Excerpt from The Hemingway Patrols

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The Enemy in the Machine, by Terry Mort (continued)

Pilar was more suited to chasing fish than U-boats but then, every boat serves the intent of her skipper. Here, Hemingway readies the flying bridge.

Ernest Hemingway on Pilar

The three men in the Gertrude’s lifeboat drifted for three days and finally made landfall in Key West, Florida. They were lucky. But what of Kuhlmann and U166? So far the patrol had hardly been a success. Just one decent-size vessel torpedoed, and now he had sunk a boat with his wife’s name on the transom. It was hard to convince himself that this was a good omen; quite the contrary, it was unsettling. He probably told himself that when he got back to Germany on leave, the two of them would have a good laugh about it, and she would tease him and tell him it was somehow Freudian. But that day was far away; for now he was in enemy waters.

For two weeks Kuhlmann could not find another target that was practicable. No doubt during that time he saw many potential targets in the crowded sea-lanes of the Gulf, but none offered a realistic chance of success, either because of their distance or speed or, possibly, their convoy protection. But on July 30 his radioman intercepted a message from a U.S. patrol ship (PC566) advising the commander of the Gulf Sea Frontier (headquarters for the Gulf Naval Command) that the ship it was escorting, the Robert E. Lee, which had been bound for Tampa, was changing course and heading for New Orleans, because no pilot was available to bring the ship into Tampa.5

This was more like it. The Robert E. Lee was a passenger liner, 375 feet long and 5,184 tons. She was carrying a crew of 141, en route from Trinidad to the United States. On board also were 270 passengers, many of them American construction workers and their families; others were shipwrecked victims of earlier U-boat attacks in the Caribbean. The ship had come in convoy as far as Key West, but the convoy then dispersed and the Robert E. Lee and her escort went on alone. 

After intercepting the message, Kuhlmann easily located the Robert E. Lee. He made his approach submerged. Through the periscope he could see the elderly ship, painted navy haze-gray in a pitiful effort to camouflage the ship against precisely the danger that it was now unknowingly facing. Kuhlmann could also see PC566, a Navy patrol craft 178 feet long with a three-inch gun forward, a 40 mm aft, and two 20 mm mounted near the bridge. She also carried depth charges, which could be rolled off the stern and fired off both sides of the ship. It was not the most formidable of adversaries but still nothing to tangle with unnecessarily, so Kuhlmann decided to stay submerged to attack the Robert E. Lee. He probably considered trying for the patrol boat first, which would then allow him to surface and sink the Robert E. Lee at his leisure, but he decided against it. Maybe the position of PC566 made the shot difficult, so that, if Kuhlmann fired and missed, he would give away his position before he had a chance to sink the liner. Better to take the sure thing.

It only took one torpedo. The explosion occurred in the number three hold, then blasted up through two decks, knocked the engines out of commission, and started a fatal list. Water came rushing in through the hole in the hull and open portholes, and passengers and crew alike started jumping overboard, while other crew members lowered six lifeboats and threw life rafts into the sea, which luckily was calm that day. In minutes the sea was covered with swimmers and rafts and lifeboats and debris, while the Robert E. Lee began to settle by the stern. Soon her bow was pointed toward the sky as she slipped downward and disappeared into five thousand feet of water.

A lookout on PC566 spotted Kuhlmann’s periscope, and the little ship turned and started a depth-charge run, much to the amazement and distress of the people in the water, for the exploding depth charges were as lethal to them, perhaps more so, than to the enemy U-boat. As the Lee’s captain said afterward, “We paddled around looking for anyone alive in the water. Those we reached were dead, either from the concussion of the depth charges or having their necks broken by jumping into the water with a cork lifejacket on. Then the sharks came and took over. 6

Meanwhile, having dived deeper into the Gulf, Kuhlmann and his crew listened as the depth charges exploded around them and held on as the explosions rocked their boat, throwing some of them to the unyielding deck or against the hard corners of the lockers, dimming the lights and perhaps starting leaks at weak points in the pressure hull, and all the while Kuhlmann was remembering that this was the moment when his men would be watching him for signals that would help them manage their fear, even as he struggled to control his own emotions, perhaps silently reciting technical information to keep his mind fixed on something. He knew that water transmitted pressure much more intensely than air, and if an intense pressure wave hit a submerged boat, it would tear it apart at the seams. The depth charges did not have to land on the boat; if they exploded anywhere within 350 feet, the damage would be lethal. Depth charges dropped from a warship weighed about five hundred pounds and came in patterns, so that the U-boat was straddled and could only rely on guile and the steadiness of the crew and the strength of the boat’s construction to survive.

As the depth charges kept coming, despite Kuhlmann’s maneuvers—changes in the U-boat’s depth and course—it became harder and harder not to let the fear and doubt overwhelm him. He and his men were trapped in their machine.

Is it stretching a metaphor too far to suggest that the fight between PC566 and U166 was like the fight between the Old Man and his great fish? Perhaps. But Hemingway would probably have thought the metaphor was apt. After all, he called the U-boats “tin fish.” In The Old Man and the Sea he made at least one direct comparison: “The fish’s eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope.”7 Certainly parallels exist between the two fights. In both cases the drama was between the hunters and the hunted, who were tethered together—the one by fishing line, the other by sonar. The nervous, sweating men in the U-boat could hear the electronic signal from the patrol craft pinging off their pressure hull, a sure indication that they were caught, that the depth charges would continue to follow them, that their captain’s desperate maneuvers were not working. The hunters in both cases wished the death of their quarry; the frantic quarry wished primarily to escape. It’s hard to say whether the sailors aboard the hunter felt the same degree of sympathy for the enemy they were trying to kill—the same degree, that is, that the Old Man felt for his great fish. Most likely some did; others did not. There is generally less hatred among sailors at war since both sides are facing what seems to be a mirror image of themselves—a ship at sea manned by mostly unseen men like themselves and facing the same intrinsic perils of seafaring. Somehow it is different from warfare on land. (When the Bismarck sank HMS Hood, the initial reaction among the German sailors was shock, not jubilation.)


1 World War II U.S. submarines were all named after fish: Dace, Cudgeoll, etc.
2 Morison, Samuel Eliot The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939 – 1943 (Castle Books, 2001), p. 10
3 PAST Foundation, U166 Web site
4 Moorehead, Caroline, Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (Henry Holt, 2003), p. 322
5 A pilot is a local contractor who brings ships in and out of a particular port; even Navy ships in foreign ports will use pilots, much to the nervous apprehension of captains and officers of the deck, who reluctantly turn over the handling of their ship to a local civilian mariner.
6 Wiggins, Melanie, Torpedoes in the Gulf (Texas A&M University Press, 1995) p. 140
7 Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea, page 107
8 At least three U-boats were captured during the war, two by the British and one by the U.S. carrier Guadalcanal and escorts.
9 From the start of the war in 1939 till its end, 766 German U-boats were sunk. [Uboat.net]

The transformation from something to nothingness is stunning even to the hunters whose object it was. Of course, that sentiment applies more to the battle between surface ships; the contest between the hunter patrol craft and his unseen U-boat quarry is more clinical—almost abstract. Nor does any potential sympathy for a trapped and doomed enemy lessen the hunters’ desire for victory. But perhaps many if not all of the sailors aboard PC566 would have preferred to capture the U-boat than to sink her. Capture was a more unusual event, and it was difficult in many cases to be sure of a kill, for a stricken U-boat might limp away undetected, leaving behind a trace of fuel oil as a tease, so that a frustrated PC commander could only report a “probable.”8

So it was in this case. PC566 finished her depth-charge patterns, then turned to survey the surface for clues, to listen to the sonar for contact. But nothing was seen or heard. No debris was on the surface of the water, other than the debris, human and otherwise, left behind by the Robert E. Lee, and no return ping came to the sonar’s searching signal. Kuhlmann and his crew had escaped, it seemed. So PC566 returned to see what could be done about the survivors of the Lee.

But Kuhlmann and U166 had not escaped. The last pattern of depth charges tore apart the bow of the U-boat, and she sank with all hands into a mile of water and came to rest on the bottom, where she lay undiscovered until 2002, when an oil-exploration device stumbled across her. There she lies still, and video images confirm the manner of her death. We are left to wonder what the last few moments aboard U166 were like. Did Kuhlmann maintain his facade of sangfroid or ironic humor or whatever pose he had decided on till collapsing bulkheads and the inrushing Niagara of water made further demonstrations impossible? At what point did the hideous realization of imminent death by drowning overtake him and render all human poses irrelevant and absurd? Perhaps only a few seconds passed between self-control and oblivion. Any sailor would wish it so. All true hunters want a clean kill.9

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