The United States and its Allies suffered tremendous losses during the 1942 battle with German submarines in the Caribbean Sea. From mid-February into December, Nazi U-boats sank 326 Allied ships in the Caribbean Theater. These appalling losses totaled 1,400,000 tons of petroleum products. Worst of all, most of the tankers were carrying aviation fuel to Egypt, who was being threatened by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox. Great Britain, facing a German invasion fleet, also needed much fuel. If the Allies were to survive battles with these foes, they must receive huge amounts of gasoline.
The 40th Bomb Group flew Douglas B-18 type aircraft on antisubmarine patrol missions from air bases in Puerto Rico, Antigua, Aruba, Curacao, and Panama. Since the slow, twin engine planes were not equipped with radar, they were not an even match against the veteran U-boat crews fresh from sea battles on North Atlantic convoy routes. Operating virtually unchecked, the submarines sank most of the ships they intercepted. When more successful Allied convoy systems and routes were established in 1942, the U-boat fleet moved from the Trinidad, Aruba, and Curacao areas, to other approaches to the Panama Canal.
On 22 August 1942, a 45th Bomb Squadron B-18 being flown by Captain P.A. Koenig, Bombardier William Lessin and crew, came upon German submarine number U-654 some 150 miles north of Colon, Panama. The submarine was submerged to conning tower depth, so the crew made a bomb run on their target, and dropped all four of the plane's 600 pound depth charges on or near it. The U-boat crash dived while trailing an oil slick and a considerable amount of debris. Captain Koenig radioed for assistance since he had no more depth charges. Soon, five other bomb crews responded and began dropping their bombs on the submarine's trail of oil, debris, and bubbles. The five planes were piloted by Captains Eddie Glass and Robert Moss, and by 1st Lieutenants Marvin Goodwyn, Ira Matthews (the author), and C.A. Woosey. Additional planes responded, and by nightfall, 48 depth charges had been dropped on the luckless submarine. Despite the claims of the aircrews, the Theater Naval Commander declined to confirm t he sinking of U-654.
In 1964, the United States Army published a military history of World War II entitled Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. It contained these words: "---on 22 August 1942 the air forces chalked up their first score. The victim was U-654, caught and sunk off Colon by planes of the 45th Bombardment Squadron." The West German Navy confirmed that U-654 was lost with all hands aboard near Panama on 22 August 1942.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *