By Alex Wilkerson for City of Orange Beach
Did you know that there were German submarines in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico during World War II and several American ships were sunk in the Gulf?
During World War II, the people living on the coast in Orange Beach were required to keep blackout curtains and turn off all outdoor lights after a curfew. This was an effort to prevent the German U-boats from identifying the shore, and to prevent bombers from seeing the shores in the event of an attack. To some civilians these precautions may have seemed somewhat extreme, but it turns out the fears of German attacks were warranted.
The S.S. Robert E. Lee was a passenger ship carrying 283 people, most were survivors of other torpedoed ships. The vessel was making its way from Trinidad to New Orleans. On July 30, 1942 while 25 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, the ship was hit with a torpedo from the German U-boat U-166. The ship sank in 15 minutes. While most of the passengers made it to the lifeboats, 25 died in the attack.
U-166 was hit by a depth charge dropped by Lee’s security boat the USS PC-566. All 52 crew members were killed.
U-boat is an anglicised version of the German word U-Boot, a shortening of Unterseeboot, literally "undersea boat.”
Nolan C. Callaway, son of Orange Beach charter fishing Captain Herman H. Callaway, said his father found remnants of the ship in the Gulf while fishing in 1942. Two lifeboat oars were floating in the Gulf, they were marked with the name of their ship, the S.S. Robert E. Lee. Herman kept the oars in the ship for several years, even using them to paddle back into the pass once when their boat’s engines failed. After his father’s death, Nolan took possession of one oar, and his brother Clifford took the other.
Nolan Callaway also remembered two other boats that were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, a Russian ship sunk off of Pensacola and the S.S. Blackpoint sunk off the coast of Mobile. Nolan’s brother Clifford and cousin Ray Callaway had both served on the Blackpoint, but both were in the Marine hospital in Mobile when the ship sank. There was only one survivor of the Blackpoint sinking.
It was reported that upwards of two dozen U-boats were in the Gulf during the war. A Coast Guard boat was stationed at Perdido Pass and would check the IDs of fisherman entering and exiting the Gulf of Mexico.
There was also a time when Herman and Nolan Callaway found a partially burned raft in the Gulf with a locker full of food.
Learn more about Orange Beach during WWII at the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum, located at 25850 John M. Snook Drive, across from Orange Beach City Hall.
The museum is open Tuesday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 251-981-8545 or visit www.orangebeachal.gov/facilities/indian-sea-museum/about.