Pirates, Spies, and Submarines (Part 1 of 2)


I have said it before but it is true, Florida (in the 1960s & 1970s) had to be the best place in the entire world for a small boy to grow up. We had it all; our own climate, culture, traditions, architecture, vocabulary, history, animals (including our cracker cattle, a breed of wild cattle descended from the cattle of conquistadors hundreds of years ago). But that’s not all; we had our own style of cowboys, known as crackers, because of the sound of the bullwhips they used to herd cattle in the dense pine forests. Our cowboys are not famous for fighting Indians; they fought alligators, poisonous snakes, bears, and panthers; and all of that before lunch just to get the herd to market. We also have the only Indian tribe that never signed a peace treaty with the United States government, led by the great Seminole war Chief Osceola (he led them in the Seminole Indian Wars of which a future president fought in). We had gangsters, John Dillinger used to hide out in Florida and Al Capone had his summer house there, not to mention the mobsters in Miami.

But wait, there is more. We had conquistadors who fought battles against European armies on our beaches (the same beaches crackers would herd cattle on hundreds of years later, and I would play on as a child). We have pirates and sunken treasure ships. The oldest masonry fort in the United States is in the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, St. Augustine. Castillo De San Marcos was built in 1672 – 95 by the Spanish using coquina, a building material made by nature from crushed sea shells and dug from under the beaches. We had cities attacked by pirates, and yes we had spies and submarines.

No, I am not talking about the submarine base that used to be in Key West. I am talking about German U-boats.

German U-boat, U-123, a type IXB submarine on its second war patrol against the United States and eighth overall war patrol, was cruising along Florida’s coast just off Ponte Verda Beach. Almost four months to the day after Hitler declared war on the United States, U-123 sank the tanker Gulfamerica. The evening of April 10, 1942 was a normal Florida spring evening. The United States was at war, but that war was being fought in Europe. That is until residents saw the sky light up with an explosion just off the beach. A crowd gathered and watched as the submarine surfaced, and then used its deck gun to attack the sinking tanker.

The submarine commander maneuvered his submarine between the beach and the stricken tanker, because he was concerned one of the shells from his deck gun would miss the tanker and kill civilians. This was a dangerous move for the submarine. By being between the tanker and the beach, the submarine was silhouetted against the burning tanker, and had no place to run if allied warships arrived on the scene. Unable to submerge or run, the submarine would have been a sitting duck for any warship.

It was this sinking which caused Governor Holland of Florida to order a blackout along Florida’s coasts to prevent merchant ships from being easily spotted by their silhouettes off Florida’s coasts. This was long before the United States took action about the bright lights of the East Coast cities. When action was finally taken, Admiral King the Chief of Naval Operations, did not order a blackout of the East Coast but instead ordered the lights dimmed. After the war it was discovered from the U-boat commanders, dimming the lights did little to prevent the merchant ships from being easily spotted by their silhouette.

Two months later on June 16, another German U-boat was on the beaches of Ponte Verda, only fifty yards from the shore. This time however, it was U-584, and her mission was different.

German U-boat, U-584, was a type VIIC U-boat commissioned August 21, 1941. It would be sunk sixteen months after its trip to Ponte Vedra Beach. On October 31, 1943, three Avenger aircraft from the escort carrier USS Card in the North Atlantic, dropped torpedoes on U-584 sinking it. During its career U-584 sank three merchant ships for 18,478 tons, one warship for 206 tons, and landed four spies on my favorite beach, Ponte Verda Beach.

The four were part of Operation Pastorius, a plan approved by Adolph Hitler to commit sabotage in the United States. Edward John Kerling, the leader of the four, had lived in the US for 11 years, working as a chauffeur for wealthy residents of New York City. The other three men had also lived and worked in the United States. Werner Thiel had been a toolmaker in Fort Meyers. Herman Neubauer had been wounded on the Russian front by artillery fire. Herbert Hans Haupt wanted to be a Luftwaffe pilot.

The four men made it ashore and buried a stash of weapons and United States currency. The four spies then made their way to a general store on Ponte Vedra Boulevard owned by Alice and Roy Landrum. Three of the men waited outside while one went in to ask about the bus to Jacksonville. Alice Landrum later said the man had no accent, and she thought they were laborers working on a nearby hotel that was under construction.

When the bus arrived an hour later, the men took passage to downtown Jacksonville where the four did some shopping before splitting up into two groups of two. Kerling and Neubauer checked into the Seminole Hotel. Haupt and Werner checked into the Mayflower Hotel. The next morning the two groups boarded trains, one headed for Cincinnati and the other for Chicago. All of the men were arrested before they could do any harm.

As a part of Operation Pastorius another group of four men had been landed by submarine on Long Island. But, two men in this group, fearing they could not succeed, turned themselves into the FBI. They were hoping for leniency by giving themselves up.

After the men were captured, Edward Kerling led the FBI to a spot in the Ponte Vedra Beach sand dunes, about four miles from the present day Ponte Vedra Inn. At this place, buried in water proof boxes, the FBI found a cache of weapons and money. Among the things the FBI found were: TNT shaped like laundry soap, what appeared to be pens that were really for starting fires, a watch that was in actuality a detonator for a bomb, four bombs that looked like coal, and large sums of cash. Altogether, the eight men had almost two hundred thousand dollars in cash (a very large sum of money, particularly for 1943).

President Roosevelt was afraid a civilian court would be too lenient with the men. So, for the first time since the assassination of President Lincoln, the eight civilians were given a military trial. Their lawyers filed motions to have the trial moved to civilian court, but the United States refused to review the case. This attitude would change sixty years later, when terrorists were tried in military courts during the War on Terror.

All of the men were convicted of spying and given a death sentence. However, President Roosevelt commuted the sentences of the two men who had turned themselves in, and cooperated with the FBI to catch the other six men and expose the plot. In 1948, President Truman would send these two men to West Germany.

On August 8, 1942, the six men were executed at 14 minute intervals, on the third floor of the District of Columbia’s jail, in the electric chair. The most men ever executed in such a short time.

Next week the pirate half of this series.

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