Americans are flocking to see “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” The movie, featuring a return of a Nazi like organization “Hydra,” is setting all kinds of box office records. Few know how close the Nazis got to American shores during World War II, and the lessons we had to learn the hard way.
On April 10, 1942, the S.S. Gulf America, an oil tanker, was transporting valuable fuel from Port Arthur, Texas to New York. There were worries about German submarines, so the ship was outfitted with guns and had armed guards. The large ship with its precious cargo hugged America’s Eastern shores to avoid detection, but it wasn’t enough.
Only three miles from Jacksonville Beach, the S.S. Gulf America was torpedoed around 1020pm by the Nazi submarine U-123. Despite being so close to Florida’s coast, the crew of the disabled tanker was raked by the U-Boat’s deck gun. Half of the crew and guards died while horrified onlookers watched helplessly from the pier.
“The sinking of the SS Gulf America, so soon after the start of World War II, brought home the dangers of the war to Jacksonville residents, especially to those that witnessed the ship being fired upon by the German U boat,” said Christy “Lenny” Leonard, the Deputy Director of Jacksonville Museum of Science & History, in an interview. “The shipwreck and its marker are reminders of yet another way Jacksonville was touched by the war.”
Encouraged by their easy success in Florida, and elsewhere, the Germans confidently dropped off four saboteurs on Jacksonville’s beaches via another Nazi U-boat, U-584, two months later. Dubbed “Operation Pastorius,” the saboteurs planned to link up with several more in New York to wreak havoc on America’s East Coast industry. But the whole gang was captured thanks to two informers, and sentenced to death.
Just as America had to learn the hard way from Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the S.S. Gulf America disaster so close to our beaches showed that the United States had much to learn. And without the informants, who knows what the saboteurs could have done to America’s economy and morale. Cargo ships with guns were no match for Adolph Hitler’s sea wolves. Convoys guarded by destroyers would be needed. And Florida Governor Spessard Holland called for lights to be turned out so ships wouldn’t be silhouetted at night for U-boats to spot.
America was not as fully prepared for war even in April of 1942. But the United States showed it could learn from mistakes. U-Boats went from hunting to being hunted. Cargo ships got better protection. Civilians pitched in to help.
The wreck of the S.S. Gulf America is a favorite diving spot for locals as it teams with sea life. But it’s hulk and signs lamenting the tragedy so close to America’s shores, are constant reminders that the USA’s relative isolation via two oceans don’t always provide protection. Safety on the seas would have to be earned.