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Heart of Louisiana: U-166

Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but most Louisianans didn’t know it.
Published: May. 1, 2022 at 4:13 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but most Louisianans didn’t know it. Hidden among the history of all of the major battles with Nazi Germany is a series of U-boat attacks on American ships along the gulf coast of Louisiana.

Buried under a mile of water near the coast of Louisiana is the wreckage of a World War Two battle between a German submarine and American ships.

Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but...
Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but most Louisianans didn’t know it.(Dave McNamara)

Barely six months after Germany declares war on the US, two dozen German U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico, scoring hit after hit.

C. J. Christ runs a military museum in Houma, which features a display on the U-boat attacks in the Gulf. A friend first told him about a sunken U-boat in 1967.

“He said, Christ, don’t you know that there’s a German submarine out there in 60 feet of water? I said ‘no I didn’t’,” said Christ.

That started a four-decade-long search for the missing U-boat, the U-166.

“We never did find the U-boat where they said it was because it was 140 miles from where they said it was,” said Christ.

Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but...
Eighty years ago, coastal Louisiana was on the front lines of fighting in World War Two, but most Louisianans didn’t know it.(Dave McNamara)

Ships traveling to and from the Mississippi River were targeted by the Germans.

“They sank 58 of our ships and damaged 18 more,” said Christ.

When the U-boats arrived, there were no naval escorts and no coastal blackouts. Historian Martin Morgan said allied ships were easy prey.

“This is part of the reason why they call it a happy time because it’s extremely easy for them to hunt down a ship sailing by itself hundreds of miles from shore out in the middle of the open Gulf of Mexico,” said Morgan.

The only things blacked out by the US military were press reports on the carnage taking place offshore.

“It was because we didn’t want the spies to find out and report word back to German naval headquarters that the U-boats were doing a very fine job,” said Morgan.

In July of 1942, the American tanker Benjamin Brewster was torpedoed right off the coast of Grand Isle. Twenty-five of its crewmen were killed, and some of the survivors rowed their lifeboat onto this beach.

“The ship that was sunk off Grand iIsle for instance, 2 ½ miles off the beach, you couldn’t keep that a secret. Beside it burned for nine days,” said Christ.

Three weeks later, the U-166 attacked and sank the passenger steamer Robert E. Lee, 45 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Robert E. Lee was being escorted by the navy patrol craft PC-566.

“18.14 they spotted the periscope of the u-166,” said Christ. “They start blowing their horn to try to warn the Robert E. Lee. It was too late, then the next thing they saw was a torpedo headed for the Robert E. Lee. The torpedo went into the engine room, 75 feet from the end of the ship, and it sank within 8 to 15 minutes.”

“PC 566 then moves toward and aims at that periscope moving at flank speed toward that periscope,” said Morgan. “The periscope turns around looks directly at the PC and then retracts beneath the surface. That area of disturbed water was still visible when the PC 566 drove right over it. They could still see a faint outline of the U-boat just below the surface of the water.”

After making two passes, dropping five depth charges each time, Captain Herbert Claudius turned his patrol boat to rescue passengers from the sinking ship.

“He was convinced in his own mind he had sunk the submarine because once he left the scene he heard no noise at all,” said Christ.

But Captain Claudius was reprimanded by the navy for botching the attack. His depth charges were set too deep. The remains of the U-166 and the Robert E. Lee were discovered in 2001 during an oil pipeline survey. And a new examination of the U-boat’s wreckage suggests a lucky shot.

“Maybe one of those depth charges landed on the deck of the U-boat. The other ones sank past it,” Morgan said.

Morgan says a depth charge may have been sitting on the forward deck near the sub’s torpedoes.

“What happened on that U-boat went like that,” said Morgan, snapping his fingers. “That depth charge went off it set off one, maybe two torpedoes everything was over in an instant. Those men were obliterated before they even knew what was happening.”

In December of 2014, more than 30 years after the death of Captain Claudius, the navy corrected a long-standing error.

“The navy secretary and also the chief of naval operations decided to decorate the captain posthumously through his son,” said Christ.

And that cast new attention on an almost forgotten battleground where gulf coast states found themselves on the front line of war.

For more on U-boats and the hidden war in the Gulf of Mexico, click HERE.

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