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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

WWII submarine attacks near New Orleans

LeMaistre remembers that forty-two ships were torpedoed in the mouth of the Mississippi River in one month in 1942. There was little by way of an effective defense in New Orleans, but depth charges eventually damaged an Italian submarine, the only one captured with countermeasures in the Gulf of Mexico. Attacks ceased after its capture.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Foots was in personnel and his boss was a man named Richard Rubottom. You may have known him in Texas; he was Dean of Men at Texas before the war.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I know that name, it's a Texas name.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
He was later Ambassador to Argentina.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Latin America?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yeah. And he was probably the most unpopular man that ever graced a naval uniform. I don't know why nobody liked Richard Rubottom. He had an unpleasant job. He had to tell these people where they had to go, and who wanted to enlist in the Navy and get sent to Cameron, Louisiana or something like that. So it was not easy. Then this work that I was talking about being so difficult really came about after we had gotten established, and the boarding procedures were pretty well underway, and everybody knew what information he was looking for, where were any strange or unusual concentrations of ships or anything of that sort. We began to build up quite a lot of information. Then in February we started having ships torpedoed at the mouth of the river.
ALLEN J. GOING:
in '42?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
'42. And as a matter of fact up until that time most of our commissions in our office had not yet come through. They had been issued but hadn't been signed by President Roosevelt or something. We were all working in civilian clothes. We were commissioned agents rather than officers. And I think I remember mine came in on February second or something like that. Then they put us in uniform. Well, we were a lot safer in civilian clothes to tell you the truth [laugh]. We then had the job as intelligence officers of bringing in the passengers and crews off torpedoed ships, and debriefing them before they were allowed to go anywhere else. We had to find out what they knew, what the submarine was like, whether it surfaced, if so, get a sketch of it and all that kind of stuff. And it sounds like a very simple job, and it would be if you had one ship torpedoed every month, but in the month of February we had 42 ships torpedoed in the mouth of the river. One of them the largest tanker in the world at that time, a seventy-five thousand ton French tanker. Another one was a troop transport called the Robert E. Lee, run by the U. S. Army. It was bringing 450 family members from Trinidad back to the mainland, because they were stationed with their people down there in Trinidad, and . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The people who were passengers on the Robert E. Lee were standing on the rail in the open—standing on the deck by the rail—and looking out and they saw the torpedo approaching the ship. They all cheered because it seemed to be going past the ship on the side about a hundred yards away. They could see the wake of the torpedo. They thought it was great. All of a sudden it turned and came back into the rear of the ship, and hit the ship dead astern right where the propellers were. Turns out it was a new type torpedo they were using that was set to follow the noise of a ship's screw. That was quite a new thing, and quite a startling thing, but the amazing thing was out of the 400 odd people on the ship, we managed to get all of them off without anyone being seriously injured or killed. The explosion of the torpedo usually killed one or two. This one, even though the ship sank rather quickly . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was in a convoy?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. It was running alone. Later on in interviewing the passengers we think we pinpointed where the information about the ship got out. The captain of the ship, when he left the light outside the port of Tampa, sent a signal to the base on shore with his signal light, "course is so many degrees north by west and speed so-and-so." And to anybody who intercepted that message they knew exactly where that ship would be the next day at a certain time if it maintained that course and speed. So the next day the submarine was at that point, and it came by and picked it off. But it was just one of those picked off. There were a number of them. The Alcoa Steamship Company, the Aluminum Company of America, lost several ships one of which was attacked by a submarine on the surface. It came up and started firing its canon instead of torpedoes. Another one of the Alcoa ships took three torpedoes and didn't sink.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Well they were not armed?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No not at that time. Some of them later on were armed, and most of the merchant ships were armed as quickly as they could get 'em, but we didn't have any gun crews trained. But there were training facilities and there was an armed guard training school at the Algiers naval base across the river from New Orleans. They were putting people on the merchant ships at that time. This was made even more difficult by the fact that we had no air cover. No planes. In those days the Army had an air force, the Navy had an air force, but there was no United States Air Force. The Army air force was not very heavily concentrated around New Orleans, because it was pretty well protected being way up at the head of the Gulf. So they didn't have any planes with any armament. They had a few observation planes and one or two squadrons of training planes. They were using Barksdale Field just to train them—potential pilots. But they were not armed with anything bigger than .50 caliber machine guns and 50-pound bombs that might blow a hole in the side wall. Right after the Robert E. Lee went down, the army sent some planes down there that were equipped with a magnetic detection device that could pick up metal objects on the surface of the Gulf. The effectiveness of those was sort of indirect; they didn't destroy the submarine, but they made them stay under water. They couldn't surface to recharge their batteries. In those days submarines had to come up at least every 24 to 36 hours for the purpose of recharging his batteries so it could run the next 20 hours under water. And by making them stay under water all the time, they became much less effective, they could not get on the surface and chase a ship or anything of that sort.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And that was in what year?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
That was in early '42 shortly after Pearl Harbor. Of course, the public had no inkling at that time of the extent of the damage at Pearl Harbor. No one was advised as to what that was like, and to this day, as far as I know, no one knows how much loss we suffered in the Gulf of Mexico. There has been very little publicity on those sinkings down there. We lost quite a few men down there. I remember several times going out and bringing in people off tankers and bringing bodies and live sailors, survivors too. Our job was not a rescue job; our job was to try to find out what was bringing this about—how they were able to do that and it was in that connection that we found out after about a week that this submarine that everybody thought was German was, in fact, Italian. It was a very good ship. Later it was depth charged by one of the old four-piper destroyers, I forgot which. The Dahlgren I believe it was. Duhlgren Hall in Annapolis is named for the same man that this ship was named for. And it was operating in water that was pretty shallow for the use of depth charges. As a matter of fact, when it blew out the submarine, it also blew out its own condensers and couldn't make any water for its boilers so it had to come in to port and get fixed up. As far as I know, that was the only submarine accounted for in counter measures in the Gulf. Now there may have been some, but there were not any more publicized.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That would be a good subject for some historian to get on.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes it would be.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Because I imagine with all the official reports and records—it may have been done in some thesis or other.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The submarine which had somehow managed to get into the Gulf, and it's not as hard as you might think. Today it would be pretty difficult for a submarine to get into the Gulf because we have better patrols. But entrance down there below Cuba is really not more than about a hundred miles wide anywhere along there. We do pretty well at policing it. But this submarine evidently was not instructed to pick any certain targets. It was just shooting at anything that it could get a fix on. As a matter of fact, about half the tankers that were sunk didn't have any cargo. I remember two or three of them didn't sink. The first one I went on in early February of '42 was a tanker bound from either Houston or Baytown, one of those places in Texas, to Mobile. It was going over for some repairs at the ship yard, Alabama Drydock. The submarine fired three torpedoes that hit the ship in the side and blew holes in it 20 to 35 to 40 feet in diameter, but the ship was in a number of water-tight compartments and it didn't sink. Those things would just fill with water but the rest of the ship was bouyant enough to hold it up. I remember we put our group on board to see what we could do with the ship. We had no tugs. We got a Coast Guard cutter to come close to it, got one line on board, but with that strong current of the Mississippi coming out into the Gulf there you couldn't control the ship with just one line pulling it along behind you. We tried to bring it into the river, but we never were able to get it straightened away where we could make it up stream. We had no tugs to help us so we had to beach it. We pulled it over on to the ground at the mouth of the river. That night another submarine came up on the surface and fired another [laugh] torpedo at it. That one missed and hit the jetty. It was amazing what they spent their torpedoes on. I think I told you about the Wanks, a little ship about 140 or 50 feet long of Honduran registry. It never brought anything into New Orleans that I know of except mahogany logs. The submarine that finally sank the Wanks missed it with one torpedo, hit it with another one that didn't sink it, and hit it with a third one that sank it. I would guess that the three torpedoes would be worth more than the ship.