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Arts / Culture

World War II Off the Florida Coast

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Lucielle Salomon

It's hard for us to imagine having a hostile military presence sitting off the coast of Florida. While it may sound like something out of a spy novel, within the lifetimes of many Floridians this scenario was very real.

This is one the lessons contained in an exhibit called"Operation Drumbeat: Nazi Threat in the Gulf" now on display at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"It focuses on the part of World War II that people don't really think about and that was the war on this side of the Atlantic."

That's Rodney Kite-Powell, Curator of History at the Tampa History Center and he's talking about the period in American history from May 1942 to April 1943 when German subs terrorized gulf waters and regularly attacked US ships and civilians.

"It's really interesting to know just how many attacks there were on merchant shipping and merchant tankers during Operation Drumbeat. Just in that 12 month period there were close to 70 ships that were lost in the Gulf of Mexico accounting for about 700 sailors who lost their lives," says Powell.

But, it seems like not a lot of  people know about this episode in our history.

"And Americans, at the time, had an idea of what was going on, but they didn't, by any stretch, know the scale of that operation,"  Powell said.

As we talk we are standing next to a 30 foot full-size replica of a German mini sub- a "Seehund". It was built by local designers for the History Channel's new show "Museum Men" and it's now on display here at the Tampa Bay History Center.

This small submarine is intimidating enough with it's stark, dark gray exterior and torpedoes taking up about half the length of the boat. A view of the inner compartment reveals a cylindrical opening about 6 feet in diameter- just enough to fit two, non-claustrophobic men and their gear.

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Credit M. S. Butler
The interior of the mini-sub where German sailors worked in cramped conditions during World War II.

But, Powell tells us the U-boats the Germans trolled the gulf waters in were much larger.

"It's not the kind of U-boats we had over here, we had the full-size U-boats, which had a crew compliment of around 55 - 60 sailors."

"If you read some of the early accounts of those German sailors during Operation Drumbeat, and they'll tell you how unprepared the United States was for that kind of warfare."

These subs stalked Atlantic and gulf waters targeting ships they saw silhouetted against the coastal lights.

"People kept their lights on, on the coast there weren't blackouts really yet. And the merchant shipping really wasn't paying a lot of attention, at least early in that operation, to the possibility of a U-boat attack. And they had pretty easy pickings," Powell said.

Today, residents and tourists are drawn to Florida for our warm breezes and beautiful beaches. But, in these early days of World War II, Powell says the view from our sands was very different.

"That was certainly the case where people could stand on the beach in St. Augustine or Jacksonville or down in Jupiter and they would see burning tankers. They would see oil washing up on shore in tar balls and things like that."
 
Even though the gulf waters surrounding Tampa Bay were  too shallow for large scale submarine activity, these German U-boat patrols had an enormous impact here as well.

"There were ships that were damaged by U-boat attacks that were brought into the ship repair facilities that were here. And survivors of those attacks from the shipping were also brought here. So, there were a lot of connections between Operation Drumbeat and the Tampa Bay area," Powell said.

And just as World War II had a lasting effect across America, Powell says  it had a profound effect on the way we live today, throughout Florida and right here in Tampa Bay.

"World War II was one of the hallmark, watershed events in Florida history. MacDill Air Force Base opened just prior to the war, Drew Field was a major air base and became Tampa International Airport. Henderson Field was not utilized as an airport but it became a big portion of USF. So there are a lot of reminders of that conflict, and in the case of MacDill and Tampa International, huge economic engines that are still very important today.

"You had tens of thousands of people coming into Florida to train and to work. And, they liked what they saw, they liked this area."

Like many Floridians, for Powell these events hit close to home.

"Kind of, as a personal story, my grandfather, who grew up in Miami Beach, had polio. So he didn't go off to war, but he could ride a bike and he was part of the Civil Defense group during the war, and he was a sub watcher. He rode his bike up and down Miami Beach looking for submarines."

So the exhibit reminds us all, not just of the U-Boat threat in the gulf, but of the Americans who served, in all of their different ways.