On the 75th Anniversary of the end of WWII, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum‘s team of maritime archeologists, known as the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), led an expedition to the wreck of the SS Gulfamerica. The sonar mapping images they made will be shared in a new exhibition, funded by a Small Matching Grant by the State of Florida Division of Historical Resources, scheduled for a soft opening in late July 2020.
Entitled, Guardians of the First Coast: Building Readiness for WWII, the exhibit tells a local WWII story as America entered the conflict, and enemy U-boats attacked our coastline. Right up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American public overwhelmingly wanted to stay away from war. And as war came, readiness was frankly lacking. Every man, woman and child sacrificed and worked together to prepare. The enemy however, was more than ready. An attack was launched on the US shipping lanes along the East Coast just days after Pearl Harbor. Our exhibit focuses on what the Nazis called the “American hunting season.” We explain the blackout of all lights three miles inland because of U-boat attacks, and how a series of coastal assaults were kept secret from most Americans.” said Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of the Museum. “The sinking of the SS Gulfamerica is at the center of this incredible story.”
The SS Gulfamerica was a large oil tanker, initially built-in 1942 by the Bethlehem Steel Company at the Sparrow Point shipyard in Maryland. On her maiden voyage, loaded with 90,000 barrels of furnace oil, the vessel was struck by a torpedo just off of Jacksonville Beach by the German submarine, U-123.
Nazi Germany’s campaign to use U-boats to sink Allied shipping, and America’s and Britain’s counter-offensive to protect their convoys and destroy as many U-boats as possible, is known as the Battle of the Atlantic. In early 1942, a phase of this battle known to the Germans as Operation Drumbeat began. Submarine U-123 was captained by Reinhardt Hardegen, a bold commander who patrolled the Florida coast and even brazenly took his submarine into the St. Johns River to spy on the Mayport Navy Base. The U-123 came within visual distance of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, close enough to see swimmers on the beach and to listen to WFOY, the local radio station. On the night of April 10, 1942, the U-123 spotted the Gulfamerica off St. Augustine as she cruised northwards. The German submarine stalked her prey past Ponte Vedra until the hunt ended off Jacksonville Beach when shortly after 10 pm, a torpedo was fired and scored a direct hit.
Only four miles off the beach, the Gulfamerica burst into flames with a fireball rising 500 feet into the air. The explosion lit up the beach, crowded with visitors and locals enjoying the bars, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and the first annual Fireman’s Ball being held on the pier. The Friday night crowd stared in horror as the Nazi submarine could be seen silhouetted against the foundering tanker’s inferno firing shells. Within five minutes, a group of PBY-3 planes from NAS Jax were lighting the sky with flares, which didn’t help find the retreating submarine but did aid in the rescue attempt. Naval vessels from Mayport Navy Base picked up 29 out of the 41 naval and civilian crewmen who survived the ordeal of flaming waters. The destroyer USS Dahlgren raced to the area and dropped depth charges, damaging but not destroying the submerged submarine. But U-123 eventually made its silent escape.
The burning hulk of the SS Gulfamerica floated for six days before finally slipping beneath the waves, around 11 miles off Jacksonville Beach. Seventy-eight years later, St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum expedition is the first-time professional archaeologists have ever investigated this sunken shipwreck. “Our first goal is to confirm the wreck’s identity as that of Gulfamerica,” says Chuck Meide, Director of LAMP. “There is some confusion as to its identity. Two different wreck sites that have been known for years by local divers are both called Gulfamerica.” During their first visit on June 26, the team used a technology called side-scan sonar to map the wreck remains. “The side-scan sonar acts as our underwater eyes,” says LAMP’s Diving Safety Officer and sonar technician Austin Burkhard. “It produces an image of the seafloor, almost like an aerial photo, using sound waves.”
After their first day of investigation, the archaeologists have a better understanding of the wreckage. Sonar images show large sections of steel debris that seem to correspond to features visible in the only known historic photograph of the ship taken after the attack. But more research, on both land and sea, is needed. “We know some key dimensions of the Gulfamerica, which was 445 feet long and registered as 8,081 tons,” says Burkhard, “but we are still searching the archives for blueprints, which will help us to confirm its identity when we begin diving operations.” LAMP archaeologists are planning several more trips to the wreck site. Below is a side-scan image of a piece of what LAMP archaeologists believe to be the bow of the Gulfamerica.
The exhibition will be included with Museum admission, and will be free to all Museum members. Partners in telling the local WWII story include the Questers Chapter of Ponte Vedra, the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center of St. Augustine, and the Smithsonian Institution of which the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is the local affiliate.
For more information, or to support the Museum and its LAMP research team please visit www.staugustinelighthoues.org.