I’ve been reading with pleasure and admiration The Library of America’s Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944. This seems to me more than an anthology of fine journalism: the articles are arranged in such fluent chronology that the book also offers a uniquely vivid narrative history—at once intimate and spacious—of the entire war.
I was particularly struck with Helen Lawrenson’s stark account of what the men of the Merchant Marine were up against in the first months after America’s entry into the conflict. Her story underscores a part of the war that has nearly vanished from the national memory.
The men Lawrenson writes about were being attacked by German submarines not in the far, stormy reaches of the North Atlantic but, in one sinking she mentions, within sight of the shore lights of Fort Pitt, Florida. The Battle of the Atlantic was the only campaign of the war whose progress American civilians could often watch from their homes.
As soon as Germany declared war on the United States, Admiral Karl Doenitz, the dismayingly capable head of Hitler’s U-boat fleet, was eager to get to our east coast. He believed Germany’s only chance was to throttle Great Britain by cutting off the supplies America was sending. He knew that ninety-five per cent of the oil from the Louisiana and Texas fields went in tankers along the coast, and he guessed that our navy, now spread thin, could do little to protect this crucial traffic.
He was right. A month later Captain Reinhard Hardegan, the first U-boat skipper to arrive, cruised around unchallenged in New York harbor: “I cannot describe the feeling in words,” he said “but it was unbelievable and beautiful and great. . . We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out on the coast of the USA.”
A few hours later he torpedoed the Coimbra, carrying 80,000 barrels of oil (fifty-three gallons to the barrel) so close inshore that Long Island citizens called local police stations to report a fire.
That May another U-boat captain harvesting this rich field arrived off Miami and was astounded to find the city glowing bright. This early in the war, nobody seemed to have the authority to order the mayor to turn off the lights. When the Navy begged Mayor Reeder to extinguish them, he said the hell with that: it would discourage the tourists.
The spectacle certainly cheered at least one tourist. Captain Cremer of the U-333 wrote, “Against the footlight glare of a carefree new world were passing the silhouettes of ships recognizable in every detail and shape as the outlines in a sales catalog. Here they were formally presented to us on a plate: please help yourselves.”
The Germans helped themselves with a free hand. In the first four months of 1942 the U-boats sank 515,000 tons—eighty-seven ships—along the East Coast.
The government responded to the crisis by bringing into the service yachts and sports fishing boats and their owners—equipping the larger vessels with a couple of depth charges or a pair of twenty-millimeter guns and begging their crews to do what they could. (Ernest Hemingway got in on the act, talking the navy out of $32,000 worth of range and direction finding equipment for his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat Pilar.)
The improvised mini-navy couldn’t do much, of course, and it certainly didn’t intimidate the Germans. Once, off the Florida coast, the crew of a militant cabin cruiser was astounded to see rise from the sea beside them a tall steel conning tower, from which the skipper called down in what was reported to be “excellent Americanese”: “Get the hell out of here, you guys! Do you want to get hurt? Now scram.”
The Coast Guard gave these little boats the gallant name the Corsair Fleet. The fleet’s members knew their chances. They immediately christened themselves the Hooligan Navy.
Nevertheless, they went out night after night, month after month. If they never hurt a U-boat, they were there combing the debris of what were in effect scores of forgotten Pearl Harbors for survivors of torpedoed ships. They saved hundreds.
It is worth remembering that this is the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States sent raw militia against the world’s best-trained professional military men. And that there are still people among us today who owe their lives to the fact that the Hooligan Navy was on duty when the war came to our shores.
Also of interest:
- Richard Snow describes his new book A Measureless Peril (YouTube)
- Watch a 47-minute documentary about the Hooligan Navy at the National Sailing Hall of Fame Film Library
- In 2009 Terry Mort wrote a book about Hemingway’s search patrols: The Hemingway Patrols: Ernest Hemingway and His Search for U-Boats
- Cornelius Ryan on D-Day, a previous Reader's Almanac post