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The Night World War II came to the Texas Coast

By BY PETER DeFOREST - SPECIAL TO ADVOCATE
July 25, 2012 at 2:25 a.m.

The freighter Oaxaca was sank by the German Submarine U-171 11 miles from Port O'Connor during World War II.

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of when World War II came to the Crossroads area, up close and personal.

When most people think of World War II, they are reminded of places such as Normandy, Pearl Harbor, or other places far from South Texas. But some of the fighting occurred right off the Calhoun County beaches, within sight of land.

World War II took place from 1939 to 1945 and involved a majority of the world's nations, including the United States. The United States entered World War II when war with Japan was declared on Dec. 8, 1941 the day after the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States. Few people in the states ever expected that the war would come to U.S. shores, but in January 1942, the German Navy launched "Operation Drumbeat," which involved sending five U-boats to attack shipping off of the East Coast of the United States.

The word U-boat is a version of the German word Unterseeboot, and refers to military submarines operated by Germany in World War II.

The United States, having no experience with a modern naval war close to its own shores, did not employ shore-side blackouts, nor any increased naval patrols. The U-boats simply waited and picked off ship after ship in broad daylight, and at night as the ships were silhouetted against the lights of the major cities. Sometimes the U-boats attacked on the surface, using their deck guns to save torpedoes, people on shore sometimes witnessed these attacks firsthand. By the time this first group of submarines ran out of torpedoes and started their return trip to Europe, 23 ships had been sunk with not a single U-boat loss.

When the second group of U-boats left their German bases in Europe for the United States, several of them had orders to enter the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Most of the U-boats sent to the Gulf of Mexico were type IX-C U-boats, which were large ocean-going submarines designed for sustained operations far from any support facilities. They had a range of more than 13,000 nautical miles, and could easily operate in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic without needing to refuel. Type IX-C U-boats were armed with a 105mm deck gun, a 37mm anti-aircraft gun, a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, and had six torpedo tubes; four at the bow and two at the stern. They carried six extra torpedoes internally and had five external torpedo containers (three at the stern and two at the bow), which stored 10 additional torpedoes. The total of 22 torpedoes allowed type IX-C U-boat captains to follow a convoy and strike night after night.

One of the IX-C U-boats to enter the Gulf of Mexico was Unterseeboot 171 (U-171). The U-171 was sent to the Gulf of Mexico under the command of Oblt. Günther Pfeffer. U-171 sank three ships in the Gulf of Mexico; the oil tanker Amatlan near the Texas-Mexico border, the oil tanker R.M. Parker Jr. off Louisiana, and the freighter Oaxaca off Port O'Connor.

The Oaxaca was a freighter that had previously been a German-owned ship, but when World War II broke out, the Mexican government took possession of the ship and changed the name.

The Oaxaca was a 6,000-ton freighter that normally carried dry cargo. The captain of the Oaxaca was Francisco Rodríguez Reybell.

On July 26, 1942, the Oaxaca left the port of Corpus Christi with a load of rubber, caustic soda and other miscellaneous cargo. The crew of the Oaxaca thought wrongly that by keeping close to shore they would be safe from any U-boat attack.

That night, the U-171 sighted the Oaxaca sailing up the Gulf Coast 11 miles from Port O'Connor. The U-171 fired two torpedoes, one of which hit the Oaxaca and detonated with a loud explosion.

The Oaxaca broke in half and sank within three or four minutes of being hit.

Six of the 36 crewmen were killed. The Air Force base on Matagorda Island was being built at the time, and workers who were asleep in temporary housing on the island were awakened by the sound of the torpedo exploding and assisted many of the survivors as they were brought to shore.

On Oct. 9, 1942, while returning to base, U-171 hit a mine and sank in the Bay of Biscay off of the Western coast of France.

Twenty-three other German U-boats were also sent to the Gulf of Mexico during World War II to sink ships and cause havoc, some of these included:

U-507 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Harro Schacht sank the cargo ship Alcoa Puritan with its deck gun about 45 miles south of the New Orleans on May 6, 1942, and then shocked authorities by torpedoing and sinking the gasoline tanker Virginia in the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 12, with the loss of 26 sailors.

U-506 commanded by Knight's Cross winner Erich Würdemann attacked eight ships in the Gulf of Mexico from May 10 to May 20, 1942. Four of these ships were badly damaged while the other four were sunk, including the tanker Gulfpenn, which was transporting 4 million gallons of gasoline from Port Arthur to Philadelphia, Penn., when it was hit by a torpedo from the U-506 off of Louisiana. The Gulfpenn exploded and sank quickly after being torpedoed, 13 crewmembers perished.

U-166, commanded by Oblt. Hans-Günther Kuhlmann, sank four ships off of Louisiana from July 11 to July 30, 1942. One of the ships sank was the passenger ship Robert E. Lee, which was carrying 407 passengers and crew, 25 lost their lives in the sinking.

U-126, commanded by Knight's Cross winner Ernst Bauer, sank several ships off of Cuba, including the merchant ship Kahuku. A sailor from the Kahuku, Archie Gibbs of Roscoe, Texas, was held captive on the U-126 for four days before being released in an inflatable rubber boat within sight of land.

U-156 was sent to the Caribbean on a secret mission to attack the oil refinery and tank farm on the island of Aruba. The attack failed when the first shot from the 105mm deck gun prematurely exploded in the barrel, damaging it. This happened because the protective cap at the end of the barrel was not removed before the gun was fired, causing the end of the barrel to burst. Working at top speed, Captain Werner Hartenstein and his crew managed to cut off the damaged part of the barrel, but the alarm had been sounded in Aruba and the attack was called off. This freak accident saved what was then the world's largest oil refinery from a surprise attack. Hartenstein later sank two cargo ships off of Cuba with his sawed-off deck gun.

After an alarming number of ships were sunk by U-Boats off of the Gulf Coast, a panic set in and rumors were rampant. The most famous of these rumors concerned U-boat crewmen coming ashore to watch movies in New Orleans or going shopping in Houston. None of these rumors were ever verified as being true.

By the end of World War II, fifty-six ships were sunk with an additional fourteen ships damaged by German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-four U-boats were used in these operations with the U-166 being the only U-boat lost. For many years U-166 was thought to have been sunk by a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft on Aug. 1, 1942, but was actually sunk two days earlier by depth charges from the U.S. Navy sub-chaser, PC-556. The Coast Guard aircraft may have spotted and attacked the U-171 instead, inflicting no damage. The mystery of the U-166 was solved in 2001 when it was found off of Louisiana in 5,000 feet of water one mile from the shipwreck of its last victim, the passenger ship Robert E. Lee.

Of the 54 type IX-C U-boats built, only the U-505 survived World War II. U-505 was captured by the U.S. Navy in 1944 and is now on display in Chicago, Illinois at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The wreck of the Oaxaca lies eight miles offshore from the Matagorda Ship Channel Gulf Jetties, resting in 60-65 feet of water.

One of the masts of the ship stuck out of the water until sometime in 1945 when the Coast Guard removed it and set off explosives in the superstructure so the wreck wouldn't be a hazard to navigation.

During the late 1990s, students with the Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology program conducted dives on the wreck.

In 2004, the Texas Parks and Wildlife's Ships to Reefs program investigated the Oaxaca shipwreck. Side scan sonar and sub-bottom profiler investigations show the ship is sitting upright in two pieces on the seafloor, with parts of the wreckage only 40 feet from the surface.

Locally, the wreck is sometimes called the "rubber ship" because of the rubber bales that occasionally wash ashore, which was part of the Oaxaca's cargo.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Ships to Reefs Program, the main section of the wreck lies at the following coordinates: Lat- 28 22' 27.027 & Long- 96 11' 09.535 (degrees, minutes, seconds). These coordinates need to be converted to degrees, decimal minutes to be used with most GPS navigational devices.

Sources: Henry Wolff Jr., of Victoria; Steve Hoyt formerly with the Texas Historical Commission; Dale Shively with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Ships to Reefs Program; the U.S. Navy Historical Center; the PAST Foundation; and the late George Fred Rhodes of Port Lavaca.

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