The sinking of the SS Gulfamerica.
In 1942, the Second World War hardly seemed real to the many people who were enjoying their Friday evening in Jacksonville Beach. The restaurants and bars were busy, teenagers were enjoying riding the merry-go-round and sailors from the nearby naval air station were taking advantage of their weekend passes.
But that Friday, April 10th, was a night they would remember.
The east coast was busy with shipping as the merchant fleet was transporting goods to Great Britain to help them in the war effort. But the German U-boats weren’t far behind. In the previous month, one ship had been destroyed by the submarines every single day.
Part of the problem was that as the merchant ships ploughed the Florida coast, they were silhouetted by the lights from the shore. This made them easy targets for the dreaded U-boats. It was decided that the ships would be installed with guns, manned by Navy personnel and that coastal areas should enforce a blackout of their seafront lights.
Florida, then as now, has tourism and recreation as its major money maker so beach resort operator, bars, restaurants n hotels objected to the blackout claiming that it would affect their businesses. So compromise was reached – the shoreline businesses would dim their lights but not extinguish them.
On the April evening, the Gulfamerica was making its maiden voyage. It was carrying 90,000 barrels of fuel oil to Britain, plus a crew of forty one and seven Navy gunners. As she made her way along the Florida coast she was being followed by U-123 – a German submarine captained by twenty eight year old Lieutenant Commander Reinhard Hardegan.
Hardegan followed the Gulfamerica for over an hour and became within torpedoing range just as they came alongside Jacksonville Beach. At exactly 10.20 pm he launched torpedo and it made its mark; it broke the ship in two.
Aboard Gulfamerica her captain, Oscar Anderson, order that the lifeboats should be lowered and that the crew should abandon ship. The fuel-laden ship exploded into a fireball. On shore, the noise and the flames were instantly noticed. Thousands of people abandoned their fun in restaurants, bars and funfairs and crowded to the beach. Many thought that two tankers had collided – they had no idea that this was an attack.
Aboard the U-boat, Hardegan saw that the ship had been seriously damaged but he needed to be sure that it would sink. As he prepared to fire further, he saw that there were thousands of civilians on the beach, thanks to the bright,’dimmed’ lights ashore. If he fired, he could injure them – or worse. He also saw that many of the shoreline buildings were private homes. He had no idea how fortified Jacksonville Beach was – were there gun emplacements? He thought it was worth the risk.
So he positioned the U-boat in the shallow waters between the shore and the damaged ship. This way, his attack on the Gulfamerica would injure no civilians.
Once he was sure that the ship was completely damaged, he gave the order than the U-boat should leave the scene. The crewmen who had escaped from the ship gratefully – and with some amazement – realised that he had no intention of shelling them. It was obvious that Hardegan’s goal was to prevent the fuel reaching Britain – and not to kill.
He had used up valuable time when he manoeuvred the U-boat in order to save civilian life. On the shore Townsend Hawkes, a local resident, quickly contacted Jacksonville Naval Base and planes were dispatched to hunt down the U-boat. They dropped flares to mark its position so that a hastily dispatched destroyer could shell the U-boat. Although Hardegan’s craft was damaged, he managed to limp it home to Europe.
The following day – too late – the authorities and coastal businesses agreed to a full blackout every night.
In 1990, Reinhard Hardegan visited Jacksonville and was regarded as an honoured guest.
At time of writing he is still alive and living in Germany.
This video is poor quality but you can see Hardegan in later life being asked about the damage his U-boat sustained just after the Jacksonville sinking of the Gulfamerica.