Remember When? The East Coast was "U-boat Alley"
Article from the archive of Rollins W. Coakley
The day after Nazi Germany declared war on the U. S., Adm. Karl Doenitz met with Hitler and from this meeting developed Operation Paukenschlag (Drumroll). Paukenschlag was the name devised for the U-boat campaign against American coastal shipping. The U-boat skippers called it "the happy time."
Fortunately, at its inception in January of "42, only six U-boats, 500-tonners, were available. By February, several more were added and they moved swiftly and suddenly to shatter U. S. sealift capability - 360 U. S. cargo ships were sunk in U. S. waters between January and August.
Sailing coastal shipping lanes, the U-boats would surface at night and wait for a ship to come along, silhouetted against the shore light. Not until April were the brightest light extinguished -- and only over the heated protests of local businessmen who argued that blackouts would lower their profits. Adm. Samuel E. Morrison, who wrote the definitive naval history of World War II, would later write: "Ships were sunk and seamen drowned in order that the citizenry might enjoy business as usual."
U-boats sailing inshore were sinking ships in broad daylight. By the beginning of February, it was one a day. By April it had risen to three and by June the total was more than 200 ships sunk.
On the foggy night of June 13, U-202 moved in near a beach in Amaganstt, Long Island and unloaded four saboteurs and their explosives. Coastguardsman John C. Cullen spotted the four and was given some money to forget he had seen them. As soon as the fog covered him, he ran to his station, returned with his Chief and recovered the explosives and gear. The men had gone. Later, one of them turned in his three companions and four others who had arrived in similar fashion in Florida.
The U-boats became so bold in the Delaware Capes that they torpedoed ships in sight of bathers on the beaches. An oily scum rimmed the Jersey shore and at Cape May, bodies of drowned seamen came in with the tide.
Why did this happen? Well, in 1939, then Vice Adm. Ernest J. King recommended construction of steel -hulled corvettes as escorts, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt instead supported the construction of wood-hulled sub-chasers -- "the splinter fleet" -- which lacked the seagoing abilities of the corvettes. Then in '40, under the Two-Ocean Navy Act, corvettes an other small vessels, including landing craft, weren't even included. Then there was the matter of the 50 mothballed, over-age destroyers transferred to Britain in exchange for leases on Western Hemisphere bases. When the U-boats moved against U. S. shipping, the British argued for piecemeal measures -- anything might help, like a lone destroyer on patrol. And that's how the USS Jacob Jones met its fate, before dawn on February 28, 1942. Only 11 survived -- not a single officer.
During '42 almost 1,000 ships were sunk in the Atlantic and Arctic areas -- a total of 6 million tons. By contrast, 82 U-boats were deep-sixed.
Vice Adm. Adolphus Andrews, head of the Eastern Sea Frontier, with King's backing, tried different routings and juggled ships until America's 99 shipyards began producing ships in record numbers, faster than U-boats could sink them. A Liberty ship would slide down the ways in six days from the laying of the keel. Seaworthy escorts were built in record numbers. More long range aircraft became available to fly umbrellas of protection. Convoys were escorted and hunter-killer groups of destroyers and destroyer escorts and escort carriers moved to the areas of sinkings and blasted the U-boats. It all took time, but it wasn't long until the U-boat Skippers so called "happy time" was over.