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U-boats and definition of a US combat veteran.

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U-boats and definition of a US combat veteran.

Postby U-5075 » Sun Nov 16, 2008 9:35 am ... _a_veteran

You didn’t have to be in combat to be considered a veteran

C.J. Christ

Published: Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 2:27 p.m.
Even after 65 years, there are those who contend that if a serviceman did not serve overseas, he shouldn’t be considered a combat veteran or belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I totally disagree.

During the late spring and early summer of 1942, I can document 400 combat deaths in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these were U.S. Naval sailors just out of Naval Gunnery School.

Each merchant ship hired by the War Shipping Administration or foreign allied ships had an artillery piece aboard, sometimes two or more. Since merchant sailors had no military experience or training, these weapons were worked by naval personnel. So, if a ship was torpedoed with “loss of all hands”, chances are, there were 10 to 15 Naval Armed Guard sailors aboard.

Another way sailors were exposed to the enemy in the Gulf was those on patrol craft such as sub chasers, mine sweepers, patrol craft, patrol torpedo boats, patrol craft escort, destroyer escort, etc. Even converted yachts were engaged in the Gulf.

There are several logs of German submarines — U-boats — that operated in the Gulf. One such log is the very successful U-67, commanded by Korveten kapitan Mueller-Stockheim. His log exactly matches the Office of Naval Intelligence report of an incident that happened at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The small, combatant vessel involved was a Navy tug, Underwriter, and the ship involved was the SS Virginia. This also is supported by an interview with Albro Michell, a river boat captain.

When the Virginia slowed down enough to take on a river pilot, there was a tremendous explosion on the jetty wall that sent rocks flying and the Underwriter scrambling up the river. Minutes later, the Virginia loaded down with aviation gasoline, exploded killing people on board. In the U-boat log, the German captain records, “The first torpedo went under the ship and hit the sea wall, but after adjusting for the lack of buoyancy of fresh water at the mouth of the river, the second shot was a success.”

I really enjoy history when I can verify to the exact date, time and circumstances entered in the U-boat log, recorded in the O.N.I. reports, and matched exactly with an eye witness.

In terms of “combat duty”, if the first torpedo had hit the ship, which was full of aviation gasoline, the crew would likely have been as dead as the sailors aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

In the “Handbook for Kriegsmarine Submarine Captains,” Adm. Donitz, the senior U-boat officer, instructs his captains “not to engage Military warships unless unavoidable.” There is of course no way the U.S. Navy could have known this, especially early in the war.

Another interesting incident was recorded in the log book of the U-507, the first German submarine to enter the Gulf of Mexico on May 4, 1942. On his third night in the Gulf, he was joined by U-506 with a less-experienced captain. They were sailing close together, westbound through the Florida Straits when the less-experienced captain announced to the other that he would attack a small steamer. The captain of U-507 answered, “Do not attack. He is pinging you, head south at maximum speed.” That is another narrow escape for a patrol boat.

At the end of World War II, a patrol boat off of Cape May, N.J., was torpedoed by U-853. Only after many years of some diligent research was it determined that the Eagle was not sunk by a boiler explosion, but by a well-aimed shot from the last U-boat in American waters during the war.

Even though no warships were attacked by U-boats in the Gulf, one must bear in mind that constantly handling high explosives in any conditions is dangerous. To prove this point, I relate a story told to me by George Landwehr of Lockport:

“I was a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Onyx stationed at Burwood Naval Section Base at the mouth of the river. My job aboard was to control the firing depth charges from the ‘K’ guns (similar to a mortar but with a depth charge instead of a shell being fired) and the rack on the stern (after deck of the ship.)

“These depth charges were like cans, in fact, they were called ‘ash cans.’ They were somewhat smaller than a 55 gallon drum, but the entire assembly weighed about 350 pounds — all explosives except the drum itself.

“The procedure was to prepare the two systems (the rack in the stern and the ‘K’ guns amidships) for firing upon orders from the bridge. The lead ordinance man on duty had the responsibility to set the depth of explosion as ordered by the bridge — usually the captain.

“On this particular trip, orders came from the bridge to ‘stand by for a four-charge pattern of depth charges. Set depth at 50 feet.’

“Immediately, now holding the depth setting key in my hand, called the bridge. ‘Sir, the setting of 50 feet will be too shallow for our forward speed.’ (approximately 15 knots). The immediate response from the bridge was ‘Set as indicated!’ I told my deck crew, ‘I’ll key this in, y’all get off the after deck.’

“As soon as the pattern was fired, the engine crew was on the intercom, ‘What the hell is going on up there?’ (The noise below was ‘like a truck with bad springs going over a rough railroad track crossing,’ they said.

“Water was rising above the deck plates in the bilge (removable floor) and the engines ran wild as the propellers came out of the water and were turning in the air.

“All available pumps were put into service, including ‘handy billy’ portable pumps. Fortunately, the ship was near Fort Morgan, entry to Mobile Bay, where there was a Naval installation with more pumps and some divers.

“The boat was patched with temporary plates welded over the cracks and all of the pumps going full speed as we limped into Mobile where we were immediately dry docked,” Landwher said with a chuckle.

“All my guys and the engine room crew knew I was right to question the bridge, but the officer never mentioned the incident to us.”

As the U-boat threat left the Gulf of Mexico, there were some relaxing changes at Burwood.

In June 1943, Landwher was transferred to the Naval Ordinance Station in Algiers, across the river from New Orleans. Later in the war, he served aboard the PC 574 in the Pacific.

After the war, Landwher was discharged from the Navy, but went to work for the Navy as a technician working on naval-gun installations and removing deck guns from ships of the Merchant Marine.

He now lives in Lockport.

Not all veterans were in foreign wars — some served gallantly in their backyard.

The idea that there was no danger in the Gulf during 1942 is only held by the historically disadvantaged.


The Military Round Table Discussion Group will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the large meeting room at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library, 151 Library Drive, Houma. Two retired U.S. Navy submarine officers will speak about what it was like to serve on a submarine. The meeting is free and open to the public.

C.J. Christ is a historian whose work is sponsored in part by the Bollinger family of Lockport. If any one has information that would be beneficial to his work, he can be reached at 232-0402, 872-2843 or
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