As an underwater explorer for nearly forty years, only a handful of my discoveries have had a direct connection to living people, but those few have been the most satisfying and poignant of my career. It’s even rarer when our discoveries can correct a historical “wrong” and enable a wartime hero to receive recognition 72 years after the fact! In this unique case the shipwreck had been discovered years earlier by others, and at the time was a significant discovery. Our recent expedition was to explore and film the shipwreck for a documentary film, but a close review of the facts surrounding the sinking would ultimately bring me to the highest levels of the Pentagon.
The summer of 2014, I participated on mission # NA045 aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus with Dr. Bob Ballard. The EV Nautilus travels the world’s oceans exploring and educating through live telepresence with its many global partners. The 2014 field mission would bring it into the Gulf of Mexico for a combination science mission and shipwreck project. The science aspect was to recover specimens from “brine pools”, depressions in the seafloor that have an incredibly dense concentration of salt and give the visual mirage of a rippled lake at the bottom of the ocean. This natural phenomenon is a unique ecosystem that has developed a symbiotic relationship to feed on methane in order to survive. This is absolutely fascinating science, but for me the highlight of this expedition would be the exploration of the German submarine U-166 and her final victim the Robert E Lee, both of which had been accidentally discovered in 2001 by C & C Technologies while surveying a planned deep water pipeline route for various oil companies.
I was aboard to assist with a NOVA/National Geographic documentary film about the German submarine offensive against America during World War Two. Having explored and documented U-boat wrecks on both sides of the Atlantic, I know the subject well, and the six years I spent working on the wreck of a previously unknown U-boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey has made me an expert on the type IX German U-boat. Sitting next to Bob in the control van, my job would be to detail the technology on U-166 and discuss the events leading up to and around the sinking of both U-166 and Robert E. Lee. It would be here that certain facts would surface which prompted Dr. Ballard to set the wheels in motion that would ultimately change the US Navy’s account of the sinking, and get a hero the medal he deserved.
July 1942 Gulf of Mexico
Since the opening blows of operation “Paukenschlag” (translated as “Drumbeat”) the German naval offensive against America which began in January 1942, German U-boats had been operating nearly unchecked up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, racking up an incredible tally of sunk and damaged ships. The Germans battle plan was simple; wage a “tonnage war” against the allies, sinking ships and their cargos faster than they could build or replace them. In those first few months, from Maine to Florida ships exploded and pools of burning oil served as funeral pyres in what the U-boat sailors coined “the great American turkey shoot”. In July 1942, the 5,184-ton passenger/freighter Robert E. Lee departed Trinidad and headed directly into the newest killing zone. Aboard were 407 souls, some were survivors of other ships recently sunk by German U-boats in the waters surrounding the Caribbean. To stave off destruction the Robert E. Lee was armed with a stern mounted deck gun and was being escorted by the American patrol craft PC-566 for the journey to Tampa Florida.