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This Week In Texas History: U-boats on the prowl in the Gulf

By Bartee Haile

Buried in the back pages of a Houston newspaper in July 1942 was a brief account of the sinking on the fifth of the month of a cargo ship “somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.”

German U-boats were on the prowl off the coast of Texas, but there was no reason to get folks all riled up about it!

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, seashore inhabitants of the Lone Star State had a bad case of the jitters for the first time since the Civil War.  The United States was at war for exactly a month, when Galveston staged a blackout and ordered total darkness for the duration in a three-block strip along the beach.

The island was a beehive of activity in early 1942 as the military worked frantically to strengthen its defenses.  Galveston Army Air Field was established by the Air Corps, while the Army stationed 2,500 troops at Fort Crockett, Fort San Jacinto and Fort Travis on Bolivar Point.

Those bastions bristled with ten and 12-inch guns as well as anti-aircraft batteries.  But the enemy never came, and the only casualties were the windows of nearby homes shattered by the concussion from the test firing of the artillery.

Out in the Gulf, however, it was a different story as German submarines or U-boats stalked the busy shipping lines.  At 11 o’clock on the night of Jul. 5, 1942, two torpedoes sent to the bottom a merchant ship identified by the tight-lipped military censors as “a medium-size United States cargo vessel.”

“I was standing on the starboard side of the ship with my arms on the rail looking out to sea,” seaman Earl J. Heavner recalled from his hospital bed.  “All of a sudden I heard an explosion, and it knocked me back about five or ten feet.”

Most of the 42-man crew were sound asleep below decks, when the unseen sub scored a direct and devastating hit amidship.  Trapped in the bowels of the doomed freighter by a raging inferno, they never had a chance.

Heavner and a crewmate scrambled up a ladder and made their way along the heaving deck to a storage bin full of life preservers.  They had just slipped on the inflatable jackets, when the second torpedo slammed into the stricken ship.

The two merchant seamen dived head first into the ocean covered by a layer of fuel from a ruptured tank.  Moments later the ocean burst into flames, and a swiftly spreading wall of fire threatened to engulf them.

Heavner and his companion swam for their lives.  They reached a lifeboat surrounded by nine other comrades, who also had abandoned ship, but burning oil on the sides of the small craft forced the desperate duo to keep their distance.  Grabbing a bucket that miraculously floated by, they put out the fire and climbed on-board.

Meanwhile, the severely damaged cargo ship had rolled over on its port side and started to sink.  Within minutes it vanished beneath the waves taking 27 hands to a watery grave.

Although the exact location was deemed a military secret, a careful reading between the lines of the brief report suggested the incident occurred inside U.S. territorial waters and probably right off the Texas coast.  How else could the 11 survivors in the lifeboat have put ashore, built a fire and been picked up by a fishing boat hours before sunrise?

The marooned mariners were relieved not only by the speed of their rescue but also by the welcome sight of the trawler’s latest catch.  The fishermen had pulled four soggy seafarers from the drink before setting course for the signal fire.

The Gulf was the scene three weeks later of a second U-boat attack.  A single torpedo sank the Mexican freighter “Oaxaca” on Jul. 26 just seven miles from Corpus Christi.  In apparent anticipation of an air raid the next night, the lights were turned off at Port Aransas, Rockport, Aransas Pass and Ingleside.

Search planes and blimps from the base at Hitchcock scoured the seas for the sub without success.  Then on Aug. 1 the Coast Guard got lucky.

While on routine patrol with his radioman, Henry Clark White caught the German U-boat on the surface in broad daylight 35 miles from Houma, Louisiana.  Before the submarine could crash drive to safety, the pilot dropped a bomb directly on the coning tower and stuck his head out the cockpit for a bird-eye’s view of the explosion.

Although no debris ever was found, White was credited with the only submarine kill by the Coast Guard during the entire Second World War.  Historians believe the victim was U-166, which according to German archives was sent to the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1942.

As for Earl J. Heavner, it is a safe bet he returned to sea as soon as doctors declared him fit for duty.  “I am going back,” he told the reporters who squeezed into his tiny hospital room.  “I have been to sea for 13 or 14 years, and no enemy submarine is going to stop me.”

“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, pring, TX 77393.

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