The afternoon of July 30, 1942, was calm and clear in
the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, where the passenger freighter
Robert E. Lee was steaming from Trinidad to New Orleans carrying
over 400 American construction workers and survivors of Nazi U-boat
attacks in the Caribbean they had picked up along the way.
It was at the height of the submarine wolf pack terror
days of World War II. Two months earlier the wolf packs had extended
their prowls along the U.S. coast and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The 5,184-ton, 375-foot-long freighter was escorted
by Patrol Craft 566, a sub-chaser, which was built in Houston less
than a year earlier.
The two ships had previously attempted to make port
in Tampa the day before. However, they were unable to get a harbor
pilot for both vessels. Patrol Craft 566 radioed to its command
center, Gulf Sea Frontier, that it and the Robert E. Lee
were continuing on to New Orleans.
About 45 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi
River, the German vessel U-166 was lurking. The U-boat, possibly
alerted by the radio message of the patrol craft, waited along the
Suddenly, U-166 struck. It fired a single torpedo.
It slammed into the port side of the freighter.
The patrol boat rushed in and began dropping depth
charges over the fleeing U-166 while the Lee was reeling
from the blast. Confident the U-boat had been chased, PC-566 began
rescue operations for survivors on the fast-sinking Robert E.
Lee. The Lee sank in 5,000 feet of water, taking the lives of
25 with it.
Two days later, a Coast Guard aircraft 100 miles
south of Houma, La., spotted a submarine on the surface and attacked
by dropping a depth charge on the diving U-boat. An oil slick indicated
After the war, U-166 was the only U-boat unaccounted
for in the Gulf of Mexico assaults. It was assumed the aircraft
off Houma sank it.
Last January, an undersea geosurvey and inspection
vehicle was charting the depths of the Mississippi Canyon in the
Gulf of Mexico, about 45 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi
Owned by C&C Technologies in Lafayette, La.,
the HUGIN 300 AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) was under contract
by BP and Shell to conduct a survey for the Okeanos Pipeline, a
$150-million venture to gather natural gas from new producing fields
currently under development in the ultra-deep water Gulf of Mexico.
Those aboard knew they were in the vicinity of the
passenger freighter Robert E. Lee, which was torpedoed by
a U-boat on July 30, 1942. Nearby, they expected to see the wreckage
of the Alcoa Puritan, a freighter that was torpedoed May
6, 1942, carrying bauxite from Trinidad to Mobile, Ala.
The AUV located the Robert E. Lee as expected,
resting upright and fairly intact, with two lifeboats lying on the
seafloor near the ship. But the data provided by the state-of-the-art-equipped
AUV didn't jibe with what would be anticipated for the amount of
wreckage expected of the large Alcoa Puritan.
C&C called in their marine archaeologists, Robert
Church and Daniel Warren.
"The wreckage is within a mile of the Lee site," Church
said. Sonar contacts did not indicate the wreckage was that of a
400-foot long, 7,000-ton freighter.
Several possibilities were developed by the archaeologists.
"Sonar contacts indicated the wreckage was closer to a Class IX-C
U-boat," Church said. A closer look was commissioned.
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) slipped into the
water on May 31 to verify their hypothesis.
What it found at about 5,000 feet was "two sections
-- one about 200 feet long and the other about 50 feet -- about
500 feet apart. Undersea photos confirmed it was the U-166," Warren
It also revealed the crew of the sub-chaser PC-566
was luckier than they knew on July 30, 1942.
"It looks like a depth charge hit right on the bow
section, just forward of the torpedo loading hatch and right above
a large battery emplacement," Church said. "The blast probably caused
an internal explosion from either a torpedo that was already armed
and ready to go -- or from the batteries exploding when seawater
rushed in through a breach in the pressure hull.
"Whichever the cause, the vessel was blown in two."
The U-166 was on its second patrol, the first being
a training mission. It is listed with sinking four allied ships,
including the Robert E. Lee. Fifty-two sailors went down
with the U-166.
But what about the report of the Coast Guard aircraft?
Church and Warren, whose views are endorsed by other
maritime historians, now surmise that the patrol plane had bombed
a different U-boat -- U-171 -- which reported it had been bombed
by a flying boat about that time, but had not been sunk. U-171 was
later sunk in October 1942, after hitting a mine in the Bay of Biscay
near Lorient, France. Twenty-two died and 30 men survived.
What about the Alcoa Puritan?
"It is still not certain," Church said. "It may be
located and identified in the near future on additional deepwater
However, Church also noted that there is a "lot of
stuff" resting on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, with commerce
in the area for 200+ years, oil exploration and production for three
generations plus long-gone habits of discarding everything from
old automobiles to used refrigerators into the drink.
Also, 56 merchant ships were sunk in the Gulf of
Mexico during 1942-43, according to Torpedoes in the Gulf,
(by Melanie Wiggins, Texas A&M University Press). Church said,
many of them are at unknown locations in deep water.
As far as other historical discoveries, "We are just
now conducting a lot of survey work in deep water," Warren said.
"I imagine we'll find a lot more."