German sub sinks U.S. passenger ship California

Just three days after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s speech of February 3, 1917—in which he broke diplomatic relations with Germany and warned that war would follow if American interests at sea were again assaulted—a German submarine torpedoes and sinks the Anchor Line passenger steamer California off the Irish coast.

The SS California departed New York on January 29 bound for Glasgow, Scotland, with 205 passengers and crewmembers on board. Eight days later, some 38 miles off the coast of Fastnet, Ireland, the ship’s captain, John Henderson, spotted a submarine off his ship’s port side at a little after 9 a.m. and ordered the gunner at the stern of the ship to fire in defense if necessary. Moments later and without warning, the submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship. One of the torpedoes missed, but the second torpedo exploded into the port side of the steamer, killing five people instantly. The explosion of the torpedo was so violent and devastating that the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer sank just nine minutes after the attack. Despite desperate S.O.S. calls sent by the crew to ensure the arrival of rescue ships, 38 people drowned after the initial explosion, for a total of 43 dead.

This type of blatant German defiance of Wilson’s warning about the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare, combined with the subsequent discovery and release of the Zimmermann telegram—an overture made by Germany’s foreign minister to the Mexican government involving a possible Mexican-German alliance in the event of a war between Germany and the U.S.—drove Wilson and the United States to take the final steps towards war. On April 2, Wilson went before Congress to deliver his war message; the formal declaration of U.S. entrance into the First World War came four days later.

READ MORE: Should the U.S. Have Entered World War I?

Wilhelm Gustloff

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Wilhelm Gustloff, in full Motor Vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, German ocean liner that was sunk by a Soviet submarine on January 30, 1945. An estimated 9,000 passengers were killed in the sinking, making it the greatest maritime disaster in history.

The MV Gustloff was the first ship built specifically for the German Labour Front’s Kraft durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”) program, which subsidized leisure activities for German workers. It measured 684 feet (208.5 metres) in length and weighed more than 25,000 tons. The ship was named for the leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, who had been assassinated on February 4, 1936, and it was launched in the presence of Adolf Hitler on May 5, 1937. The Gustloff started on its maiden voyage on March 24, 1938, and over the course of 17 months it went on some 50 cruises, transporting some 65,000 vacationers.

The ship had enough space to accommodate roughly 1,900 people, including some 400 crew members. For propaganda purposes, all the cabins aboard the Gustloff were sized and apportioned similarly, making the Gustloff—in appearance, at least—a “ship without social classes.” The sole exception was one larger cabin reserved for Hitler. It was not possible to simply book a voyage on the Gustloff, however. The people who were allowed to travel on the Kraft durch Freude flagship were chosen by the party.

Aside from its operation as a cruise ship, the Gustloff was used for public-oriented missions. On April 10, 1938, it functioned as a polling place for Germans and Austrians living in England to vote on the annexation of Austria. In May 1939 the Gustloff, along with other ships from the Kraft durch Freude fleet, was ordered to bring soldiers of the Condor Legion back to Germany after the Spanish Civil War ended. With the beginning of World War II, the Gustloff was requisitioned by the German navy to serve as a hospital ship in the Baltic Sea and Norway. From November 1940 onward, it lay at anchor at Gdynia, Poland, to serve as barracks for the 2nd Submarine Training Division. During a U.S. air attack on the harbour on October 9, 1943, the ship took minor damage.

As the Red Army advanced on East Prussia, Adm. Karl Dönitz began preparations for Operation Hannibal, the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians from the area. Beginning on January 21, 1945, an estimated two million Germans were brought to the west in an operation that far exceeded the British evacuation at Dunkirk. The Gustloff was ordered to bring the soldiers of the 2nd Submarine Training Division to western Germany. On January 25 the ship started taking other refugees on board, and by the afternoon of January 29 the count had reached 7,956 when registration was stopped. Witnesses estimated that perhaps another 2,000 people boarded after that point.

Shortly after noon on January 30, the Gustloff left the harbour. Although it was originally planned that the Gustloff would be but one element in a larger convoy, mechanical problems forced two ships to turn back, and the Gustloff was accompanied by only the torpedo boat Löwe. Because he was worried about the Gustloff’s engines failing after years of sitting idle, Capt. Friedrich Petersen decided that the ship would travel no faster than 12 knots (14 miles [22 km] per hour). In doing so, he ignored the advice of Wilhelm Zahn, commander of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, who argued that increasing speed to 15 knots (17 miles [28 km] per hour) would reduce the likelihood of an attack, as Soviet submarines would not be able to keep up. Petersen also rejected the recommendation of First Officer Louis Reese, who had advised a course that hugged the coastline. Ultimately, the Gustloff headed for a deepwater route that was known to be clear of mines.

At about 6:00 pm a message was brought to the captain warning that a minesweeper convoy was headed their way, prompting him to activate the ship’s navigation lights to prevent a collision. The origin of that message is unknown none of the radio operators on the Gustloff or the Löwe claimed to have received it, and it is unclear whether it was a misunderstanding or possibly sabotage. The Gustloff did not meet any minesweepers on its way. However, it was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13 at about 7:00 pm . The Soviet commander, Capt. Aleksandr Marinesko, maneuvered his submarine between the Gustloff and the coast, as an attack from that direction would be least expected.

At 9:16 pm the Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes and proceeded to sink over the course of one hour. The ship was carrying lifeboats and rafts for 5,000 people, but many of the lifesaving appliances were frozen to the deck, and their effective use was further impeded by the fact that one of the torpedoes had hit the crew quarters, killing those best trained to deal with the situation. Nine vessels took on survivors throughout the night. Of the estimated 10,000 people on board the Gustloff, only 1,239 could be registered as survivors, making this the sinking with the highest death toll in maritime history. Despite the high number of civilian deaths, allegations that sinking the Gustloff constituted a war crime are largely unfounded, because of the presence of weapons and nearly 1,000 military personnel on board.

Aside from history books and documentaries, the story of the Gustloff has been the subject of several feature films and fictional works, including the novella Im Krebsgang (2002 Crabwalk) by Günter Grass.


RMS Laconia was built in 1921 as a civilian ocean liner. During World War II she was requisitioned for the war effort, and by 1942 had been converted into a troopship. At the time of the incident she was transporting mostly Italian prisoners of war from Cape Town to Freetown, under the command of Captain Rudolph Sharp. The ship was carrying 463 officers and crew, 87 civilians, 286 British soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners. [1]

Sharp had previously commanded RMS Lancastria, which had been sunk by German bombs on 17 June 1940, off the French port of Saint-Nazaire, while taking part in Operation Aerial, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. [2]

Attack on Laconia Edit

At 10 p.m., on 12 September 1942, U-156 was on patrol off the coast of western Africa, midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. The submarine's commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein, spotted the large British ship sailing alone and attacked it. Armed ships—which meant most merchantmen and troop transports—constituted legitimate targets for attack without warning. [3] Armed as such, the Laconia fell into this category, and at 10:22 p.m. she transmitted a message on the 600 m (500 kHz) band: "SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed." [4] "SSS" was the code signifying "under attack by submarine". [5] Additional messages were transmitted, but there is no record these were received by any other vessel or station.

Although there were sufficient lifeboats for the entire ship's complement, including the Italian prisoners, heavy listing prevented half from being launched until the vessel had settled. The prisoners were abandoned in the locked cargo holds as the ship sank, but most managed to escape by breaking down hatches or climbing up ventilation shafts. Several were shot when a group of prisoners rushed a lifeboat, and a large number were bayoneted to death to prevent their boarding of one of the few lifeboats available. The Polish guards were armed with rifles with fixed bayonets however, they were not loaded and the guards carried no ammunition. Witnesses indicate that few of the prisoners were shot. Instead, most of the casualties were bayoneted. [6]

By the time the last lifeboats were launched most survivors had already entered the water, so some lifeboats had few passengers. Only one life raft left the ship with prisoners on board the rest jumped into the ocean. Survivors later recounted how Italians in the water were either shot or had their hands severed by axes if they tried to climb into a lifeboat. The blood soon attracted sharks. [7] Corporal Dino Monte, one of the few Italian survivors, stated ". sharks darted among us. Grabbing an arm, biting a leg. Other larger beasts swallowed entire bodies." [6] As Laconia was going under, U-156 surfaced to capture the ship's surviving senior officers. To their surprise, they saw over 2,000 people struggling in the water. [ citation needed ]

Rescue operation Edit

Realising that the passengers were primarily POWs and civilians, [8] Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations whilst flying the Red Cross flag. Laconia sank at 11:23 p.m., over an hour after the attack. At 1:25 a.m. on 13 September, Hartenstein sent a coded radio message to the Befehlshaber der U-Boote alerting them to the situation. It read: "Sunk by Hartenstein, British Laconia, Qu FF7721, 310 deg. Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian POWs 90 fished out of the water so far. Request orders." [9]

The head of submarine operations, Admiral Karl Dönitz, immediately ordered seven U-boats from the wolfpack Eisbär, which had been gathering to take part in a planned surprise attack on Cape Town to divert to the scene to pick up survivors. Dönitz then informed Berlin of the situation and actions he had taken. Hitler was furious and ordered that the rescue be abandoned. Admiral Erich Raeder ordered Dönitz to disengage the Eisbär boats, which included Hartenstein's U-156, and send them to Cape Town as per the original plan. Raeder then ordered U-506, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Würdemann, U-507, under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht, and the Italian submarine Comandante Cappellini to intercept Hartenstein to take on his survivors and then to proceed to the Laconia site and rescue any Italians they could find. Raeder also requested the Vichy French to send warships from Dakar and Ivory Coast to collect the Italian survivors from the three submarines. [ citation needed ]

The Vichy French, in response, sent the 7,600-ton cruiser Gloire from Dakar, and two sloops, the fast 660-ton Annamite and the slower 2,000-ton Dumont-d'Urville, from Conakry, French Guinea, and Cotonou, Dahomey, respectively. Dönitz disengaged the Eisbär boats and informed Hartenstein of Raeder's orders, but he substituted Kapitänleutnant Helmut Witte's U-159 for U-156 in the Eisbär group and sent the order: "All boats, including Hartenstein, only take as many men into the boat as will allow it to be fully ready for action when submerged." [10]

U-156 was soon crammed above and below decks with nearly 200 survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. At 6 a.m. on 13 September, Hartenstein broadcast a message on the 25 m (82 ft) band in English—not in code—to all shipping in the area, giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort, and promising not to attack. It read: "If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew I will not attack her, providing I am not being attacked by ship or air force. I picked up 193 men. 4°-53" South, 11°-26" West. – German submarine." [11]

The British in Freetown intercepted this message but, believing it might be a ruse of war, refused to credit it. Two days later, on 15 September, a message was passed to the Americans that Laconia had been torpedoed and the British merchant ship Empire Haven was en route to pick up survivors. The "poorly composed message" implied that Laconia had only been sunk that day and made no mention that the Germans were involved in a rescue attempt under a cease-fire or that neutral French ships were also en route. [12]

U-156 remained on the surface at the scene for the next two-and-a-half days. At 11:30 a.m. on 15 September, she was joined by U-506, and a few hours later by both U-507 and the Comandante Cappellini. The four submarines, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline and a rendezvous with the Vichy French surface warships that had set out from Senegal and Dahomey. [13]

First American attack Edit

During the night the submarines became separated. On 16 September at 11:25 a.m., U-156 was spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber flying from a secret airbase on Ascension. The submarine was travelling with a Red Cross flag draped across her gun deck. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot in both Morse code and English requesting assistance. A British officer also messaged the aircraft: "RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children." [14]

Lieutenant James D. Harden of the US Army Air Forces did not respond to the messages turning away, he notified his base of the situation. The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, who claimed that he did not know that this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, ordered the B-24 to "sink the sub". Richardson later claimed he believed that the rules of war at the time did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags. He feared that the German submarine would attack the two Allied freighters diverted by the British to the site. He assumed that the German submarine was rescuing only the Italian POWs. In his tactical assessment, he believed that the submarine might discover and shell the secret Ascension airfield and fuel tanks, thus cutting off a critical Allied resupply air route to British forces in Egypt and Soviet forces in Russia. [15]

Harden flew back to the scene of the rescue effort and, at 12:32 p.m., attacked with bombs and depth charges. One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156, killing dozens of survivors, while others straddled the submarine itself, causing minor damage. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarine submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water and escape. According to Harden's report, he made four runs at the submarine. On the first three the depth charges and bombs failed to release, on the fourth he dropped two bombs. The crew of the Liberator were later awarded medals for the alleged sinking of U-156, when they had in fact only sunk two lifeboats. [16]

Ignoring "Commander" Hartenstein's request that they stay in the area to be rescued by the Vichy French, two lifeboats decided to head for Africa. One, which began the journey with 68 people on board, reached the African coast 27 days later with only 16 survivors. The other was rescued by a British trawler after 40 days at sea. Only four of its 52 occupants were still alive. [ citation needed ]

Unaware of the attack, U-507, U-506, and Cappellini continued to pick up survivors. The following morning Commander Revedin of Cappellini found that he was rescuing survivors who had been set adrift by U-156. At 11:30 a.m. Revedin received the following message: "Bordeaux to Cappellini: Reporting attack already undergone by other submarines. Be ready to submerge for action against the enemy. Put shipwrecked on rafts except women, children, and Italians, and make for minor grid-square 56 of grid-square 0971 where you will land remainder shipwrecked on to French ships. Keep British prisoners. Keep strictest watch enemy planes and submarines. End of message." [17]

U-507 and U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on U-156 and were asked for the number of survivors rescued. Commander Schacht of U-507 replied that he had 491, of whom 15 were women and 16 were children. Commander Wurdemann of U-506 confirmed 151, including nine women and children. The next message from headquarters ordered them to cast adrift all the British and Polish survivors, mark their positions and instruct them to remain exactly where they were, then proceed with all haste to the rescue rendezvous. The respective commanders chose not to cast any survivors adrift. [ citation needed ]

The order given by Richardson and the resulting attack by Harden have been called prima facie Allied war crimes. Under the conventions of war at sea, ships—including submarines—engaged in rescue operations are held to be immune from attack. [18]

Second American attack Edit

Five B-25s from Ascension's permanent squadron and Hardin's B-24 continued to search for submarines from dawn till dusk. On 17 September, one B-25 sighted Laconia ' s lifeboats and informed Empire Haven of their position. Hardin's B-24 sighted U-506, which had 151 survivors on board including nine women and children, and attacked. On the first run the bombs failed to drop, U-506 crash dived and on the second run the B-24 dropped two 500 lb (227 kg) bombs and two 350 lb (159 kg) depth charges but they caused no damage. [19]

That same day, the British at Freetown sent an ambiguous message to Ascension informing them that three French ships from Dakar were en route. Captain Richardson assumed the French intended to invade Ascension so the submarine hunting was cancelled in order to prepare for an invasion. [20]

The French cruiser Gloire picked up 52 survivors, all British, while still 100 km (54 nmi) from the rendezvous point. Gloire then met with the sloop Annamite with both meeting U-507 and U-506 at the rendezvous point at a little after 2 p.m. on 17 September. With the exception of two British officers kept aboard U-507, the survivors were all transferred to the rescue ships. Gloire sailed off on her own and within four hours rescued another 11 lifeboats. At 10 p.m., Gloire found another lifeboat and proceeded to a planned rendezvous with Annamite. [ citation needed ]

At 1 a.m., a lookout spotted a light on the horizon, which was investigated despite this meaning Gloire would not be able to make the rendezvous, and a further 84 survivors were rescued. A new rendezvous was arranged, the ships meeting at 9:30 a.m. with Annamite transferring her survivors to Gloire. A count was then taken: 373 Italians, 70 Poles and 597 British who included 48 women and children. Gloire arrived at Dakar on 21 September to resupply before sailing for Casablanca, arriving there on 25 September. On arrival, Colonel Baldwin, on behalf of all the British survivors, presented the captain of Cappellini with a letter that read as follows:

We the undersigned officers of His Majesty’s Navy, Army and Air Force and of the Merchant Navy, and also on behalf of the Polish detachment, the prisoners of war, the women and children, wish to express to you our deepest and sincerest gratitude for all you have done, at the cost of very great difficulties for your ship and her crew, in welcoming us, the survivors of His Majesty’s transport-ship, the Laconia. [21]

The submarine Cappellini had been unable to find the French warships so radioed for instructions and awaited a response. The French sloop Dumont-d’Urville was sent to rendezvous with Cappellini and by chance rescued a lifeboat from the British cargo ship Trevilley, which had been torpedoed on 12 September. After searching for other Trevilley survivors without luck, Dumont-d’Urville met Cappellini on 20 September. With the exception of six Italians and two British officers, the remaining survivors were transferred to Dumont-d’Urville, which later transferred the Italians to Annamite, which transported them to Dakar on 24 September. Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived. Of the 1,619 who died, 1,420 were Italian POWs. [22]

Conclusion Edit

From Casablanca, most of the survivors were taken to Mediouna to await transport to a prison camp in Germany. On 8 November, the Allied invasion of North Africa began liberating the survivors, who were taken aboard the ship Anton which landed them in the United States. [23]

One of the survivors, Gladys Foster, wrote a detailed description of the sinking, the rescue and then subsequent two-month internment in Africa. Gladys was the wife of Chaplain to the Forces the Rev. Denis Beauchamp Lisle Foster, who was stationed in Malta. She was on board the ship with her 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Barbara Foster, travelling back to Britain. During the mayhem of the sinking the two were separated and it was not until days later that Gladys discovered her daughter had survived and was on another raft. She was urged to write her recollection not long after landing back in London. [ citation needed ]

Doris Hawkins, a missionary nurse, survived the Laconia incident and spent 27 days adrift in Lifeboat Nine, finally coming ashore on the coast of Liberia. She was returning to England after five years in Palestine with 14-month-old Sally Kay Readman, [24] who was lost to the sea as they were transferred into the lifeboat. [ citation needed ]

Doris Hawkins wrote a pamphlet entitled "Atlantic Torpedo" after her eventual return to England, published by Victor Gollancz in 1943. In it she writes of the moments when Sally was lost: "We found ourselves on top of the arms and legs of a panic-stricken mass of humanity. The lifeboat, filled to capacity with men, women and children, was leaking badly and rapidly filling with water at the same time it was crashing against the ship’s side. Just as Sally was passed over to me, the boat filled completely and capsized, flinging us all into the water. I lost her. I did not hear her cry even then, and I am sure that God took her immediately to Himself without suffering. I never saw her again." [25]

Doris Hawkins was one of 16 survivors (out of 69 in the lifeboat when it was cast adrift from the U-boat). She spent the remaining war years personally visiting the families of people who perished in the lifeboat, returning mementos entrusted to her by them in their dying moments. In Doris's words, "It is impossible to imagine why I should have been chosen to survive when so many did not. I have been reluctant to write the story of our experiences, but in answer to many requests I have done so and if it strengthens someone’s faith, if it is an inspiration to any, if it brings home to others, hitherto untouched, all that 'those who go down to the sea in ships' face for our sakes, hour by hour, day by day, year in and year out—it will not have been written in vain". [26]

Survivor Jim McLoughlin states in One Common Enemy that after the incident Hartenstein asked him if he was in the Royal Navy, which he was, then why a passenger ship was armed, stating, "If it wasn't armed, I would not have attacked." McLoughlin believes this indicates Hartenstein had thought it was a troop transport rather than a passenger ship by signalling to the Royal Navy, Laconia was acting as a de facto auxiliary ship. [27]

The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Up until that point, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass. [28] It was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. On 17 September 1942, in response to the incident, Admiral Karl Dönitz issued an order named Triton Null, later known as the Laconia Order. In it, Dönitz prohibited U-boat crews from attempting rescues survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats still occasionally provided aid for survivors.

At the Nuremberg trials held by the Allies in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes. The issuance of the Laconia Order was the centrepiece of the prosecution case, a decision that backfired badly. Its introduction allowed the defence to recount at length the numerous instances in which German submariners acted with humanity where in similar situations the Allies behaved callously. Dönitz pointed out that the order itself was a direct result of this callousness and the attack on a rescue operation by US aircraft. [29]

The Americans had also practised unrestricted submarine warfare, under their own equivalent to the Laconia Order, which had been in force since they entered the war. [30] Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the wartime commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Fleet, provided unapologetic written testimony on Dönitz's behalf at his trial that the US Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the very first day the United States entered the war. This testimony led the Nuremberg Tribunal to not impose a sentence upon Dönitz for this breach of law, even though he was convicted of the count.

The prosecution has introduced much evidence surrounding two orders of Dönitz, War Order No. 154, issued in 1939, and the so-called Laconia Order of 1942. The defence argues that these orders and the evidence supporting them do not show such a policy and introduced much evidence to the contrary. The Tribunal is of the opinion that the evidence does not establish with the certainty required that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of shipwrecked survivors. The orders were undoubtedly ambiguous and deserve the strongest censure.

The evidence further shows that the rescue provisions were not carried out and that the defendant ordered that they should not be carried out. The argument of the defence is that the security of the submarine is, as the first rule of the sea, paramount to rescue and that the development of aircraft made rescue impossible. This may be so, but the [Second London Naval Treaty] is explicit. If the commander cannot rescue, then under its terms he cannot sink a merchant vessel and should allow it to pass harmless before his periscope. The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol.

In view of all the facts proved and in particular of an order of the British Admiralty announced on 8 May 1940, according to which all vessels should be sunk on sight in the Skagerrak, and the answers to interrogatories by Admiral Chester Nimitz stating unrestricted submarine warfare was carried on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day of the Pacific War, the sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare. [31]

The Naval War College series International Law Studies covers interpretations of international law during armed conflicts and how these laws were applied by each party. In volume 65, Targeting Enemy Merchant Shipping, chapter three contains an examination of the Laconia incident in the context of the application of international law to World War II submarine warfare:

The person who issued the order to attack and the aircraft commander who carried it out are both prima facie guilty of a war crime. The conduct of the aircraft commander appears to be entirely inexcusable since he must have observed the rescue operation. During the time that they are engaged in such an operation, enemy submarines are no longer lawful objects of attack. The fact that the US Army Air Force took no action to investigate this incident, and that no trials took place under the then-effective domestic criminal code, the Articles of War, is a serious reflection on the entire chain of military command. [18]

October 13, 1942

The Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry SS Caribou left Sydney at approximately 9:30 p.m., on October 13, 1942. On board were 73 civilians, including 11 children, and 118 military personnel, plus a crew of 46. Just before departure, the Caribou's master, Captain Benjamin Tavenor, ordered all passengers on deck to familiarize themselves with the lifeboat stations. Both he and his crew knew of the danger of U-boat attack &ndash on the previous trip, the Caribou's escort had attacked a contact, but without success. This might have been U-106, which had attacked a Sydney to Corner Brook convoy nine hours later.

Escorting the Caribou on this trip was the RCN minesweeper, HMCS Grandmere. According to her log, the night was very dark with no moon. Grandmere's skipper, Lt. James Cuthbert, was unhappy about both the amount of smoke the Caribou was making and his screening position off the Caribou's stern, which was in accordance with British naval procedures for a single escort. Cuthbert believed the best place for Grandmere to be was in front of the Caribou, not behind, as Western Approaches Convoy Instructions advised. He felt he would be better able to detect the sound of a lurking U-boat if he had a clear field in front to probe. He was correct, for in Caribou's path lay the U-69.

German sub sinks U.S. passenger ship California - HISTORY

German U-boat off the east coast of Florida,
1942-1943. Courtesy HSPBC.

German submarines, or U-boats, aimed their torpedoes at tankers and freighters along the eastern coast of the United States to disrupt delivery of supplies as well as to lower morale sinking ships burned within sight of American civilians. The ships were not hard to find. Northbound ships followed the Gulf Stream, the world&rsquos largest warm water current, and southbound ones hugged the coast even closer, forming a concentration of targets unlike anywhere else.

A burning ship off Florida's east coast,
ca. 1942. Courtesy HSPBC.

The Germans sank 24 ships in Florida waters during the war, eight of them off Palm Beach County between February and May of 1942. Half of those went down near Jupiter Inlet. The greatest loss of life, however, was on October 20, 1943, with no help from the Germans. Two U.S. tankers collided off Jupiter while traveling, as ordered, without lights. Although the Gulf Bell was empty, the Gulfland&rsquos load of gasoline caused an explosion that killed 88 of the two ships&rsquo 116 men. The resulting flames lit up the sky for seven weeks, holding authorities at a helpless distance. The tide turned against Germany when Allied ships started to travel in convoys with armed naval escorts.

A Coast Guard beach patrol during
World War II. Courtesy Martin

County Historical Society.

In February 1942, a German U-boat torpedoed the Republic, an empty tanker, off Hobe Sound in Martin County. The next day a local man salvaged one of its lifeboats and was barely able to tow it through Jupiter Inlet, which was nearly closed. This would be the last boat to pass through the inlet until 1947. It was banked with sand between the jetties to allow the Coast Guard&rsquos beach watchers to patrol the coast on horseback.

Reports of Germans coming ashore from submarines off Palm Beach County have been controversial since World War II ended. It is likely that a few of the enemy made it to shore, and most were promptly and quietly caught. More than a few local residents have recounted their knowledge of such visits. Stafford Beach, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, said in 1987:

I did duty on sentry posts up and down the beach, Singer Beach, watching for anybody coming in. They did have some landings detected. &hellip We were aware that Germans were landing, but we never heard much about it, and I never saw any.

Local historian Bessie DuBois lived next to Jupiter Inlet and wrote that Frank Webber, a Marine from the Jupiter Naval Radio Station, told of the capture of a German submarine crew on the sand bar across the inlet. The Marines put them aboard a train to a Kentucky prisoner-of-war camp.

The Sanborn Wall historic marker, Boca Raton.

Courtesy Richard A. Marconi.

In June 1942, military police discovered a telescope, signaling device, and other evidence that spies had occupied the vacant home of Dr. William Sanborn in Boca Raton. Although the house is gone, the visit is commemorated at the site by a historic marker on AIA just south of the Palmetto Park Pavilion.

© Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

phone: 561.832.4164 | fax: 561.832.7965 | mail: P.O. Box 4364, W.P.B., FL 33402 | visit: 300 N. Dixie Hwy, W.P.B., FL 33401

© 2009 Historical Society of Palm Beach County | all photos courtesy HSPBC unless otherwise noted

U-578 spots destroyer

The USS Jacob Jones was built in Camden and was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Cape May. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

The same U-boat that sunk the R. P. Resor on February 28 off the northern Jersey coast was still on the prowl. The next morning just as sun began to rise the Germans spotted the USS Jacob Jones, a destroyer sent out to find the German sub that took out the Resor. The destroyer and the sub were about 25 miles off the coast of Cape May when the Germans fired a spread of torpedoes, hitting the port side. The destroyer didn’t go down right away but after nearly a hour the Jacob Jones plunged bow first into the waters. There were a few survivors, but only 11 made it to shore alive.

U-858 is brought to anchor at Cape Henlopen, Delaware after the crew surrendered at the end of World War II. (U.S. Government)

At the end of the war in 1945, many of the Germany’s surviving U-boats returned home but some like U-858 took their chances by surrendering to the allies. In this case, when the submarine surfaced and signed her intentions of surrendering it was off the coast of New Jersey. U.S. Navy personnel decided to hold the surrender ceremony over the wreck of the Jacob Jones and ordered the sub to those coordinates.

“The big formal surrender was an international news story,” Heinly said, with blimps and helicopters on the scene for the first U-boat surrender. On May 14, 1945, the German sailors became prisoners of war while an American crew brought the sub to Lewes, Del., which had a deep enough harbor to accommodate it. That closed era of submarine combat in New Jersey.

US WW2 Sub Sunk Itself When its Own Torpedo Made a Full Circle & Struck It

On March 26, 1944, the submarine USS Tullibee made radar contact with a Japanese convoy carrying troops and prepared to attack it despite harsh weather conditions. It was the last time anyone would hear from the submarine, which along with the entire crew seemed to have just disappeared. It was believed to have been sunk by a Japanese destroyer during the attack on the convoy, or perhaps by another submarine.

That was the assumption until after the war ended. Only after Japan surrendered and American prisoners of war were released, did the only survivor from the Tullibee appear to tell the story of the lost submarine. It had not been hit by an enemy vessel, but by bad luck.

Gato-class submarines

USS Tullibee (SS-284) was one of the U.S. Navy’s seventy-seven Gato-class submarines. These were the first American mass-produced submarines and were a realization of long-standing goals to make a submarine with a longer range and higher endurance. These qualities quickly became necessary to meet the demands of missions in the Pacific theater of World War II.

USS Gato off Mare Island Navy Yard on November 29, 1944.

With a length of 311 feet 8 inches and total displacement of 2,424 tons, Gato-class boats were quite large. Since there was room for a huge fuel bunkerage, they were capable of conducting 75-day patrols from Hawaii to Japan and back.

Another significant improvement that increased the boat’s combat abilities was increased diving depth. Gato-class submarines were projected to submerge to a record depth of 300 feet, but in reality they were going even deeper.

The submarines also had an improved armament, with ten torpedo tubes and twenty-four 21-inch Mark-14 torpedoes. Because patrols were so long, torpedoes had to be used sparingly. For that reason deck armament was improved with one 3-inch deck gun, one 40 mm Bofors gun, and one 20 mm Oerlikon gun.

The U.S. Navy Gato-class submarine USS Tunny (SSG-282) launching an SSM-N-8 Regulus I missile.

The first Gato-class submarine to be completed, USS Drum (SS-228) was laid down just before the war on September 11, 1941. The production of the class lasted until April 21, 1944, when they were replaced with improved Balao-class submarines.

Along with the Balao-class boats, Gatos were the backbone of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet during the Second World War. With only 29 losses, the combined 197 submarines of these two classes made a large contribution to winning a war against the Japanese fleet in the Pacific.

The USS Drum (SS-228) as it sat moored at Battleship Alabama Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama, prior to damage by storm surge and placement on concrete pylons.

USS Tullibee (SS-284)

USS Tullibee was launched from the Mare Island Navy Yard in California on November 11, 1942, and was commissioned on February 15, 1943. It was just in time for the tides of war to start changing in the Pacific.

After going through the required shakedown cruise, Tullibee sailed to Hawaii on May 8, 1943. Once there, the entire crew had to undergo further training, and the boat had to be tested even more. The result of the tests was two months spent in the Navy dockyard repairing the hull for air leaks, hardly a good omen.

USS Tullibee (SS-284), off the coast of Mare Island, California.

Tullibee on war patrol

Things hardly changed when Tullibee went on its first patrol on July 19, 1943. It was tasked with patrolling the Saipan-Truk traffic lane, searching for Japanese cargo ships. The goal was to disrupt the supply lines of the Japanese stronghold at the Truk Lagoon, where the majority of the Japanese fleet was at the time.

Still inexperienced, Tullibee‘s crew (that consisted mostly of 19-year-olds) showed some confusion when the submarine got engaged in combat for the first time. On August 10, Tullibee spotted a convoy of three freighters with an escort. Commanding officer Charles F. Brindupke decided to attack and fired four torpedoes at two vessels.

However, the attack ended up with one of the Japanese ships ramming into Tullibee, damaging its main periscope. The submarine immediately dived and was attacked with depth charges by a Japanese escort ship. Tullibee managed to escape, but so did the convoy.

Charles F. Brindupke.

It took three attempts for Tullibee‘s crew to conduct a successful attack. On August 22, it sank a passenger-cargo ship and damaged one freighter. The submarine ended its first patrol on September 6 by returning to Midway.

Following patrols were more successful. During the 52 days of its second patrol in the East China Sea in October and November 1943, Tullibee had several successful attacks. It sank one passenger-cargo ship, damaged another, and damaged one tanker.

The third patrol saw Tullibee and two other submarines patrolling the region around the Mariana Islands, intercepting vessels sailing from Truk to Japan.

Besides sinking another freighter, Tullibee also managed to damage the enemy escort carrier Unyo. This was the longest of its patrols, lasting for 58 days from December 14, 1943, until February 10, 1944.

The escort carrier Un’yō steaming astern on Feb 4 or Feb 5, 1944, after losing bow in the stormy seas off Tateyama. Usually misidentified as “The escort carrier Chūyō steaming astern on 4 December 1943 after having her bow blown off by a torpedo.”

Eternal Patrol

It was March 5, 1944, when Tullibee left Pearl Harbor after almost an entire month of rest. A week later, it reached Midway, refueled and set out on its fourth patrol on March 14. The orders were to sail north of Palau Island to participate in Desecrate One — an operation by 11 aircraft carriers against Japanese forces at Palau. It was the last time the vessel was seen.

Tullibee was supposed to serve in a protective role, but it never appeared at its station. It was formally declared lost on May 15, 1944. Even though there was no report or even intercepted Japanese messages to confirm a loss, the sub was believed to have been sunk by an enemy vessel.

The Japanese merchant ship Nagisan Maru burns in the Palau Islands. The ship was sunk during the U.S. Navy’s “Operation Desecrate One” by three Grumman TBM-1C Avengers of Torpedo Squadron 31 (VT-31) from the light aircraft carrier USS Cabot (CVL-28).

Cliff Kuykendall – the prisoner of war

The war continued, and the Tullibee crew of 60 men was written off. Their mourning families were denied any answer as to what had happened. But when the war ended. The answer suddenly came out of nowhere.

The Japanese government surrendered on September 2, 1945. Five days before, the occupation of Japan had begun. Allied soldiers being held in captivity in Japan were all set free. Most of them had been engaged as forced labor in mines across the entire country, such as the copper mine in Ashio.

Among the men who were set free on the 4 th of September was Cliff Kuykendall, who had ended up in Ashio after spending 17 months working in several other mines as a prisoner of war. Before he was transported to Japan, he survived the torture while being held as a prisoner at the Island of Palau. He was even tied to a tree for three days while American bombs were falling all around the island during the Operation Desecrate One.

He arrived Palau on the Japanese destroyer Wakatake, which had picked him up in the open sea north of the island. He was the only survivor from the USS Tullibee.

After he was set free, Cliff revealed the mystery of the missing submarine.

U.S. Navy Grumman TBF-1 Avenger aircraft of Torpedo Squadron VT-5 from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) fly over the site where squadron aircraft scored four direct hits on the Japanese destroyer Wakatake, sinking her in fifteen seconds 110 km north of Palau.

Hit by its own torpedo!

On March 26, 19-year-old Gunner’s Mate 2 nd Class Cliff Kuykendall was on lookout duty on the bridge when a convoy of a troopship, three freighters, and three escort ships was spotted on the radar. It was pouring rain but commanding officer Charles F. Brindupke was determined to attack.

It was only at the third attempt that he managed to fire two torpedoes at the troopship. Kuykendall was standing on top of the bridge waiting for the explosion when the submarine was struck by a huge explosion. Cliff went sky high and ended up in the sea.

As he was struggling to stay on surface, he watched as his boat was going down and his mates were screaming for help. It was only his lifebelt that kept him alive.

Charles F. Brindupke.

When all sounds were gone, Cliff remained alone, floating for the whole night. The next day he was picked up by the Japanese destroyer.

As he was reporting on what happened that day, Cliff was sure that Japanese escorts were far enough away not to be able to attack his submarine. It was not sunk by Japanese, he told. The only logical conclusion was that one of the fired torpedoes made a circular run and returned to hit and sink the submarine.

The Tullibee was armed with Mark-14 torpedoes, which were known to have such failures.

Mark-14 torpedo side view and interior mechanisms, as published in a service manual.

Mark-14: the torpedo that goes round

The weakest point of the US Navy submarine force was definitively the Mark-14 torpedo. It was developed during the Depression Era in the 1930s when the industry was down on its knees. This allowed the entire project to pass with numerous bugs unnoticed.

Captain Theodore Westfall, NTS CO and Captain Carl Bushnell of the Bureau of Ordnance, inspect a Mark-14 torpedo at the Naval Torpedo Station, Keyport, Washington, 1943.

In short, the weapon was highly unreliable. It tended to run too deep, to explode prematurely or not explode at all. However, the most lethal drawback was the torpedo’s tendency to run a circular course that returned it to submarine from which it was fired.

The circular run was a result of the failure of the gyro system that was responsible for straightening the rudder of the torpedo once it was fired. If the rudder was not straightened, the torpedo wouldn’t make a straight course toward the target but would instead make a round trip back to the spot from which it was fired.

During World War Two, there were 24 recorded incidents of a circular run. In 22 cases, submarines managed to evade the torpedo. The USS Tang and USS Tullibee didn’t.

One of the last US warships sunk by a German sub during WWII discovered off Maine

Divers have discovered the wreck of one of the last U.S. Navy warships sunk by a German submarine during World War II.

Patrol boat USS Eagle PE-56 was located by a private dive team just a few miles off the Maine coast. The discovery ends a 74-year mystery about the ship’s location.

The sinking of the USS Eagle PE-56 on April 23, 1945, was originally blamed on a boiler explosion. But the Navy determined in 2001 that it had been sunk by a German submarine.

Garry Kozak, a specialist in undersea searches, announced this week that diver Ryan King, of Brentwood, N.H., confirmed in June 2018 that an object Kozak previously discovered on sonar is the vessel 300 feet down.

Undated photo of an Eagle class patrol boat built during World War I. It is similar to the USS Eagle PE-56, which exploded and sank off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on April 23, 1945, killing most of its crew in New England's worst naval disaster during World War II. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, File)

King's team, which later began working with the Smithsonian Channel, extensively explored the ship on the ocean floor, five miles off Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The Naval Historical Center notes that Eagle was towing targets for Navy dive bombers when she was sunk by the German U-853. Her sinking came just two weeks before V-E Day.

Only 13 of the 62 crew members survived they were plucked from the water by a nearby Navy destroyer.

​A plaque at Fort Williams Park at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, remembers those killed when the USS Eagle PE-56 was sunk during World War II on April 23, 1945. (AP Photo/David Sharp)

Underwater video captured by the dive team will be aired in the fall on the Smithsonian Channel's "Hunt for Eagle 56," backing up the story of sailors who said an explosion broke the ship into two pieces, said Kozak.

Research undertaken by Paul Lawton, a Massachusetts attorney, naval historian and diver, played a key role in confirming the Eagle’s sinking.

"With the deck guns, there was no mistaking it for what it was," he said.

Children take in the view at Fort Williams Park at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on Thursday, July 18, 2019, where a plaque, foreground, remembers those killed when the USS Eagle PE-56 was sunk During World War II off the Maine coast on April 23, 1945. (AP Photo/David Sharp)

The U-853 was later sunk off Block Island on May 6, 1945, by depth charges from USS Atherton and USS Moberly. All hands were lost in the sub’s sinking, which occurred two days before V-E Day, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Researchers across the globe are working to locate sites of World War II wrecks. The wreck of an Australian freighter, for example, was recently discovered, as was the wreck of a U.S. B-24 bomber that plunged into the sea off Bermuda in Feb. 1945

And earlier this year, the wreck of World War II aircraft carrier USS Wasp was found in the Coral Sea, and the RV Petrel discovered one of the first Japanese battleships to be sunk by U.S. forces during the war. Imperial Japanese Navy ship Hiei sank on Nov. 14, 1942, in the Solomon Islands.

Wasp was also spotted on the seabed by experts from the vessel RV Petrel, which is part of a research organization set up by the late billionaire Paul Allen.

Allen, Microsoft's co-founder, died in October 2018 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His research organization has discovered a host of historic military shipwrecks, such as the wrecks of the USS Helena, the USS Lexington and the USS Juneau.

The group’s biggest discovery, however, came in 2017, when Allen and his team found the long-lost wreck of the USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea.

In a separate project, the wreckage of U.S. B-24 bomber, for example, was found in Papua New Guinea. The plane’s wreck was found in 2018, 74 years after it was shot down during a fierce battle with Japanese forces.

Last summer, a team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware located the missing stern of the destroyer USS Abner Read, which was torn off by a Japanese mine in the remote Aleutian Islands.

Also last year, a decades-long mystery about the fate of a ship that disappeared during a World War II rescue mission was finally solved.

The wreck of the Empire Wold, a Royal Navy tug, was discovered by coastguards off the coast of Iceland. The ship sank on Nov. 10, 1944, with the loss of her 16 crewmembers.

An extremely rare World War II Spitfire fighter plane flown by a pilot who later took part in the "Great Escape" was also recovered from a remote Norwegian mountainside last year.

This story has been updated to reflect that U-853 was sunk off Block Island.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that USS Eagle PE-56 was the last U.S. warship sunk by a German submarine during World War II. The USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136) was the last warship sunk by a German sub when it was torpedoed by U-546 on 24 April 1945.

Fox News’ Nicole Darrah and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

SS HARVARD – California’s night boat from Los Angeles to San Francisco went aground in 1931…

On May 31, 1931 the passenger steamship SS Harvard went aground off Point Arguello, California.

The Harvard was running its regular schedule between San Francisco and Los Angeles with 500 passengers when it went hard aground during the night in heavy fog.

The sea was calm and there was no panic among the passengers.

The Harvard’s lifeboats were lowered and stood by until a passing freighter arrived on scene.

The passengers would later be transferred to the U.S. Navy cruiser U.S.S. Louisville which had been at anchor at Los Angeles harbor.

The Harvard broke up and became a total loss before it could be re-floated.

The 3700 ton Harvard was launched in 1907 at Chester, Pennsylvania.

The vessel served a short time in World War I as a troopship before going back into service as a passenger steamship.

The Los Angeles Steamship Company or LASSCO was a passenger and freight shipping company based in Los Angeles, California.

Founded by Harry Chandler (owner of the Los Angeles Times).

The company, formed in 1920, initially provided fast passenger service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In 1921, LASSCO added service to Hawaii in competition with the San Francisco-based Matson Navigation Company using two former North German Lloyd ocean liners that had been in U.S. Navy service during World War I.

Despite the sinking of one of the former German liners on her maiden voyage for the company, business in the booming 1920s thrived, and the company continued to add ships and services. the worsening economic conditions in the United States, and the burning of another ship in Hawaii, caused financial problems for the company.

After beginning talks in 1930, the Los Angeles Steamship Company was taken over by Matson Navigation on January 1, 1931, but continued to operate as a subsidiary until it ceased operations in 1937.

This is a list of passenger ships of the Los Angeles Steamship Company: SS Calawaii, SS City of Honolulu, SS City of Honolulu, SS City of Los Angeles, SS Diamond Head, SS Harvard, SS Waimea and SS Yale.

Navy warship sunk by German sub in WWII finally located

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine -- A private dive team has located the last U.S. Navy warship to be sunk by a German submarine in World War II, just a few miles (kilometers) off the coast of Maine.

The sinking of the USS Eagle PE-56 on April 23, 1945, was originally blamed on a boiler explosion. But the Navy determined in 2001 that it had been sunk by a German submarine.

The patrol boat's precise location remained a mystery — until now.

Garry Kozak, a specialist in undersea searches, announced this week that diver Ryan King, of Brentwood, New Hampshire, confirmed in June 2018 that an object Kozak previously discovered on sonar is the vessel 300 feet (90 meters) down.

King's team, which later began working with the Smithsonian Channel, extensively explored the ship on the ocean floor, 5 miles (8 kilometers) off Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

"With the deck guns, there was no mistaking it for what it was," said Paul Lawton, a Massachusetts attorney whose research helped to convince the Navy how the ship was sunk.

The patrol boat was equipped with depth charges, explosives used to battle enemy submarines. But it was towing a practice target for bombers from a nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station when it sank. Only 13 of the 62 crew members survived they were plucked from the water by a nearby Navy destroyer.

The underwater video, which will be aired in the fall on the Smithsonian Channel's "Hunt for Eagle 56," backs up the story of sailors who said an explosion broke the ship into two pieces, said Kozak, of Derry, New Hampshire.

The two hull segments, about 350 feet (105 meters) apart, blended with the uneven, craggy ocean floor, making it difficult to locate them with sonar, Kozak said. Underwater video clearly shows the deck gun on the bow farther away, depth charges are clearly visible on the stern, Kozak.

The divers' research is expected to offer definitive proof that the sub was indeed destroyed by a German submarine, which itself was sunk days later off Block Island, Rhode Island, Kozak said. The video shows the ship's boilers are intact, he said.

The Eagle's sinking was once a mystery.

The World War I-era patrol boat was ripped by a blast, and several survivors reported seeing a submarine conning tower featuring a painted red horse on a yellow shield.

The sinking was ruled a boiler explosion at the time, but Lawton helped connect the dots to show it was sunk by a German submarine with the same markings.

The day before Germany signed a surrender on May 7, 1945, U.S. Navy destroyers sank the submarine, U-853, south of New London, Connecticut, after it attacked a cargo ship.

The submarine is a popular attraction for divers because it's accessible in 130 feet (40 meters) of water.

But the Eagle sits 300 feet down, far beyond the reach of recreational divers.

The Navy is convinced that the vessel located by the divers is the Eagle and is appreciative of dive team's respectful research of the site, said Robert Neyland, who leads the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Both sunken vessels are considered war graves, and federal law prevents divers from tampering with them. The remains of one of the German sailors were retrieved by a diver in 1960, sparking outage the sailor was buried with military honors in Newport, Rhode Island.