On this day in 1942, a German U-boat torpedoes an American freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. Heredia was then just 40 miles from New Orleans, where her crew intended to unload the ship’s cargo of Guatemalan bananas and coffee.
Instead, Heredia was torpedoed in the middle of the night, leaving 23 survivors to struggle in the dark waters.
Eight-year-old Raymond “Sonny” Downs, Jr. was one of the lucky ones. “[The attack] woke me,” Downs recalled years later, “and the next thing my dad was standing there, and he said, ‘Put on your life preserver.’ . . . . I looked down on the deck, and he was already standing in water about a calf high.”
The four family members were separated, torn apart by the rushing waters, as they tried to escape. Amazingly, the entire family survived and would eventually be reunited.
Yet Heredia’s story is just a small snapshot of the dangers facing vessels in American waters during those days. In the early months of World War II, German U-boats terrorized the East coast in an operation known as “Operation Paukenschlag,” or Operation Drumbeat.
The United States had been caught flat-footed. There weren’t enough anti-submarine patrols. Merchant ships too often traveled alone. Likewise, coastal cities weren’t acting as if the nation was at war. Instead, city lights shone bright against the night skies.
German submarine officers couldn’t believe their eyes.
“We had left a blacked-out Europe behind us,” one later mused. “Yet here the buoys were blinking as normal, the famous lighthouse at Jupiter Inlet was sweeping its luminous cone far over the sea. We were cruising off a brightly lit coastal road with darting headlights from innumerable cars.”
He felt that the task before him was almost too easy.
“Before this sea of light, against this footlight glare of a carefree new world,” he concluded, “we were passing the silhouettes of ships recognizable in every detail and sharp as the outlines in a sales catalogue. Here they were formally presented to us on a plate: please help yourselves! All we had to do was press the button.”
The Germans took full advantage. In the first five months of 1942, nearly 130 tankers were torpedoed in American waters. U-Boats terrorized the East coast, then moved south towards the Gulf of Mexico.
“Another vessel is torpedoed in the Gulf of Mexico not far from New Orleans,” a Wisconsin journalist reported on May 22. “I think this makes six such victims in about the same spot. . . . It isn’t hard to understand why people on the south and east coasts ‘feel’ the war more than we do in the middle west.”
But why was the United States so unprepared? Many found it inexplicable. The British had warned Americans about U-Boats near New York as early as January 12. “With the information available in OIC,” British intelligence officer Patrick Beesly said, “the gist of which was passed on to Washington, it seems inconceivable now that the Americans could have been so completely and totally unprepared.”
Even FDR conceded that mistakes had been made. “My Navy has been definitely slack in preparing for this submarine war off our coast,” he confessed to Winston Churchill.
Naturally, Americans weren’t going to be kept down long.
A new convoy system was implemented, with ships traveling short distances and staying in harbor each night. The American industrial complex got to work, and more escort vessels were built. Antisubmarine aircraft took to the skies. Blackouts were finally imposed in coastal cities.
By the end of July, the Germans’ so-called “Happy Time” in American waters had come to an end.
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Captain of Lost Ship Thinks 5th Columnists Notified Sub (News Journal; May 22, 1942) (p. C4)
Ed Offley, The Drumbeat Mystery (Naval History Mag.; Feb. 2022) (reprinted HERE)
Elizabeth Ross, Quincy Man Remembers The U-boat Attack He Survived 74 Years Ago Today (WGBH Educational Foundation; Boston; May 19, 2016)
Enemy U-Boats Sink U.S. Ship (Green Bay Press-Gazette; May 23, 1942) (p. 1)
Foe Adds Four to Ship Score; U.S. Loses Three (Cincinnati Enquirer; May 23, 1942) (p. 1)
Letter from FDR to Winston Churchill (March 18, 1942) (reprinted in Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. IV: The Hinge of Fate)
Michael D. Hull, Operation Drumbeat’s Devastating Toll on Allied Shipping (WWII History Mag.; August 2014) (reprinted HERE)
Mike Tougias & Alison O'Leary, So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II (2016)
More Ships Sunk by Axis (Kansas City Times; May 30, 1942) (p. 3)
Sci-Tech Tuesday: 75th Anniversary of U-boat attack in Gulf of Mexico (National WWII Museum blog)
Stricken U.S. Sailors Get Hitler Salute from Nazi Crew (Corpus Christi Caller-Times; May 25, 1942) (p. 2)
Surviving a WWII U-boat Attack in ‘So Close to Home’ (Military.com; May 20, 2016)
Tex Reynolds, Between the Lines (Racine Journal; May 22, 1942) (p.1)
Torpedoed American Ship Sinks 90 Seconds After Attack, 21 Crewmen Die (Columbia Record; May 22, 1942) (p. 1)
U.S. Passenger Ship Sunk by Axis Subs! 36 Missing (Honolulu Star-Bulletin; May 23, 1942) (p.1)