December 14, 2007

Beaches Played Role in World War II History A Noted Historian Details a German U-Boat Attack Off Jacksonville Beach Coast.


Horrified Jacksonville Beach tourists witness fiery explosions out at sea.

A German U-boat steams south along the Beaches coast to elude capture by the U.S. Navy.

After rowing ashore, four Nazi agents creep along a dark beach in Ponte Vedra Beach and bury boxes of explosives in the sand.

History buffs packed the Beaches Museum and History Center Thursday night to hear University of Florida history professor Michael Gannon tell tales of World War II activities at the Beaches.

Gannon's visit the evening before the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was part of the museum's program "Tracking Florida History: Lectures on the First Coast," funded by the Florida Humanities Council. The project is running in conjunction with current temporary exhibitions on Florida in World War II, which will continue through Saturday, Jan. 12.

Gannon's hourlong talk "was wonderful," said Connie Heffern of Jacksonville.

Heffern said despite living in Jacksonville for 60 years, she'd never heard until recently of the April 10, 1942, Nazi U-boat attack on the Gulf Oil tanker S.S. Gulfamerica off Jacksonville Beach.

Gannon, author of several Florida history books, described the destruction of the Gulfamerica, which was one of hundreds of tankers and freighters to be destroyed by German U-boats off the east coast of the United States.

He told how the U-boat, led by German commander Reinhard Hardgen, escaped by steaming south toward St. Augustine and then across the ocean to France.

And he talked about how two months later, in June 1942, four German spies planned to blow up power plants, water works and bridges in the United States with supplies they'd buried on the beach.

The U.S. Navy underestimated the capacity of German U-boats to destroy ships along the east coast, Gannon said. In the beginning of the war, because "they didn't have any plans for a blackout, or even a dim out," the Germans "picked off precious cargo and supplies that were needed by the military force" and left "the hulks of 397 Allied ships and the bones of 5,000 souls," including those of seamen from around the world, on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, he said.

Gannon, who was named in 2000 by the Gainesville Sun as "one of the most notable citizens of Gainesville," has gathered awards through a long career.

The Florida Historical Society awarded him the first Arthur W. Thompson Prize in Florida History and the king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, conferred on him the Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica.

Gannon, whose book about the U-boats, called Operation Drumbeat, was a national best-seller in 1990, said he researched shooting reports in Germany for detailed facts.

The Gulfamerica was hit at 10:20 p.m. directly off the Jacksonville Beach boardwalk, where tourists poured out of hotels, scrambled off rides and ran out of dance halls to witness the blast that "illuminated the beach as brilliantly as if it was noon," Gannon said.

After the U-boat, with the ability to travel on the surface and underwater, turned south, it was chased by a Navy destroyer but escaped capture.

Gannon said he later met German commander Hardgen and did a book tour with him in 1990.

The Germans were surprised the Navy destroyer didn't hit them, said Gannon, who, after interviewing Hardgen, described how the beaches of St. Augustine looked from the Germans' point of view.

The German agents' project, called Operation Pastorius, really was "a non event," Gannon said.

The men were captured, forced to dig up and hand over the explosives and later executed.

They were "bungling" German operatives who "screwed up and got caught," Gannon said.

Museum Executive Director Holly Beasley said they were honored to have Gannon as a speaker for the popular event, which was free of charge.

Some of his books are for sale at the museum in Pablo Historical Park at Beach Boulevard and Fourth Street North.

"His talk was important," said Catherine Krueger of Jacksonville Beach.

"He's an excellent speaker."

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