Lights Out: The sinking of the SS Gulfamerica

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// by Kara Pound

It was the spring of 1942, and in the midst of the deadliest conflict in history, World War II seemed like a faraway nightmare for the residents of Jacksonville.

Four months earlier the Japanese conducted a surprise attack on the naval bases at Pearl Harbor—killing 2,400 Americans—and just hours previously, thousands of Filipino and American soldiers surrendered to the Japanese on the Island of Luzon, resulting in the Bataan Death March with thousands more casualties.

Yet, Northeast Florida remained relatively unscathed by the raging battles. A war which has been described as “the last great global conflict” involving more than 30 countries and resulting in more than 50 million military and civilian deaths was a world away.

That is until 75 years ago, on April 10, 1942, when WWII struck close to home.

“It was a normal Friday night,” says historian Scott Grant. “Both Ferris wheels were operating, the roller coaster was working and people were in the bingo parlors, bars and movie theaters. The Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Company was having its inaugural firemen’s ball on the pier. It was just a normal Friday night in Jacksonville Beach.”

This same evening, an American steam tanker christened SS Gulfamerica was carrying more than 100,000 barrels of furnace oil on her way from Port Arthur, Texas to New York. There were 48 men aboard the tanker including Captain Oscar Anderson, officers, armed guards and crewmen.

SS Gulfamerica was traveling along the Atlantic Seaboard unescorted when she was spotted by German U-boat 123, a submarine helmed by enemy sailors searching for Allied cargo ships. It was a little after 10 PM and the tanker was just four miles off the coast of Jacksonville Beach.

“The war seemed far away and when we talk about blackouts or dimouts or brownouts, they were mostly thinking about aerial attacks,” Grant says, explaining why Americans had not been asked to turn their lights off so that the enemy couldn’t see targets at night. “Most of the early civil defense thinking revolves around this idea that we’re going to shut the lights out in a hurry when the Germans bomb us. Of course, the Germans never bombed us, but they did send submarines.”

Lit up by the lights of the Jacksonville Beach Pier, SS Gulfamerica was a sitting duck. German U-boat commander Reinhard Hardegen had been trailing the tanker for miles. With enormous visibility and a large civilian audience, Hardegen torpedoed the ship and then proceeded to open fire with the U-boat’s deck gun.

SS Gulfamerica’s crew was ordered to abandon ship. Of the 48 crewmembers, 19 perished.

“People were genuinely in terror on the beach,” says Grant of the aftermath. “It’s sort of like a train wreck, it’s hard not to watch, but they were also running around convinced that once the submarine finished shelling the Gulfamerica, they would turn the guns and start shelling the city itself.”

This didn’t happen. Once the U-boat pummeled the tanker, it moved on, leaving complete chaos and fear amongst the people who had moments before likely had little concern that the fighting would arrive on their doorstep.

“It’s interesting how big of an impact this had on the area and the local people,” says Sarah Jackson, archives and collections manager at Beaches Museum & History Park. “Before the sinking, people kind of felt a disconnect from the war and then all of the sudden the U-boat comes out of nowhere and hits a ship out here. There was a lights out [order] after that. They said that the U-boat could see the ship so well because of the lights from Jacksonville Beach. For the rest of the war, it was lights out.”

Grant says that it was actually the first blackout instituted along the East Coast and proclaimed the day after the attack by Florida Governor Spessard Holland. Residents also became more vigilant—even building wooden walls at the end of streets to black out lights that might be seen from the water.

In the years since the attack, many of the stories of that fateful night have been told. Most of the research gathered. There was even a visit from captain Hardegen back in the early 1990s.

“The commander of the U-boat is [quoted] in the Baltimore paper back in a 1990’s,” says Grant. “He talks about how, in fact, after the torpedo, people start driving to the beach to see what was going on and there’s even more light created after the initial torpedo attack.”

For Grant, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident who has been researching the sinking of the SS Gulfamerica for years, he believes the attack was very much a deliberate act with great opportunity.

Sinking her in a less visible location wouldn’t have provided the same punch of propaganda and public fear.

“I think that Reinhard sunk the boat in front of Jacksonville Beach on purpose,” he says referring to the very public manner in which it was done. “There were huge financial and publicity rewards for doing that. I mean, he met Hitler and he got to write a book, which became a best seller in Germany.”