How Close U-Boats Came to Menace America

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The German submarine glided through the icy water past New York City, its captain noting the glowing skyscrapers of Manhattan and then Coney Island’s brilliantly-lit Ferris wheel.  Soon his lookouts spotted a large oil tanker, steaming ahead without escort. Maneuvering into position, the captain easily acquired his target, framed by the city’s lights, and fired a torpedo into the vessel, sending a fireball into the sky worthy of America’s most dazzling city.

It was January 1942, the beginning of one of America’s most important, and underappreciated, campaigns to defend the homeland. Peak operations would continue – below, on and above the seas from Florida to New England – through the summer, influencing the fate of World War II and interring ships and sailors from several countries in watery graves off what are now some of America’s most popular beaches and harbors.

This is the gripping story told in Ed Offley’s newest book, The Burning Shore: How Hitler’s U-Boats Brought World War II to America (Basic Books, 2014). 

While the circumstances of this battle are unique, the oft competing roles played by bureaucratic infighting, intelligence collection, combat leadership and blind luck will be familiar to students of America’s most recent conflicts.

The German submarine, or “U-boat,” threat of early 1942 certainly came as no surprise to America’s political and military leadership. Indeed, the U.S. Navy and German subs had joined battle months earlier, even before war was declared, when President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to protect allied shipping.

When official hostilities began, top brass recognized the “imminent probability of submarine attack” along the East Coast, thanks in large part to British intelligence. Yet the admirals failed to respond effectively. Part of the problem was logistical – there were not enough warships and patrol aircraft to go around, and right after Pearl Harbor the West Coast and Pacific Theater seemed a more urgent place to deploy them. However, even those assets available were not focused effectively and the admirals failed to adopt countermeasures already proven by Britain while defending its coasts.

There was infighting between the Navy and U.S. Army Air Forces, which flew antisubmarine aircraft along the coast. As in other conflicts, it took the U.S. military too long to rectify its mistakes, but once the right strategies were implemented the enemy paid dearly. Offley provides stinging insights on the missteps of headquarters on both sides and the contrasting ingenuity of individual airmen and sailors.

Colorful and sometimes unforgettable anecdotes are sprinkled throughout, such as the claustrophic escape of Germans from a flooding submarine on ocean’s bottom; U.S. aviators tossing their own life preservers to enemy sailors swimming for their lives; and a staff officer accidentally setting his pants afire during a meeting with an officious admiral.

The awful price of the war also emerges in statistics provided by Offley. As the Army Air Forces ramped up for worldwide operations during the first half of 1942, four aviators a day died in stateside training, in some months exceeding the toll of overseas combat. On the enemy side, 75 percent of German U-boat crewmen involved in the Battle of the Atlantic’s North American campaign perished at sea. 

Full disclosure: Offley and I are friends and former competitors who covered the military for different media outlets years ago. A very good reporter, Offley has proved an even better author of military history, which permits his story-telling and research skills to shine.

Even the best submarine has a few loose-fitting joints and so does this book. Offley provides the sort of detailed technical information on weapons that no doubt satisfies many readers, but sometimes left me wondering about their implications for the battle at hand. Had the import of this campaign for the larger war effort been clearer in the book’s beginning, I would have read with even greater urgency.

Such criticisms pale in comparison with the value of this volume as both the tale of a specific battlefield and a window into the American (and German) way of war. Despite long involvement in homeland security and military issues as an Army officer, author and businessman, I never fully appreciated this campaign until I read The Burning Shore. I commend it to anyone with an interest in military history, or just the desire for an enthralling tale of combat set in surprisingly familiar places.

Certainly I will never look at the ocean off New York Harbor, the Outer Banks and Chesapeake Bay the same way again.

 

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