Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, May 13, 2011

Galveston's Strategic World War Two Defenses

World War II is usually associated with events like Normandy, The Battle of the Bulge, the Italian battles and the African campaigns. These are what fill most text book pages but there was major war activity right here at our doorstep in the Gulf of Mexico. Our concern was the German U-Boat like the one pictured below.

The U-Boats were in the Gulf for one reason and that reason was oil. Ports such as Galveston, Houston and New Orleans were our nations busiest oil exporting terminals. A war runs on oil and that made this area of the Gulf a prime target for the U-Boats.

U-Boats in the Gulf

The best estimates are that 24 different U-Boats operated in the Gulf of Mexico during 1942 and 1943.

Cities such as Galveston had regular nightly blackouts. The blackouts had nothing to do with protection against air strikes. The blackouts were necessary because an unlit oil tanker passing a city's lights at night would reveal it's profile to an enemy submarine. If the city's lights were off then there would be no profile. It's no secret that German U-Boats were operating in many areas along our Atlantic coastline but the Gulf of Mexico presented a target rich environment of oil tankers. Sinking oil tankers was a prime war objective for any U-Boat. The first two U-Boats entered the Gulf through the Florida Straits in May 1942.

The picture to the right is an example of what happens when an oil tanker is attacked by a U-Boat. U.S. records show that 56 vessels were sunk and 14 damaged in the Gulf due to U-Boats. That's quite a bit of activity when you consider how close this was to America's shores.

At the time there was concern not only with Gulf shipping but with the safety of residents along the coast. The political situation in Mexico was volatile, many German agents were stationed throughout Mexico and Germany received much of it's oil from Mexico. To illustrate further just how close the action was to our mainland there were reports of people in the extreme southern reaches of Louisiana actually seeing the flashes of U-Boat attacks at night in the distance.

The Sinking of the Robert E. Lee

Probably the most talked about Gulf U-Boat attack was the sinking of the steamship Robert E. Lee on July 30th, 1942 just 25 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi.

The ship pictured right was steaming from Trinidad to New Orleans and was being escorted by naval vessels. One torpedo from U-166 sank the ship.

The escort vessel chased after the sub, dropped several depth charges and saw an oil slick. Nothing further was known about this U-Boat until 2001 when a major oil company was having the area surveyed for a proposed pipeline. The survey team not only located the Robert E. Lee but also the wreckage of U-166 a short distance away. The sinking of the steamship cost the lives of one officer, nine crewmen and fifteen passengers. Ironically, most of the survivors were survivors of previous U-Boat attacks on ships headed to the U.S.

Coastal Defenses

Our coastal defenses consisted of protecting the ports themselves and also with hunting down and sinking U-Boats. One defense element was the shore battery pictured below. Shore batteries had been established before the war but were not protected. Eventually the military decided to put them in

cement casements for protection from aerial assault.

While the guns have been removed you can still see the cement casements today when you visit Galveston Island. Another way in which harbors were protected was by laying down anti-submarine nets. Along with the guns and the nets were the placing of mines outside the harbor. While Galveston's entrance was heavily mined during the war there are no records of U-Boats actually hitting one.

Army Airfields

Another defense element was searching the Gulf for U-Boats. Airfields in southern Louisiana and Texas launched regular Coast Guard patrol flights using planes such as the Grumman J 4 Widgeon.

The old picture at right shows a Widgeon passing by New York City. The Navy also patrolled the Gulf often using PBY's like the one pictured below right. The military built many airfields in Louisiana and Texas for both pilot training and the launching of Gulf patrol flights. Four of the busiest fields was the Lake Charles Army Airfield in Lake Charles, Louisiana which today is the Chennault International Airport. Also the New Orleans Army Airfield which today is Lakefront Airport, the Galveston Army Airfield and the Houma, Louisiana Naval Air Station.

These aircraft were capable of dropping depth charges and it was well known that U-Boat captains feared being sighted by any aircraft, large or small. Coast Guards cutters and Naval vessels were also regularly on patrol equipped with depth charges.The picture to the right below shows the 1940's construction of the Galveston Army Airfield which was one of several being quickly built during the very early war years.

Even with these amount of assets arrayed against the Gulf U-Boats, they were largely successful in disrupting our oil shipments particularly during the first half of the war.

Records show that only two U-Boats were sunk in the Gulf during the entire period. U-166 near the mouth of the Mississippi and U-157 in the Florida Straits. The toll was much heavier for the U.S. than for the Germans. What really solved the problem was the building of an oil pipeline from Texas to New Jersey called the "Big Inch". Completed in 1943 it's size was 24 inches in diameter and ran from Longview, Texas to Phoenixville, PA at which point the line changed to a 20 inch diameter.

Several of these old battery emplacements still exist today minus the guns. When you're traveling in the Houston area you may find it interesting to head down to Galveston and see these concrete bunkers for yourself.

The old artillery sites give you a pretty good idea of just how close World War Two was to our southern shores. They are located at Fort Crockett and Fort San Jacinto on the island of Galveston and also at Fort Travis on the tip of Boliver Island just across the channel from Galveston. Good picture taking and also a a nice trip to the beach. Good inexpensive side trip for the whole family and educational as well. Another great stop on the way to Galveston is the NASA Space Center just south of Houston.

Web sites below will give you information to plan your visit.





(Article copyright Western Trips)

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