles of U.S. soil. U-Boats in World War 2 operated just a few miles off America’s southern shores.

The Gulf of Mexico War Theater of War

The Gulf of Mexico was a fairly active area during the war. While battles were taking place in Europe and Africa and in the Pacific Theater, German U-Boats were infiltrating the Gulf of Mexico via the Straits of Florida between Key West and Cuba. The goal of the Germans in this area was to disrupt shipping. Ports along the southern United States in Louisiana and Texas were critical to America’s war effort. Oil tankers regularly left ports bound for the European continent. Allied ships were sunk. Shipping was being disrupted. German U-Boats were having a measure of success and as a result the United States put into effect many countermeasures.

world war 2 depth charge

Standard World War Two anti-submarine depth charge, from author's collection

Protecting Gulf Shipping

The U.S. maintained several army airfields in both Texas and Louisiana. Aircraft were deployed routinely over the Gulf to search for U-Boats. Naval and Coast Guard vessels were on regular patrol searching for the U-Boats and when and if found would drop depth charges. Coastal blackouts were the rule of the day. The city of Galveston Texas had forced blackouts at night to reduce the chance of U-Boat attack. The city itself was not the prime target of course but the ships passing by were. A ship passing a city along the shore at night would cast a silhouette which could be detected by a prying U-Boat periscope. Ships as standard procedure would travel without running lights however background lighting had to be kept to an absolute minimum. Ships passing by Gulf coast cities were a prime target for the U Boat submarine.

naval

PC Class World War Two Naval Patrol Boat

To give you an idea of the scope of activity in the Gulf of Mexico during the war years, the following statistics are revealing. Over seventy ships, both naval and merchant, were U-Boat victims in the Gulf of Mexico. Fifty-six vessels were sunk outright. It has been said that at least twenty U-Boats were active in the Gulf at any one time. The peak U-Boat Gulf activity was during the years 1942  and 1943. German World War 2 submarines were a constant threat to Allied shipping.

The Robert E. Lee and the Sunken U-Boat

According to U.S. Government reports, there was only one German U-Boat officially sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. This was U-166 which had sailed to the Gulf from the German U-Boat Base at Lorient France. To this very day the U-Boat remains in a watery grave just off the mouth of the Mississippi River. The area of U-166’s final resting place is also just a few hundred yards from the sunken wreckage of the SS Robert E. Lee. As it turned out, the SS Robert E. Lee was the last victim of U-166. This particular U-Boat was reported to have sunk a total of four Allied ships.

u-boat base at lorient france

Old German U-Boat Base at Lorient France

The SS Robert E. Lee, built in 1924 in Newport News Virginia, was attacked on July 30th 1942 about forty-five miles southeast of the entrance to the Mississippi River. The steamship had been on a planned route from Trinidad to Tampa and then on to New Orleans. During it’s voyage, the ship was actually diverted from Tampa and simply continued to New Orleans from Trinidad accompanied by a U.S. Naval escort ship, PC-566. One of the ironic things regarding the passenger list of the steamship involved was just who made up most of the passenger list. It just so happened that by a quirk of fate the Robert E. Lee’s passengers were mostly survivors of previously torpedoed ships on their way to the United States.

Two additional articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting are Galveston’s World War Two Defenses and the Defenses of San Francisco Bay.

The Attack

On the night of July 30th 1942 the SS Robert E. Lee was hit with a torpedo just aft of it’s engine room. The torpedo was spotted by lookouts at about 200 hundred yards from the ship but there was no time to avoid being struck. The engines and steering were wrecked and the Robert E. Lee sunk in about fifteen minutes. Twenty-five people lost their lives in the sinking of the Robert E. Lee.

Naval patrol craft, PCC-566, which had been escorting the steamer spotted the U-Boat periscope and gave chase. PC-566 dropped ten depth charges. An oil slick was spotted shortly afterwards but without any other evidence there was the possibility that the German U-Boat escaped the scene.

grumman patrol aircraft in world war two

Type of Grumman JF4 patrol aircraft operating out of Louisiana airfields during World War Two

The Amazing Discovery of the Robert E Lee and U-166

Although, the Robert E. Lee was certainly sunk, U-166 became a kind of “Flying Dutchman” of the Gulf. After the oil slick was spotted after the 1942 attack, the boat was never heard from or seen again. Efforts to find the wreck, if there was one, were never successful.  It took many decades but in the year 2001 the German U-Boat, U-166, was discovered at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and then by accident. Scientists working for a firm searching the Gulf of Mexico seabed for a suitable pipeline location found the wreck of the Robert E. Lee.  Less than two miles away was discovered another wreck. Images of the second wreck discovered by the underwater cameras didn’t fit any already identified wrecks cataloged for that area. By the same token it did resemble the missing U-Boat.

As it turned out, the wreckage was later confirmed to be U-166. Intensive camera exploration of the exterior of the sunken vessel was undertaken in 2003. Indentations were spotted that would be consistent with depth charge explosions. There was also evidence of possible secondary explosions after the pressure hull was punctured. Camera images show that the U-Boat had broken in two during the counterattack by PC-566. The wreckage of the Robert E. Lee lies mostly intact in over 4,500 feet of water. This makes it beyond the range of recreational divers. In the case of the World War II submarine U-166, the site where this vessel lies has been designated a “war grave” due to the fifty-two of her crew entombed there. This prohibits any attempts in the future to salvage the wreckage.

(Photos from the public domain unless otherwise stated)