Excerpts from PAPA'S WAR,
War on the Homefront

The Torpedoed Tanker

 

Several months had gone by since Pearl Harbor and the war still seemed a long way off. There were the usual Saturday night gatherings at the Surfside Casino on Vilano Beach and the Beach Hotel next to the pier on St. Augustine Beach. Both were hangouts for the teenage crowds. There was no "live" music, just the offerings of juke boxes but those featured the records of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, and the rest of the big bands. One couldn't ask for better dance music and it blared away as loudly as the real thing, with the relentlessly pounding bass that was characteristic of both the big bands and the juke boxes of the time. The dance floor at Surfside was unsurpassed and much larger than that at the Beach Hotel but at the Beach Hotel, the tables were scrunched up closer together and the ambiance was more intimate.

 

My date and I had danced for a couple of hours at Surfside and then moved on to the Beach Hotel. Some friends made room for us at their table and we were discussing the newly imposed blackout regulations.

 

All outdoor illumination, street lights, and neon signs were banned for the duration. All windows that could be seen from the ocean had to be painted black or covered at night by light-proof shutters. The purpose of these regulations was to eliminate the possibility of an enemy submarine detecting the presence of the shore-hugging freighters and tankers that were so important to the war effort.

 

Automobile headlights were painted black except for a tiny open triangle at the bottom of each lens. This provided no help for the driver. Its main purpose was to make the vehicle visible to pedestrians. Obviously, the usual speed limits were no longer safe so they were generally reduced to ten miles per hour after dark and five miles per hour in the busy area around the Plaza.

 

It was April 10, 1942. As a gag, I had devised a belt on which was mounted a battery, a switch and a red bicycle tail light to make me visible to those blind drivers and I was wearing it at the time. My date and I got up to dance and I turned on my tail light.

 

Suddenly, two flashes of light found their way through the blackout provisions and into the darkened club. They were followed, in about ten seconds, by two explosions, loud enough to be heard over the pounding bass of the juke box.

 

I clicked off my tail light and we rushed outside to find out what had happened. There we were faced with a horrifying spectacle. About two miles out was a tanker, the Gulf America. It had apparently taken two torpedoes and was ablaze over the entire bow area. Burning oil was pouring into the sea. We could see the crew scurrying about on the deck and as the flames approached them they dove into the burning oil on the surface. We ran down to the beach and even out into the water, filled with a feeling of utter desperation and helplessness. We were waist-deep, fully-clothed filled with rage and pounding the surf with our fists, wanting to help but unable to do anything. Many got violently ill.

 

We watched as the tanker's stern rose into the air and then slowly slipped beneath the sea. All that was left was a huge area of burning oil. Eventually it broke up into patches. Over the next few hours, these extinguished one by one until there was no visible trace, --- no life boats, ---nothing.

 

Over the next few days, the beaches became covered with black sticky tar-like oil and debris. Framed pictures of loved ones and other personal items floated ashore, but worst of all were the horribly burned bodies of those helpless seamen who didn't have a chance.

 

Pearl Harbor seemed to be half way around the world, but this was happening right here. It was my first painful experience of the war.

Civil Defense Activities

I soon got involved in Civil Defense activities, helping Mr. Crookshank, my high school chemistry teacher, who conducted gas defense classes, and joining the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS). In the AWS, I took several four-hour night shifts a week.

 

My spotting post, designated K-63, was located at the bridge tender's shack on a rickety old wooden draw bridge connecting the mainland to Vilano Beach. Initially, the bridge tender and the AWS spotters were alone out there but we were soon joined by others intent on guarding the bridge against all possible intrusions. The number of guards on the bridge grew in number and they soon got in one another's way, checking out everyone who crossed the bridge in either direction. The situation might be described as overkill. There was a soldier, a sailor (Navy), a Coast Guardsman, a Marine, and a member of the U.S. Border Patrol. Luckily, the Air Corps was still part of the Army at that time or we probably would have had an Airman, as well.

 

If the night was chilly, the guards took turns sitting in the warmth of the bridge tender's shack, but I had to stay outside for my entire shift, except when I briefly called in reports of aircraft in the vicinity.

 

There was a special phone in the shack connected directly to the AWS plotting board operators. The location of that board was a well-kept secret. When aircraft were spotted, I would pick up the special phone and a female voice would say, "Report."

 

The report followed strict guidelines. A typical report might go something like this, "One, multi, high, seen, Kay-six-three, south, three, west." This told a lot. It translated into "One multi-engine aircraft at a high altitude, was seen from Post K-63; it was located south of the spotting post approximately three miles and headed west."

 

Most of the reports were routine but there was provision for reporting unusual events. For example, the sinking of the tanker off St. Augustine Beach could have been seen from this post and was probably reported by the spotter on duty that night. In a case like this, the spotter answered the "Report" command with, "Red Flash!" After a brief pause another voice came on the line, "This is the Red Flash operator. Authenticate." At that point we gave an authentication code that changed from time to time. If the code was correct, the next thing heard was, "Report." To the extent possible, we were supposed to follow the aircraft reporting procedure, substituting, for the aircraft description, the unusual thing seen or heard.

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Red Flash!

It started out as a pretty routine night. A few planes were reported flying due south, probably commercial airliners.

 

The Coast Guard had recently taken over the world class Ponce de Leon Hotel for a boot camp training station (really tough duty). The Coast Guard had outfitted a deep sea fishing boat with a spotlight and converted it into a harbor patrol boat. I believe that this was the first night on which that boat patrolled the harbor.

 

Ever since the start of the war, the shrimp boats, in fact all boats, had to be back in port by sundown because their running lights might be eclipsed by a passing freighter or tanker, revealing the ship's presence to a German submarine lurking offshore. By this time many freighters and tankers had been sunk along the entire eastern seaboard so the threat was very real.

 

The patrol boat caught our attention as it churned up the bay toward the new harbor entrance channel. This was the first nighttime activity on the water that any of us had seen since we had been involved in our various duties, so we all stood at the rail watching it, only mildly curious.

 

When the patrol boat came abreast of the entrance channel, its searchlight suddenly came on. It struck us all that this action could be fatal to any passing ship and we became acutely alert. The searchlight swept across the channel slowly, then swung back, paused and then instantly extinguished. The patrol boat turned around sharply and then headed back into port at full speed.

 

In that brief moment of pause before the searchlight went out, we all saw it. The searchlight had illuminated the deck, deck gun and conning tower of a German submarine. Submarines of that day had to surface frequently to charge their batteries. This operation generated poisonous fumes so it was essential that this be done on the surface where the interior of the submarine could be ventilated. This was always a risky operation in hostile waters because a surfaced sub was very vulnerable to attack.

 

The commander of this submarine had apparently observed the inlet for some time and, noting that there was no traffic in or out after sundown, decided that it would be safer to surface right in the inlet channel than to surface on the open ocean.

 

The crew was scurrying about on the deck and we wondered if they might take a shot at the retreating patrol boat with the deck gun but the sub captain obviously decided that his presence was already known and that his best course of action was to get out to sea and submerge as quickly as possible.

 

The guards (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, and Border Patrol) all huddled to decide what they should do. It appeared that they had no instructions for incidents like this, no special phone line, and none of them had radios.

 

The AWS came to their rescue. I grabbed the special phone and upon hearing, "Report," shouted, "RED FLASH!"

 

The Red Flash operator asked for authentication, which I gave her, and then she said, "Report."

 

I probably stammered a bit but my report ran something like this, "One German submarine, low --- very low --- on the surface ---seen, Kay six three, southeast, one, stationary."

 

For a moment there was dead silence on the line, then she said, "A what?"

 

"A German submarine!"

 

After a pause she said, "Repeat report."

 

I did, pretty much the same as the first except eliminating the reference to its altitude which, with hindsight, seemed ludicrous.

 

Another pause. Then a stern male voice came on the line, "Is there anyone there who can verify this report."

 

I replied," Yes, I have personnel here from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and U.S. Border Patrol --- and the bridge tender. We all saw it."

 

The voice said, "Put on the Navy."

 

I put the petty officer on and, after a brief exchange in which he gave his name, rank and serial number, he verified my report and answered several questions regarding the details of what he saw. The conversation ended and the sailor hung up. That solved one mystery for me. It's just a guess, but they trusted the Navy guy so the secret plotting board was probably at some naval base in Jacksonville.

We all stared at the inlet trying to make out the outline of the sub but it was too dark and he was very likely backing out of there as fast as possible.

 

It took about a half an hour for it to start but eventually several flights of five or six planes each flew over the ocean near the inlet and dropped bombs. They didn't sound very loud. We all discussed it and decided that they were probably practice bombs with very light charges, not likely to blow a sub out of the water unless they scored a direct hit. I got so interested in the activities that I almost forgot to call in the reports on the flights of planes but I did call in another "Red Flash" when the planes dropped flares and the bombing started.

 

They didn't get the sub. It made a clean getaway.

 

Shortly after this incident a long time friend, Kenneth Beeson (later to become mayor of St. Augustine), was out in his boat and returned to port towing a German rubber raft. It later developed that it was one of the rafts used to land saboteurs at Ponte Vedra. These saboteurs were landed from the same sub that also landed a group of saboteurs on Long Island.

 

All of them were caught before they were able to do any damage thanks to the courage and intelligent actions of a Coast Guardsman on the beach on Long Island.

 

It is not clear whether the sub that surfaced in the entrance channel to the St. Augustine harbor was the one that dropped off the saboteurs or was one involved in sinking coastal shipping.

 

Whatever it was, it gave us all an exciting evening.

 

Incidentally, there was no mention of this event in the local papers. Presumably, some authority thought that this story was best untold but maybe it was just that none of us told the local paper what we had seen. After all, we did not want the citizens of this sleepy city to know that a sub (or subs) had been surfacing, with impunity, right in our harbor entrance channel. That would surely have played havoc with local morale.

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Submarine Update

Michael V. Gannon, (an historian who has done impressive research on the German submarine activities off the east coast of the United States during WWII) recently appeared on a Discovery Channel series on Submarine Warfare in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico in World War II. During this series, he identified the ship that was sunk off St. Augustine as the GULF AMERICA. Gannon, two men who, at the moment of the attack, were, with their dates, right at the top of the Ferris wheel at Pablo Beach, and the submarine commander, Erich Hardigen the captain of Unterseeboote #123 (U-Boat 123), all described what happened in considerable detail.

 

Apparently, St. Augustine was quicker to implement the new blackout regulations than Pablo Beach (now Jacksonville Beach).The sub commander described his amazement that the entire east coast of the United States was lit up as though there were no war in progress. He described automobile traffic along the beach roads and the brightly lit boardwalk at Pablo Beach and mentioned what sitting ducks the coastal freighters and tankers were, outlined against these lights.

 

However, he specifically mentioned that he sank the GULF AMERICA off St. Augustine, (which had blackout regulations strictly in force at the time). In the course of the story of the GULF AMERICA, it was mentioned by someone (I think it was Gannon) that roughly half the crew of the GULF AMERICA was lost in this sinking.

 

I always thought that all hands were lost. From what I saw from the beach, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have survived the sinking and the burning oil on the surface of the sea. No mention was made of who picked up the survivors but it certainly was not the submarine. There was no room for survivors aboard a sub. The program also failed to mention the submarine that surfaced in the entrance channel to St. Augustine harbor to charge its batteries. I would like to find out if it was Erich Hardigen's sub or some other.

 

The program did mention the fact that, in many coastal communities, fishing boats were manned by Coast Guard Auxiliaries to patrol the harbors and the inland waterway at night. It is quite possible that it was a crew of Coast Guard Auxiliaries (not regular Coast Guard personnel) who discovered the sub while patrolling the bay. If true, they were most likely "local" men. However, it does not seem logical that they would have kept quiet about it all this time, even if they were cautioned not to mention the incident.

 

I would certainly like to talk to whoever was on that patrol boat and get their version of what happened that night, but if they are still around, they aren't talking.

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Upon graduation from high school I was inducted at Camp Blanding and shipped to North Camp Hood, Texas for basic training.

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