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Texas' close call with WWII Nazis

Wednesday 16 Jul 2014 12:34 p.m.

An underwater video crew has provided a chilling look at just how close German submarines got to the United States during World War II.

On the floor of the Gulf of Mexico sits a Nazi ship of ghosts, a sunken U-boat whose 52 crewmen died under more than a kilometre of water just south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It's one of the largely unknown stories of Nazi progress in the 1940s.

Depth charges dropped by a Coast Guard escort vessel blasted U-166 apart shortly after it had sunk the SS Robert E. Lee, a freighter that was bound for New Orleans when it was struck by a torpedo late one night in July 1942. Among the 25 dead was a passenger who had survived another U-boat attack.

Over the last few days, the ghostly remnants of both doomed ships have been visited and extensively photographed by a crew of underwater explorers led by Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic.

The story of how close World War II came to the shores of Texas is one most Americans never knew about.

There is a very good reason for that, says shipwreck diver Richie Kohler.

“The United States government didn’t want us to know.  They didn’t want us to know how Germany was taking us to task, how successful these U-boats were.”

Nazi propaganda films trumpeted Hitler’s U-boats, which were sinking thousands of Allied ships mainly in the north Atlantic.

Nazi naval commanders also dispatched 22 U-boats to prowl the Gulf of Mexico, including the Texas coastline.

"Hitler brought the war to our doorstep shortly after they declared war on us," explains Ballard. "So this was something that most American people do not realise: how close the war came and how threatening it was. They were extremely successful.” 

Historians say U-Boats sank at least 50 American ships in the Gulf, including one in the very mouth of the Mississippi River. The Americans only managed to sink one U-boat.

"It is a static time capsule," says Kohler.  "And all of these shipwrecks in deep water are just that.  They’re moments frozen in time, in history.”

And they’re a ghostly reminder of a time when Hitler’s navy came startlingly close to the shores of Texas.

Underwater video courtesy of the Ocean Explorer Trust.

CBS

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