Local historian Scott Grant delivered a presentation July 18 to Vicar's Landing residents about a German U-boat commander who destroyed 24 merchant ships, including the SS Gulf America oil tanker, less than 10 miles off the coast of Jacksonville Beach in a six-month period described by Grant as one of the “worst disasters in American naval history,” taking more lives than 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.
Grant started with a synopsis of Operation Drumbeat, a World War II exercise in which the Nazis used German U-boats to sink American ships from a stealth position.
He said Captain Reinhard Hardegen, a 28-year-old submarine commander who sunk an oil tanker in front of Jacksonville Beach residents, arrived with other members of his fleet April 10, 1942.
"The Germans had sent submarines to our coast to sink merchant ships," said Grant. "So, they were hunting for merchant ships to put on the bottom."
The historian suggested that Captain Hardegen was "anxious to sink an American ship,” so the Nazis advanced underwater toward St. Augustine around the middle of the afternoon April 10.
He said Hardegen’s submarine, designated the U-123, surfaced at 6 p.m. that evening one mile away from St. Augustine Beach.
"Some of the crew members, they're so close to the beach that they joke about being able to see pretty girls," Grant remarked.
He continued, saying that Hardegen maneuvered his submarine up and down the coast, hunting for a target that would damage American commerce during the war. Grant noted that the Germans sunk two tankers off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia, three nights earlier - the SS Oklahoma and the SSSO Baton Rouge.
"Sometime around dusk, the crew spots the shadow of what they first think is two ships," said Grant. "Then they determine it is one large ship heading north along the coast."
That ship was the SS Gulf America, he noted.
"She was the first oil tanker to be armed with a deck gun; she was zigzagging off the coast at around 12.5 knots," said Grant.
Hardegen followed the SS Gulf America until it sat idle off the coast of Jacksonville Beach. After deliberating on a plan of attack, Grant said, the German U-boat commander launched his second-to-last torpedo at the oil tanker at a 45-degree angle.
"The crew set their stopwatches; they know how long it should take for this torpedo to hit,” he explained. "The time elapses and Hardegen begins to curse at himself, thinking he missed. He believes he wasted his second-to-last torpedo."
Meanwhile, children rode the Ferris wheels, adults gambled at the casinos and tourists enjoyed a night out at the beach before Hardegen 's torpedoes impacted the Gulf America, Grant said. He described the ensuing explosion as "giant."
"The explosion can be heard as far away as St. Augustine," he asserted. "The flames can be seen from Cape Canaveral and Brunswick, Georgia. On the beach, thousands of people run around screaming in horror. At first, they're not sure what happened. Some people think it might have been a collision at sea."
Grant explained that Hardegen positioned his submarine in between the shore and the burning Gulf America before firing his deck gun into the hull of the burning oil tanker.
"At the same time, his machine gun crew begins to shoot down the antennas so the Gulf America cannot send a distress signal," said Grant.
The torpedo attack killed 19 of the 54 Americans on board, he noted.
Grant revealed that Hardegen boasted in his log book about putting on "quite a display for the tourists" at the expense of President Franklin Roosevelt.
He said that the German U-boat commander sank six vessels in seven days while in Florida. In total, Grant noted, he destroyed 24 merchant ships, and Operation Drumbeat killed 3,100 merchant mariners in the first six months of the war.
"That is more than died on 9/11 or at Pearl Harbor,” Grant said. "It's one of the worst disasters in American Naval history."
Today, Grant explained that the Gulf America is a dive destination on the bottom of the ocean just three to four miles off the coast of Jacksonville Beach.
Shortly after Operation Drumbeat, Grant said Captain Hardegen and his U-123 went back to Germany where Adolph Hitler bragged about his submarines sinking merchant ships "within sight of American cities."
Hardegen, who is still alive at 104 years old, authored a book about his experience in the German military. According to Grant, his memoir is illegal for purchase in Germany.
Gloria Watson, a Vicar's Landing resident who attended the event, said she enjoyed Grant's presentation because she lived through the World War II era, and she heard the war stories being passed along by locals.
"As a child growing up you heard that they came ashore...it was well known," she said. "This was interesting because, we are here, they were here and it's something that happened."