On January 13, 1942, German U-boats began their campaign on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, targeting merchant ships and oil tankers. And for the next seven months, they dominated the waters off the East Coast. German U-boat captains loved to be assigned to this region as it was an easy place to rack up their kill count, sinking fuel tankers and cargo ships without any resistance. Often they were even in sight of the shore. Yet this is something rarely talked about during the US history of World War II.
During those seven months, the U-boat attacks destroyed 22 percent of the US tanker fleet, sinking a total of 233 ships in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated they killed over 5,000 sailors and passengers, which is more than double the amount of people who died at Pearl Harbor. While thousands of people may have been looking at the skies in fear of enemy airplanes, nobody knew about this carnage that was going on right at their doorstep.
You see at the start of the war the U.S. Navy was ill-equipped to deal with submarines, they had no idea how to deal with them or protect their ships from them. And the U.S. Admiral King at the time famously refused to take advice from his British allies. This led to the U.S. Navy lying about what was going on in the seas and ensuring that the news media agreed to nationwide government censorship about the topic. This ensured that the military’s incompetence was hidden, and no one realized they were incapable of protecting their shipping routes and saving the lives of merchant seamen.
When the United States entered World War II, Germany believed they would still be able to win the war if they prevented the U.S. from supplying Britain with war materials and fuel. And the German Admiral Karl Donitz was sure they were ill-prepared for dealing with U-boats, which he was completely right. For months, the United States continued to send out ships one by one and even did not order them to turn their lights off, making these cargo ships all easy prey for German U-Boats.
Great Britain exasperated with their incompetence sent an Admiral to plead with the United States to change their tactics, from experience, Britain had learned the best defense against U-Boats was to travel in conveys guarded by military destroyers. It took until April for them to finally implement these tactics and sink the first German U-boat, but by this time the damage was done.
A period of time that the U.S. Navy would prefer us to forget, but we should always remember those that have been lost.