Thursday, November 10, 2016

Search for a missing U-boat and the WWII battle fought off the coast of Louisiana

Curt Sprang,
9 November 2016

Maybe you've heard stories about the German submarine crewmen that docked their U-boat and caught a show at the Saenger Theatre.  Or perhaps it was the story of the U-boat crew that convinced Cajun fishermen to give them enough fuel to get back home.
Neither story really happened.
"It's a good rumor," says WWII author and researcher C.J. Christ.  Turns out, Christ knows a lot about chasing down rumors.

"This friend of mine came up and said, 'Do you know there's a German submarine in just 60 feet of water just off the coast of Houma?'  I said, 'No I didn't know that'."
Christ says that conversation with a friend led to nearly 30 years of searching for the U-boat.  He never found it, but that doesn't mean the rumor was false.
But in 2001, a team that was surveying the Gulf of Mexico for an oil pipeline found something unusual.  It was near the site of the Robert E. Lee, a passenger ship that was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat and sank near the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1942.

But the survey crew's discovery was the German U-boat U-166, the sub that Christ had spent decades searching for.
Here's how it all went down during WWII.  In the summer of 1942, U-boats struck terror into ships throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  Germany was in control of France at the time, and the U-boats could carry enough fuel to get from the coast of France to the gulf, patrol for a few weeks, and return to their base.  24 of the submarines were sent to the gulf.
"The war was actually in the Gulf of Mexico right off our coast.  In fact, one ship sank between the jetties going into the river, another sunk off the coast of Grand Isle, 2 and a half miles off shore," Christ says.
In July, a passenger ship called the Robert E. Lee was carrying more than 400 people to New Orleans.  Many of the people were returning to the U.S. after their ships were sunk by previous U-boat attacks.  When the ship was a few miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was hit by a single torpedo and sank.  Its escort ship immediately began dropping depth charges to try to destroy the U-boat.  There was no indication at that time to show if the submarine was hit or escaped.
Two days later, a plane from Houma spotted a U-boat in the gulf and dropped one depth charge.  The pilot reported seeing oil on the surface of the water, and for decades it was believed to be the successful sinking of  U-166.
But Christ says that Germany's records from the war show that it was a different submarine that was attacked by the plane south of Houma and that those records show the sub escaped.
So back to the surveying team in 2001.  Its pipeline work located the actual location of U-166, about a mile away from the Robert E. Lee's location.  Both vessels were found at the bottom of about 5,000 feet of water.
Christ is a veteran of the Korean War and is an avid WWII researcher, especially when it pertains to the Gulf of Mexico.  He even wrote a book on the subject.
After finding out about the survey team's discovery, Christ joined a team that located the sub and used a remotely operated vehicle to carry a camera to the gulf's floor and record images of U-166.
"The camera was right in my face when we saw it for the first time," Christ says.  "When I saw that, I knew that was our u-boat."

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