My childhood home sits on a steep hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Hook Bay which is the entrance to New York Harbor. These hills are honeycombed with bunkers, tunnels, and gun emplacements as a part of our coastal defense. The system was the strongest in the world and consequently never fired a shot in anger.
West Point was basically an engineering school because so much of successful leadership in warfare is an engineering problem. As one famous Southern general is (erroneously) quoted as saying, “Get there fustest with the mostest.” For this reason, the top of the West Point graduating class would typically be assigned to the Coast Artillery. While not planning for the defense of our shores, the young engineers were given other design projects to work on. There are gigantic reinforced concrete mortar emplacements on Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook, NJ, designed by Ulysses S. Grant and the beautiful lighthouse at Barnegat, NJ, designed by Robert E Lee! The original plans signed by these two young officers are both on display at those respective museums.
Then along came WWII (that is “World War Two” for you millennials not Dubya Dubya Eye Eye) and everything changed. Even though we had these powerful guns defending our coast, you can’t shoot ‘em if you can’t see ‘em. German U-Boats would sink our ships at will. My mother tells stories of being able to see ships burning only a few miles offshore on a regular basis. For a while, you could not even go swimming in the ocean because the beaches were covered with oil. This was partially due to the fact that our Navy and Coast Guard were not used to submarine warfare and did not realize how it worked. German subs would merely wait offshore until a ship would be backlit by the lights of the towns along the coast. Then they could pick them off at leisure.
The Georgia coast was no different from the Jersey Coast. In January 1942, the SS City of Atlanta was torpedoed within hours of sailing from Savannah. Two months later the tankers Esso Baton Rouge and SS Oklahoma were sunk close enough to Brunswick that they shattered windows in the town when they blew up! The next day the SS Esperanta was sunk. There were also rumors of German spies and saboteurs landing on the beaches at night!
We finally got wise and issued a blackout order, even to the effect that the lighthouses along the coast were dimmed. There was a shortage of coastal patrol boats, so private yachts were conscripted or donated and converted into anti-submarine warfare vessels. One of these was donated by Charles Howard Candler, son of the founder of Coca-Cola. There were also other measures such as increased air and surface patrols and submarine hunting blimps flying out of Glynco Naval Air Station. These blimps were capable of dropping bombs as well as depth charges. The U-Boat’s top speed was about 20 knots on the surface and 5 knots submerged. The blimp could not only fly at 60 knots, but they could stay aloft for days and see the U-boats under the water.
What brings all this to mind is a story a friend recently related. His father had just passed away and on his deathbed, he told his son how he had been an electrician in the Savannah Shipyard during the war. Late one night there was a knock on his door, and it was the FBI! They took him outside and swore him to secrecy, telling him of the dire consequences he and his entire family would face if he ever breathed a word of what he was about to see and do. It seems that the Coast Guard had disabled and captured a German U-Boat. The German sailors had tried to sink her before she could be taken but some brave (read foolhardy) American sailors had come aboard while she was sinking and managed to close the scuttling valves before she went down! She was towed into port where it was my friend’s father’s job to get the electrical system working. The whole thing was a treasure trove of state-of-the-art technology and our Naval engineers wanted to learn everything they could from her. It also revealed a lot of information on how the enemy thought and operated so far from their shores.
The most disturbing thing of all was that they found fresh bread on board that had come from a local Savannah bakery! This gave the FBI information of the existence of enemy agents right in our midst. They could not only resupply the subs with fresh food and fuel but give them information about shipping schedules so the U Boats would be in the right place to attack our ships as they were coming and going. This is also what spawned the expression “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” We can safely assume that the spy cell was rounded up as the amount of lost tonnage decreased dramatically.
Normally when I think of wars, I think of conflicts far away in places with unpronounceable names, but all this was happening right here where we have all sailed and fished and even lolled on the beach!