THE HUNDRED MILE LIMIT
Early in World War II, while Germany's awesome war machine was gobbling up Europe, a small war waged in the U.S. War Department. Finally, the Secretary of the U.S. Navy was persuaded by his staff officers to restrict military land based planes from flying more than 100 miles from land. The restriction gave the Navy control over U.S. military forces operating over all oceans of the world. The Army Air Corps had many B-17 Flying Fortresses that could fly more than 3,000 miles nonstop, so the restriction limited the use of this potent offensive weapon system. Army Air Corps leaders who opposed the restriction were promptly quieted by their Army seniors who did not want the upstart Air Corps flying over water. This preposterous restriction lasted until Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II.
The same Naval Officers responsible for the restriction, opposed adopting the British ship convoy system perfected at a bloody price of merchant seamen on the North Atlantic sea-lanes. In January 1942, Germany unleashed deadly wolf packs of submarines on Allied shipping along our east coast, in the Caribbean, and in the Gulf of Mexico. American merchant ships were still sailing alone, completely unprotected from U-boat attacks. Overnight, Allied losses increased until our coastal beaches were bathed in oil from tankers that were priority targets of the submarines. Shore dwellers could see ships being sunk off our east coast. One historian stated the carnage was like "A pack of wolves in a flock of sheep." The 100-mile restriction was rescinded during the week following Pearl Harbor, but opposition to the ship convoy system continued until June 1942.
The 40th Bomb Group was the first Army Air Corps unit placed under the operational control of the U.S. Navy. We were stationed at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, flying a dozen outmoded B-18 type medium bombers. Our planes were not equipped with radar, and our crews were not trained in antisubmarine warfare. Most of us had never seen a depth charge, nor been aboard a submarine. The Navy did not want us as members of their team, and we soon formed an opinion why: U.S. Navy Commanders did not know how to fight the superbly trained and equipped German U-boats crews any better than we did. Our first order was to fly daily patrols to prevent the French warships anchored in Fort-de-France harbor on Martinique, from sailing to join the German navy. This we did for several weeks.
In February 1942, the real war came to the Caribbean Sea. Several U-boats concentrated on the unprotected tankers carrying Venezuelan crude oil to the great refineries on the Dutch Islands of Aruba and Curacao. The 40th was directed to send four B-18A planes to Curacao to protect ships that were moving oil from Venezuela to refineries on Aruba and Curacao. As we approached Curacao, we could see oil slicks and two burning tankers near the entrance to the Curacao harbor. After we landed, a U.S. Navy officer briefed us on the patrol missions we were to fly starting that afternoon. First, we had to fly to Aruba to obtain depth charges and fuses.
Our first patrol of almost five hours was one I shall never forget. We could not see a submarine's periscope wake simply because the east trade winds of more than 25 knots roiled the surface with giant waves and foam. Before we landed at dusk, our crew had seen several more burning tankers, but no evidence of a German submarine. We continued to fly two patrols daily using the same take off time, route, and cruising altitude for each mission. By the third day, no one had seen a German submarine. We did see evidence that lake tankers had been sunk near Lake Maracaibo, the origin of most of the oil. Something was dreadfully wrong and changes were needed. Consequently, we voiced our views to our Navy boss, but he did not know how to solve the problem.
Fortunately, the Allied forces based on Curacao included an experienced Dutch officer who commanded a light cruiser, and the skippers of a few Canadian Navy corvettes. All of them had experience protecting North Atlantic convoys. During the fourth day, our forces formed a two-way convoy system from Lake Maracaibo to Aruba and Curacao. Corvettes led each convoy while B-18As provided air cover. Attacks on the lake tankers stopped for those sailing during daylight, but occasionally, a lake tanker Captain sailed at night. His ship was sunk before it left the harbor entrance. The word soon got around "Sail in a protected convoy or risk certain death." By the first of March 1942, all tankers were moving in daylight convoys and the sinking of lake tankers dropped to zero.
This was not true of ocean going tankers sailing alone at night from Aruba and Curacao delivering much needed fuel to Allied ports. Our planes did not have sufficient range to escort a tanker completely across the Caribbean. The submarines stationed themselves along the sea-lanes, beyond B-18A range, and picked off the tankers as they passed by. In March, April, and May 1942, the U-boats destroyed most of the ocean going vessels that departed Aruba and Curacao. Despite our repeated recommendations for a convoy system, the U.S. Navy delayed setting up such a system until early June 1942. One U.S. Admiral advised the British in March 1942 that "A convoy with an inadequate escort is worse than no convoy." We thought the Admiral was wrong. Proof: Witness what our amateur efforts with navy corvettes and four obsolete B-18A planes did in February while protecting lake tankers around Aruba and Curacao. Eventually, our convoy system was adopted, but with better naval vessels, and with lon g range aircraft equipped with submarine detection gear and flown by trained aircrews.
The men of the 40th Bomb Group were proud of the antisubmarine convoy system they helped establish. In early June 1942, we moved by troop transport from Puerto Rico to Panama. Our Commander, Colonel Ivan Palmer, had been pilot on a B-18A crew sent to Curacao in February. He prevailed on the U.S. Navy to provide an escort of two U.S. destroyers and two Canadian corvettes to protect our transport and the three freighters traveling with us.
Although our convoy was tracked by U-boats, and attacked in broad daylight, all ships reached Panama safely. After World War II, we learned that ours was the first convoy to cross the Caribbean Sea without a loss. Later in 1942, the same type convoy system was used by all shipping in the Caribbean Theater. Soon, the German U-boats moved to sea-lanes in the South Atlantic where shipping was not protected by aircraft and escort vessels.
Special recognition should be accorded the civilian tanker crews who sailed alone and defenseless through Caribbean waters in early 1942. Their unflinching courage in the face of staggering odds equaled that of any military unit in combat. The valiant seamen who died at sea, without the medals and fanfare accorded military heroes, deserve recognition for their courage and sacrifices. They should receive the same honor as decorated heroes in famous military campaigns.
Credit should be given to the U.S. Navy Admirals who adopted the British convoy system in late 1942. Using a combination of escort vessels, long range bombers, and small aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy provided almost complete protection for Allied ships in the Atlantic. To those of us who flew B-18 type aircraft in 1942, we believe hundreds of ships were sunk because our country did not adopt the British convoy system sooner.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *