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.
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.
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.