Witness to History

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by Ron Whittington // from the May 2015 issue of Jacksonville Magazine

It was a normal, busy Friday night in Jacksonville Beach on April 10, 1942. Before the day was over, residents and tourists enjoying rides at the amusement park or walking the pier would realize the war wasn’t as far away as they thought.

America had only officially joined the Allies in World War about four months prior when German submarine U-123 torpedoed the S.S. Gulfamerica—a merchant ship carrying about 100,000 barrels of heating oil—with German gunners assisted by the bright lights of the Jacksonville Beach shoreline.

“It was an awakening for the people in Jacksonville,” says Charlie Hamaker, who was eight years old when his dad took him to the beach to see the aftermath of the attack the following day. “The beach for miles was covered with thick, black bunker-C oil and trash from the explosion.

"I don’t think a person today realizes how close the United States was to being invaded,” Hamaker, now 81, continues. “The Germans were here on the East Coast, their submarines moving almost at will, with the Japanese moving in on the West Coast.”

Still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Naval Fleet severely weakened at the time the Gulfamerica was on its maiden voyage from Port Arthur, Texas to New York. The German sub, skippered by Commander Reinhart Hardegen, picked up the ship south of St. Augustine just after nightfall.

Hamaker, who recently recounted the story during a presentation at the Beaches Museum and History Park, says the Gulfamerica had traveled with a Coast Guard escort until it reached Cape Canaveral (at which point the escort had to return to Miami and refuel). Until that point, it had also sailed a zig-zag course to give it further safety from the U-boats.

The pilot of the Gulfamerica, Master Oscar Anderson, discontinued the evasive maneuver at about 9:30 that night—which proved to be a fatal mistake.

Just around 10 PM, the U-boat caught up with Gulfamerica and fired a torpedo in the starboard (right) side of the ship. Commander Hardegen, during a visit in Jacksonville later, said he then surfaced and prepared to use the deck guns trained on the port (left) side of the ship to finish the job.

While the German Commander said he did it to avoid shooting any innocent civilians on shore, Robert E. Lee Watson, one of the survivors of the attack, said that Hardegen was a “lying son-of-a-…..” when he met and heard Hardegen’s account of the attack.

“There was a west wind that night and the fire was being blown offshore between us and the sub,” Watson recounts. “He couldn’t see us, so he moved around to the port side so the fire would silhouette the ship and he could get a better shot.”

Watson says the Gulfamerica never had the chance to fire back because their guns “were too hot to handle” because of the flames that engulfed the ship. The sub fired 12 shells into the engine room before ending the attack. After it was over, 19 people on board the ship were killed—five when the torpedo hit and 14 who drowned after they entered the water. It took rescue vessels in Mayport approximately six hours to reach the survivors.

One witness to the attack, Carpenters Mate First Class Howard Grisham, was on liberty from Mayport and having a drink at a Jacksonville Beach bar. When the explosion occurred, he recounts that “everyone ran out to the oceanfront to witness this terrible act of war right on our shoreline.”

Another witness, Jacksonville Beach lifeguard Townsen Hawks, heroically used one of the lifeboats and rowed it out to crippled ship by himself—which was about five miles from shore. (Hamaker says Hawks’ attempt was “not well received” by the military and he was reprimanded. Hawks later joined the Coast Guard.)

Hamaker would eventually become a commercial diver and, as fate would have it, was working for Watson when he found out his boss was a survivor of the attack.

“He asked me what I was doing one weekend and I told him I wanted to dive this wreck off Jacksonville Beach,” Hamaker says. “I didn’t even know the name of the ship. That’s when Watson told me he was one of the survivors. He said he left his dog-tags and a hundred dollars in cash in his room when they abandoned ship.”

Hamaker joined Watson when the two met Hardegen, who was in Jacksonville in 1990 for a presentation and signing of a book written about U 123.

“I asked Hardegen what it felt like to be decorated by Adolph Hitler,” Hamaker says. “The commander said, ‘I was a victim of the times. It’s not necessarily what I believed in.’”

Today, the S.S. Gulfamerica still serves the sea in a different way—as a mature reef nestled 65 feet below the surface that’s a favorite destination for scuba divers. It may be unrecognizable as a ship anymore, but for those who know the story it’s a tragic reminder of how vulnerable America was to enemy attack, and Jacksonville’s first real taste of battle during the early days of World War II.