Just nine miles off the coast of Jacksonville Beach, some fifty feet below the ocean surface, lie the remains of a commercial tanker named the SS Gulf America.
The date is April 10, 1942. It is a Friday evening and the old Jacksonville Beach Pier is filled with people partying and dancing to the music of the “Big Bands.” At 10:20 P.M., there is a tremendous explosion and fire on the horizon. Everyone on the pier has just witnessed the German submarine, U Boat 123, torpedo and sink the merchant ship S.S. Gulf America. The reality of war being so close to our shoreline was devastating.
The following Sunday, my father took the family to the beach and I remember well the scene that greeted us when we arrived. For several miles in either direction the beach was covered with debris and bunker C oil. As a kid of eight, I delighted in running up and down the beach, picking up bits of debris and returning them to my father for identification. However, I was too young to understand the full impact of what had happened.
Thirty years later, I was working for a mechanical contractor and we had been awarded a contract for the construction of a powerhouse on Stock Island, just outside Key West. I was the project engineer on the job and Lee was the on-site superintendent. Although Lee and I had known each other for several years and were friends, he seldom spoke of his private life.
I had been to Key West on a routine inspection trip and was getting ready to leave on a Friday afternoon. One of my associates, Lee, and I were killing time while waiting for my plane when he asked, “What ya doin’ this weekend, Gator?” “Well, we gotta long weekend ’cause it’s the 4th of July and I’ve got plans to dive the Jax Beach Wreck on one of those days,” I answered.
“Jax Beach Wreck? Well I tell ya what, if you get on the stern and face towards the bow, you’ll see two hatches. If you can get into the room on the starboard side, you’ll see a dresser against the back bulkhead. In the top drawer of that dresser you’ll find my wallet and dog tags. There’s a hundred dollars in the wallet, you can have the money,” he laughed. “Just bring me my dog tags.”
“What? I answered. “You mean to tell me you were on that ship?”
“Sure was, Gator. That was one of two I had blown out from under me.” That was the first time he had ever mention being on the S.S. Gulf America.
My attempts to make that dive were foiled by boat troubles that almost sank my little dive vessel. Just a little later, a salvage company claimed the propeller and, in the process, destroyed the stern of the vessel.
Then, in 1982, I received a call from a friend inviting me to be a guest at a presentation signing of a book that had been written about U-Boat 123 and the Commander who sank the S.S. Gulf America. In addition, Lee and Commander Hardegan were to meet face to face for the first time since that fatal night off the coast of Jacksonville. The hunter meets the hunted.
I was there when the two men met for the first and only time. There was a brief moment of silence, which seemed like an eternity, while the two men looked at each other. Then Lee smiled slightly and said, “I’m Lee.”
“Rienhart Hardegen,” the Commander replied.
The S.S. Gulf America was on her maiden voyage out of Texas when U-Boat 123 picked her up south of St. Augustine. They had been warned of sub activity in the area, so the S.S. Gulf America set up a zig-zag tacking course. This prevented the sub from being able to get into position to fire a torpedo. They were near St. Augustine around sun down when the S.S. Gulf America stopped its zig-zag maneuvers. However, the chase continued on into the night, and U-Boat 123 finally got into position off of Jacksonville and released one torpedo which found its mark on the starboard side of the vessel. Commander Hardegen then surfaced and moved around on the port side to finish the sinking with his deck guns. The Commander said he could see the lights along the beach and chose this maneuver in order to prevent shelling the mainland, should he overshoot the S.S. Gulf America. Lee’s story is different. “Bull****!” he said. “There was a west wind blowing that night and the fire was being blown offshore between us and the U-Boat. He couldn’t see us so he came around on our port side so the fire would silhouette the ship and he could get a better shot. That German was trying to kill us, that’s a fact.”
Commander Hardegen was truly an amazing skipper with a remarkable record. He averaged almost 100% for every torpedo he carried and he made several trips between Germany and the United States. On one of his return trips, Commander Hardegen was put on the bottom just off our coast by an American destroyer. He was ready to try an escape from the sub in seventy to eighty feet of water when one of the crew gave word they had the situation under control. They discharged bilge and debris from the torpedo tubes and fooled the destroyer into believing they had made a clean kill. After the destroyer left, they rebuilt one engine with parts from another and returned to Germany on one engine.
When I look back on this strange chain of events and think about the fact that my friend managed to survive the sinking of the S.S. Gulf America, Commander Hardegen managed to survive the disaster of almost losing U-Boat 123, and I survived near disaster of sinking in the spot, it is truly a strange feeling.
Even today, I can not go into that area without visualizing what it must have been like that fateful night when the S.S. Gulf America was torpedoed by U Boat 123 and 12 of the 29 crew were killed. I can also visualize a small bead chain with a set of military dog tags embossed with my friend’s name, still buried somewhere in the sand and rubble, at the “Jax Beach Wreck.”