Heart of Louisiana: Hidden War

HOUMA, LA (WVUE) - Buried under a mile of water near the coast of Louisiana is the wreckage of a World War II battle between a German submarine and American ships. Barely six months after Germany declares war on the U.S., two dozen German U-boats are prowling the Gulf of Mexico, scoring hit after hit.

"This plots all of the U-boats that came into the Gulf of Mexico," said Houma military museum owner C.J. Christ.

Christ's museum features a display on the U-boat attacks in the Gulf. A friend first told him about a sunken U-boat n 1967.

"He said, 'Christ, don't you know that there's a German submarine out there in 60 feet of water?' I said no I didn't.

That started a four-decade-long search for the missing U-boat, the U-166.

"We never did find the U-boat where they said it was because it was 140 miles from where they said it was," Christ said.

Ships traveling to and from the Mississippi River were targeted by the Germans.

"They sank 58 of our ships and damaged 18 more," Christ said.

When the U-boats arrived, there were no naval escorts and no coastal blackouts. Historian Martin Morgan says Allied ships were easy prey.

"This is part of the reason why they call it a happy time, because it's extremely easy for them to hunt down a ship sailing by itself hundreds of miles from shore," he said.

The only things blacked out by the U.S. military were press reports on the carnage taking place offshore.

"It was because we didn't want the spies to find out and report word back to German naval headquarters that the U-boats were doing a very fine job," Morgan said.

In July of 1942, the American tanker Benjamin Brewster was torpedoed off the coast of Grand Isle. Twenty-five of its crewmen were killed, and some of the survivors rowed their lifeboat onto the beach.

"The ship that was sunk off Grand Isle, for instance, 2.5 miles off the beach, you couldn't keep that a secret," Christ said. "Besides, it burned for nine days."

Three weeks later, the U-166 attacked and sank the passenger steamer Robert E. Lee 45 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Lee was being escorted by the Navy patrol craft PC-566.

"They spotted the periscope of the U-166," Christ said. "They start blowing their horn to try to warn the Robert E. Lee. It was too late. Then the next thing they saw was a torpedo headed for the Robert E Lee. The torpedo went into the engine room, 75 feet from the end of the ship, and it sank within 8 to 15 minutes."

"PC-566 then moves toward and aims at that periscope, moving at flank speed toward that periscope," Morgan said. "The periscope turns around, looks directly at the PC and then retracts beneath the surface. That area of disturbed water was still visible when the PC-566 drove right over it. They could still see a faint outline of the U-boat just below the surface of the water."

After making two passes, dropping five depth charges each time, Capt. Herbert Claudius turns his patrol boat to rescue passengers from the sinking ship.

"He was convinced in his own mind he had sunk the submarine because once he left the scene, he heard no noise at all," Christ said.

But Claudius was reprimanded by the Navy for botching the attack. His depth charges were set too deep. The remains of the U-166 and the Lee were discovered in 2001 during an oil pipeline survey. And a new examination of the U-boat's wreckage suggests a lucky shot.

"Maybe one of those depth charges landed on the deck of the U-boat," Morgan said. "The other ones sank past it."

Morgan said a depth charge may have been sitting on the forward deck near the sub's torpedoes.

"What happened on that U-boat went like that," Morgan said. "That depth charge went off, it set off one, maybe two torpedoes. Everything was over in an instant. Those men were obliterated before they even knew what was happening."

In December 2014, more than 30 years after the death of Capt. Claudius, the Navy corrected a longstanding error.

"The Navy secretary and the chief of Naval Operations decided to decorate the captain posthumously through his son," Christ said.

And that cast new attention on an almost-forgotten battleground, where Gulf Coast states found themselves on the front line of war.