An oil tanker sits at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville Beach marked by anglers and divers as a place to find fish.

 

It’s been there for 75 years now after a German U-boat launched a torpedo into the stern of the SS Gulfamerica and then raked its hull with gunfire to make sure the ship would never float again. Nineteen of the 48 onboard were killed.

The shoreline was packed on a busy Friday night when the torpedo hit on April 10, 1942, just after 10 p.m.

Many people watched the flames fill the sky about four miles off shore. Others who didn’t see the explosion flocked to the beach over the weekend to catch a glimpse of the wreckage. The bow of the ship bobbed on the surface for six days before finally sinking below the waves.

“The public today doesn’t realize what it was like, how close it was to shore,” Charlie Hamaker said Thursday, remembering what he saw as a boy. He was just 8 when the Gulfamerica went down.

Hamaker said he’ll never forget the oil mixed with sand sticking to his feet as he walked along the beach. “You would grow about an inch every block,” he said of how much of the sticky sand caked to his feet.

Years later Hamaker got the chance to explore the site of the wreck on a diving expedition, and shortly before the trip he met a survivor who was on the Gulfamerica when it went down. Robert E. Lee Watson Sr. was a 16-year-old gunner who asked Hamaker to do him a favor on the diving trip.

Hamaker said in Watson’s rush to get off the ship, he left $100 and his dog tags in a drawer in his sleeping quarters. Watson told Hamaker he could keep the money if he retrieved the dog tags while investigating the wreck, but Hamaker’s mission was unsuccessful.

Watson got his closure in 1990 when the U-boat’s captain returned to the area on a book tour, and Hamaker said seeing the two seaman relive the story was an even bigger thrill than diving down to the wreck.

Sinking spawned many tales

Newspaper clippings and history books tell plenty of stories about local legends like Watson who said they played a part in the aftermath of the calamity.

One story depicts a well-known real estate agent named Townsend Hawkes as a young man jumping into a small boat with an inebriated volunteer to row toward the towering flames and help with rescue efforts.

“We commandeered the last remaining surf boat and had rowed half way out to the tanker before the planes arrived on the scene,” Hawkes wrote in a 1990 letter to the Times-Union.

He pointed out an inaccuracy in a story printed in the paper that said planes arrived within five minutes of the attack to drop flares or bombs in the area near the submarine. He said they really arrived over an hour after the explosion and the German submarine U-123 was submerged long before then.

According to the letter, Hawkes and the other man had to be rescued themselves when they drifted dangerously close to the burning oil.

Another story details how 10-year-old Jan Swanson felt the Beaches Theater shake when the torpedo hit the ship as she watched a movie.

“She and her friends ran out of the theater, crossed First Street and raced to the boardwalk to investigate the commotion,” Alex Newell wrote in a column published in a 2014 edition of the Shorelines section of the Times-Union.

Another perspective comes from a Navy reservist at Mayport Naval Station named Howard Grisham who jumped to action when he realized what was going on and ended up on a Chris Craft for seven hours out in the ocean.

According to “Cane Pole Wisdom, Vol. 1” written by Hamaker, Grisham had liberty that night and was drinking at a bar when the explosion hit. He ran out to the boardwalk with others to see what was going on and immediately knew they would need him back at the base as soon as possible.

“On the way, he made a quick stop for one final drink and found the bar open but completely deserted, so he mixed his own and left an I.O.U.,” Hamaker wrote.

Local historian Scott A. Grant has heard all those stories and many others from people who have approached him over the years, but he’s not sold that all the information is accurate.

“I kind of think if you hold my feet to the fire that the Townsend Hawkes story is made up,” Grant said.

A lot of the details add up, he said, but it could have easily been a way to drum up publicity for his real estate business. Spencer also thinks the explosion came a little late in the night for a 10-year-old girl to be at a movie theater, and the story of Grisham — while more believable than the others — sounds like a tall tale that got even taller over the years.

On Monday’s 75th anniversary of the attack, Grant will give a detailed presentation at 5:30 p.m. at the Beaches Museum & History Park, 381 Beach Blvd. He said he plans to highlight all the documented facts while also treating the crowd to various stories of firsthand accounts that have been passed from generation to generation.

“The facts are more interesting than the legend,” Grant said.

Like the fact that the skipper of the submarine, Capt. Reinhard Hardegen, is still alive today at the age of 104 and he wrote a book about his war experience that is now illegal to sell in Germany. Or the fact that the U-123 was scuttled by the Germans in 1944 but was then raised by the French a year later and rechristened as the Blaison for use until it was decommissioned in 1959.

Grant said it’s also amazing that the busy landscape of Jacksonville Beach served as an amphitheater the night the ship went down. There were a pair of Ferris wheels and a roller coaster on the boardwalk where people congregated, and a Firemen’s Ball on the pier that night made for an added element in the crowd.

Sinking to a captive audience

Spencer said U-boats sank several ships on the East Coast in 1942, but the Gulfamerica is the only one that went down before a captive audience.

“I think he wanted to catch a ship close to shore, and I think he wanted to make a spectacular display, and he ended up doing it,” Grant said of Hardegen.

Hardegen settled on Jacksonville Beach after prowling the East Coast in U-123 for the first part of 1942. Spencer said he thinks Hardegen originally wanted to sink a tanker in New York Harbor when he arrived in January, but when he took the U-boat for a look he couldn’t find anything worth sinking.

“Ultimately they sink the Coimbra,” Spencer said of a British steam tanker sunk by U-123 off Long Island on Jan. 15, 1942.

But like a lot of the ships that went down at the hands of the Germans, it went largely unnoticed. Part of that was because the U.S. Navy did a good job censoring news from the war, but it was also because the ships sank in places where people couldn’t see them go down.

That wasn’t the case with the Gulfamerica.

The U-boat sank 11 ships off the East Coast and damaged another through the end of March. In April it sank six ships from Cape Canaveral to Brunswick, Ga., in the span of a week — including the Gulfamerica.

U-boat captain’s memories

Hardegen talked about the Jacksonville Beach spectators in a 1992 story that ran in the Baltimore Sun.

“I sank this tanker. It was four miles off the coast. When the tanker was burning, all the motorcars came to the coast, and we saw them, all with full lights,” Hardegen said.

“There was no blackout,” he said. “I could see the big wheel [the Ferris wheel] in the amusement park and all the lights and motorcars and the hotel in full light.

“It was very easy for me,” Hardegen said. “I could see the ship silhouetted against the lights.”

The captain’s log from the day before the sinking of the Gulfamerica shows Hardegen casing the area for a big target.

According to the log, Hardegen maneuvered the U-boat into the mouth of the St. Johns River to get a close look at Mayport.

“Moving south from river, nothing of importance at naval base,” the log says. “We are cruising very close to shore; through periscope, resorts, a pier, a roller coaster, other amusement park rides, and beach houses can be seen. Must be Jacksonville Beach … It is dead of night, but yet shore area is well lit; dawn approaches, have risked detection enough for one night. No traffic, so putting U-boat on bottom three miles offshore.”

It was time for the crew to sleep.

The U-boat was off the coast of St. Augustine when it surfaced the next day around dusk. According to the log, one crew member joked about seeing a girl in a beach chair.

“He is kidding, but if there had been someone in a chair, we could have seen them; we were that close,” Hardegen wrote in his log.

A lookout spotted the Gulfamerica headed north toward Jacksonville Beach on its maiden voyage from Texas to New York. A chase ensued and Hardegen gave the order to launch the torpedo about 10:20 p.m.

After the explosion he moved the U-boat between the Gulfamerica with the amazed audience watching from shore. Hardegen ordered the crew to fire the deck guns at the hull as the tanker’s crew lowered the life boats into the water.

Even though anyone at the beach that night could plainly see the attack, a full story didn’t run in the Times-Union until April 15 because of Navy policy. The policy was in place to prevent enemies from benefiting from the news, and the story still could not mention “the name of the ship, its tonnage, cargo and ports of departure and destination.”

Seventy-five years later, most of the facts — and some tall tales — have surfaced, but the Gulfamerica still rests on the ocean floor.

Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308