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When America Had Too Few Bullets

How our coasts were secured, and England saved.

By 4.29.14

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The Burning Shore: How Hitler’s U-Boats Brought World War II to America
By Ed Offley
(Basic Books, 312 pages, $27.99)

When World War II got underway my father was not beyond draft age, but he was near the top of the range. In early 1942 Dad was married with one child and another on the way (my very own personal self). He was also working at a defense job at the local shipyard where liberty ships were being built. So he spent his war in Tampa dodging hot rivets rather than bullets.

But Dad was still in uniform. He signed on for port security duties with the Coast Guard auxiliary. I remember as a youngster looking through the family photo album and seeing a shot of Dad and another young man wearing what looked a lot like Navy chief petty officers’ uniforms walking down a pier. They were both packing .45s.

I asked Dad if he was looking for U-boats. By this time I had already watched Victory at Sea and knew about the Nazi submarine menace. Dad said he was looking out for anything suspicious or menacing, including the sudden and unlikely appearance in the Port of Tampa of a U-boat.

I couldn’t help but ask, “What would you do if you saw a U-boat, Dad, shoot it with that .45?”

“We couldn’t do that,” came his honest reply. “They didn’t give us any bullets.”

America’s dilemma at that dangerous time was about the same as Dad’s. The Battle of the Atlantic – the allies’ attempt to supply the import-dependent UK by ship and the Nazi wolf-packs’ attempts to starve that island nation by sinking those ships – had come to the east coast of the United States. Lone merchantmen and tankers sailing to join convoys being made up in New York and Newfoundland were easy prey to Nazi submarines operating just off of Long Island, Cape Hatteras, and the east coast of Florida. U-boats even hunted in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Dozens of ships went to the bottom and hundreds of merchant seamen perished in the American littoral as 1942 unfolded. Most of America’s limited military assets were deployed overseas. Very little in the way of escort ships and planes were available to defend shipping off our coasts. Our acute problem in dealing with this vital defense threat in those early days, it could be said, was we just didn’t have any bullets.

Later, after America had recruited, drafted, trained, and built itself into the most formidable war machine the world has ever seen, we would have the planes, escort ships, tactics, code-breaking ability, and trained warriors to turn the tide. But the business started out very badly indeed for our side. In early 1942, Americans were treated to the sight of burning ships just off our east coast. Germany’s U-boats had shifted their operations from the middle Atlantic to easier pickings off our coast.

In 2011, Navy veteran and military reporter Ed Offley gave us Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic, a large and very fine treatment of the Battle of the Atlantic, the loss of which could have led to a world in the hands of fascists. The survival of the island of Britain, which had to be supplied by sea, was vital to winning World War II. If you don’t think so, just imagine the logistical problems, had Britain been starved out and surrendered to the Nazis, of invading Fortress Europe from New Jersey.

Now Offley is back with The Burning Shore, a dramatic account of the portion of this world-changing battle that took place off our very shores. Perhaps the most dramatic incident took place June 15, 1942 when thousands of bathers enjoying the sun and sand on Virginia Beach were shocked to see two tankers go up in balls of fire, having set off magnetic mines laid by Kapitanleutnant Horst Degen’s U-701. In short order Navy warships unsuccessfully went after 701 with depth charges. Later that day Degen and his crew bagged a small Navy escort ship. The war had come to America.

As in Turning the Tide, Offley tells the story of this important part of the war not just with maps, graphs, statistics, and Big Picture analysis courtesy of generals and admirals, but also through the personal experiences of those of far lower rank who met each other, up-close and very personal, on the front lines. The gospel according to those who actually did the fighting.

The personal story recounted in Burning is that between Degen and U.S. Army Air Forces Lieutenant, then Captain Harry J. Kane, a pilot who flew A-29 Hudson bombers in the anti-U-boat fight. Offley tells their stories from their backgrounds, through training, to their dramatic engagement. The relationship between these two is a story readers will not soon forget.

Offley is a clear and organized writer. His portrayal of events is free of the theorizing that mars the historical works of so many academics. There is no political agenda at work in this clear unfolding of momentous events, made the more immediate by the engaging personal narratives. I like my history straight. With both attention to detail and to story. This is how Ed Offley delivers it. The Burning Shore is well worth TAS readers’ time, and Turning the Tide is still available.
 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.