The Shared Fate of the Robert E. Lee and the German U-166

German submarines posed a threat not only to ships crossing the Atlantic, but also to ships in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1942 and 1943 approximately 70 ships in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Texas were sunk by the German U-boats as they roamed the Gulf.

The passenger-freighter Robert E Lee had left Trinidad and was headed to Tampa when it was diverted to New Orleans. On board were passengers it had picked up from two other ships who were hit by torpedoes and was heading to New Orleans with an escort, USS PC-566.

The Robert E. Lee

On July 30, 1942 the Robert E Lee was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine or U-boat. The ship began to list and sank within fifteen minutes beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico about fifty miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Most of the of the passengers and crew were able to escape in life boats or with life jackets. One officer, 9 crewmen and 15 passengers of were lost. (total of 283 passengers were on board.)

The escort ship, USS PC-566 fired depth charges in the area where signs of it had last been seen. Soon after an oil slick appeared; it was assumed that the U-boat had been hit and destroyed. It and other boats in the area aided in the rescue of passengers and crew.

German U-166

In July of 2014, nearly 72 years later, stunning photos of the two wrecked vessels were released. The scientific ship, Exploration Vessel Nautilus had been checking for damage from the BP oil spill in 2010 when the scientists aboard came upon the wrecks only a two miles apart. Two remote operated submersible vehicles equipped with cameras captured clear images of both sites. Designated as war graves the casualties from World War II, they will not be disturbed.

Below is an excellent link put out by the scientific organization that took the photos. The images of the Robert E. Lee and U-166 are haunting.

A Tale of Two Wrecks: U-166 and SS Robert E. Lee

Thanks to blogger Brad Purinton for the inspiration for this post.  In a comment he left on my “Sand Pounders” post, he mentioned this incident. His father who was a child living in New Orleans at the time and remembered stories of German submarines near the mouth of the Mississippi His blog, Tokens of Companionship, features portrait photos from 1839 to 1939. Check it out here.

20 thoughts on “The Shared Fate of the Robert E. Lee and the German U-166

  1. Growing up in London during the Second World War I really was mostly aware of what was going on in our lives. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my 60s and met a German Lutheran Pastor who was a little older than me, that I realised that German children lived the same kind of lives as us. And of course, I was unaware of what was going on in the US at the time. Not for us CNN with it on the spot news. So thank you for this post

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, we didn’t see what was going on live via CNN. I am sure there are many untold stories of what was happening in London at the time. I love finding these obscure stories. Thanks for the visit to this side of the pond!


  2. Thank you for mentioning me and my blog, Jo Nell. The photos of the wrecks are neat. I hadn’t seen them before.

    It was dangerous to be on a ship in the Gulf at that time, but it was probably much more dangerous to be on a U-boat. For submariners it was generally all or nothing: the whole crew survived or the whole crew perished.

    During the war, the US Navy lost 52 submarines to enemy action or to “storm or perils of the sea.” According to Wikipedia, “The U.S. Navy’s submarine service suffered the highest casualty percentage of all the American armed forces, losing one in five submariners.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read a good bit about the perils facing those in the Atlantic shipping lanes during WWII, but this was new to me. I had read about various approaches to our west coast by the Japanese, but it simply didn’t occur to me that other countries might try gaining a foothold elsewhere.

    Even though I followed the submersibles closely after the Deepwater spill, and watched hours of live footage from their cams, I don’t remember ever hearing about these other discoveries. It’s all so interesting: especially the fact that the same technology being used in deep water exploration is utlized in space. One of the premier companies, Oceaneering, is not far from me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kept up with the Deepwater spill too, to some degree, and never heard about this discovery until I started researching for this post. I didn’t know the technology was shared in space. Will have to check Oceaneering. Thanks for the link. I find it fascinating when old ships are discovered.


Comments are always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s