Seventy years ago, St Johns County became a part of World War II history when, on the night of April 10, 1942, a German U-123 submarine torpedoed the tanker Gulfamerica off the coast of Ponte Vedra Beach.
The resulting fiery explosion was clearly seen onshore and curious crowds gathered to view the ship’s destruction and looked on in shock as the German submarine surfaced and fired its deck gun at the tanker.
Again, in June 1942, Ponte Vedra Beach became the scene of a bizarre plot when four saboteurs came ashore from German submarine U-584. They buried boxes of explosives and other equipment in the dunes for future use. The men planned to bomb key railroads, bridges and factories that were producing goods for the war.
Over the first seven months of 1942, the Germans sank nearly 400 vessels, including more than thirty-five ships off Florida.
At the outbreak of World War II, the navy Department had just a handful of ships and planes to defend the entire Atlantic coast. This small force proved inadequate to deal with the U-boat offensive launched against America.
In the June attack, the men boarded a bus for Jacksonville, before splitting into two groups that traveled to New York and Chicago. The agents were to join with four other saboteurs, who had landed on New York’s Long Island.
Fortunately, one of the New York band had misgivings about his mission and revealed the plot to the FBI. By June 27, all of the men had been apprehended.
Later, at trial, a military court found the eight Germans guilty of spying. Six of the spies, including all those who landed in Ponte Vedra Beach, were executed.
The lives of nineteen crewmembers aboard the Gulfamerica were lost that night; prompting Governor Spessard Holland to order the blackout of all lights along the beach that could be seen at sea and might silhouette passing ships.
By the fall of 1942 the number of ships being fired upon dramatically declined due to increased escort and anti-submarine patrols by ships and blimps of the US Navy and Coast Guard, as well as the Civil Air Patrol aircraft and private vessels.
The continued presence of U-boats in Florida waters was confirmed, however, by the shooting down of an American military blimp by a German submarine in waters off the Florida Keys in July 1943.
Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News contributed photograph by Museum of Florida Art