SUBMARINE IN THE HARBOR
Before World War II, the small islands of Aruba and Curacao, located off the north coast of Venezuela, were virtually unknown outside the Caribbean Theater although both were extremely valuable to the Allied war effort. Two of the world's largest oil refineries were located on these islands. Standard Oil's Lago Refinery was on Aruba, and The Royal Dutch Shell was on Curacao. Together, they converted enormous quantities of Venezuelan crude oil into high octane aviation fuel that was desperately needed by the Allies in the early days of the war.
In January 1942, a large wolf pack of German submarines and their veteran crews converged on the two islands. Obviously, their mission was to stop crude oil from being refined, and petroleum products from being delivered to the Allies. These superbly trained and equipped crews enjoyed remarkable success for a few weeks. In early February, they attacked tankers carrying crude oil and sank most of them before they reached their refineries. Also, many northbound tankers carrying aviation fuel from refineries were lost before they crossed the Caribbean Sea. The total Allied loss was enormous.
By mid-February, the Allies established an effective daylight convoy system for lake tankers. Led by British corvettes and covered by aircraft, tankers were running a gauntlet daily with very few losses. The Caribbean Command planned to start similar convoys for northbound ships carrying aviation fuel when more modern naval vessels and radar equipped aircraft were available. Submarines had a natural advantage in these waters because strong, easterly trade winds blew constantly across the islands, and along the north coast of Venezuela. Averaging more than 30 miles per hour, winds kept the sea continuously disturbed with tossing waves, white caps, and wind-driven foam. These conditions made it almost impossible to see the wake of a periscope -- the only way our aircrews could spot a submarine.
Encouraged by their early successes, U-boat crews surfaced at night, entered harbors, and shelled airports and refineries with their deck guns. One crew attempted to torpedo the pontoon bridge that crossed the entrance to Schottegat Harbor on Curacao. Fortunately, the torpedo missed and exploded against a sea wall, shattering many windows and the morale of local residents. So far, the Allies were losing this local war.
Naval vessels used by the Allies to protect shipping consisted of a Dutch cruiser and four British corvettes. Air cover was provided by six A-20 and four B-18 type aircraft borrowed from U.S. Army Air Corps bases in Panama and Puerto Rico. None of the planes were fitted with radar, and their flight crews had very little experience in antisubmarine warfare. As if to highlight the inadequacy of this motley force, a Dutch Airline Station Master furnished the Allies a 1930 model, Fokker trimotor passenger plane and its crew to use for patrol duty. The pilot was a silver-haired Dutchman in his late fifties. His plane carried a two-man "kicker" crew and two 300 pound depth charges. When he gave a hand signal during a bomb run, one man pulled the safety pin from a depth charge, and his partner "kicked" the missile out a side door.
In late February 1942, I was the Copilot on a crew flying a B-18A bomber near the end of a six-hour patrol mission. We provided cover for a convoy of four lake tankers crossing the Caribbean Sea from Las Piedras, Venezuela, to tiny Oranjestad Harbor on the coast of Aruba. Their route crossed 50 miles of German U-boat infested waters. Lake tanker was a local term for a shallow draft vessel used to carry crude oil from Venezuela's vast Lake Maracaibo oil fields to refineries on the Dutch West Indies Islands of Aruba and Curacao.
Our fuel reserve was very low as the last tanker entered Oranjestad Harbor, so we landed without delay at Aruba's airport located next to the harbor's eastern shore. After parking the plane, our Pilot went to a meeting, and the rest of us took shelter in a windowless, adobe shed at the upwind end of the airport's dirt and gravel runway. Lunch was an unsavory meal of canned rations and tepid water. Constant, easterly winds gusted through the room and covered us and our food with gritty dust.
Our Crew Chief was hurriedly refueling the plane for another six-hour patrol that would protect northbound tankers carrying precious aviation fuel to the United States and Great Britain. We would take off when our Pilot, a tall Colonel from Texas, returned from his meeting. He was conferring with Dutch and U.S. Navy directors of the local antisubmarine operations for the Caribbean Command.
As we ate lunch in the adobe shack, our Bombardier glanced through the doorway toward the harbor. His eyes widened as he screamed, "SUBMARINE IN THE HARBOR!" I whirled around to see a slate gray submarine with a German insignia painted on its conning tower, surfaced near the downwind end of the runway. Crew members were scrambling down the forward ladder and running toward the deck gun. We did not know it then, but the crew had already fired one torpedo at a berthed tanker. The torpedo missed and skidded onto the beach without exploding. Ironically, it came to rest near the Harbor Master's Headquarters that housed the Allied antisubmarine operations office. Obviously, the submarine crew surfaced and intended to shell the tankers, and possibly the town, at point blank range.
I vaulted out the door yelling to my crew members, "Let's go!" They chased me to our parked plane. The Crew Chief, who was pumping gas from a refueling truck into the plane's fuel tanks, looked up in surprise. I pointed to the sub and shouted, "Move that truck, fasten the tank caps, and clear the props!" The Navigator followed me up the rear entrance ladder. Our Bombardier ducked under the bomb bay doors, pulled the four depth charge safety pins, then clambered through the forward hatch into his nose compartment.
As I reached the Pilot's seat and flipped the battery switches ON, the Navigator pulled the rear entrance ladder aboard and closed the door. He hurried forward, slipped into the Copilot's seat, grabbed and furiously pumped the wobble pump handle to build engine fuel pressure. I meshed the right engine starter as the fuel truck backed away. The plane's engine turned over slowly, and coughed reluctantly into a steady roar. Then I cranked the left engine, rushing it by pumping its throttle and mixture control. It responded immediately. Fortunately, both engines were still warm from the morning flight.
I called out, "Pilot to Bombardier. We will takeoff downwind. Get ready to open the bomb bay, then arm and salvo the depth charges when we reach the sub. You won't have much time. When you hear the gear start up, open the bomb bay doors." He replied, "Roger. The safety pins are pulled. I'll be ready. Fly straight at the sub, level off at 100 feet, and hold 130 miles per hour until I salvo the load."
As I released the brakes and gunned the right engine to turn onto the upwind end of the runway, the Navigator shouted to me, "Do you think we can get off with this much tailwind?" "Of course we can," was my answer. I aligned the plane on the runway and hurriedly instructed him how to retract the landing gear. "Don't worry," he replied, "I know how."
As I locked the tail wheel and started to apply takeoff power, I noticed a tall, khaki-clad man trotting through the swirling dust directly in front of the plane. Both his hands were waving wildly above his head. It was the Colonel.
I reduced the throttles to idle and locked the brakes. Our Pilot ducked under the left wing tip, opened the rear door, and scrambled aboard. The plane filled with dust. The Navigator moved from the Copilot's seat to his normal seat. As the Colonel reached the cockpit, his first words were, "Move over." I quickly slid across the aisle as I yelled, "Colonel, we should takeoff downwind to be sure we get that sub." Easing his long frame into the left seat, he turned to me and calmly said, "Lieutenant, this tailwind is too strong. We would never get off the ground. We'll taxi to the other end of the runway and takeoff into the wind. There is plenty of time."
He released the brakes and taxied at a normal speed directly toward the submarine, which was surfaced near the runway where we would start our take off run. When we were half way there, the U-boat looked very big, especially the deck gun. I called, "Copilot to Bombardier, start strafing the sub crew with your nose gun. Try to force them away from their gun." The Colonel cut in, "Disregard Bombardier, this is the Pilot. We will be turning in a moment, and you might hit a prop as we turn around." The Bombardier's subdued, "Roger, Sir," matched my disappointment.
By this time, we were within 400 feet of the submarine, and several members of its crew were climbing the forward ladder. Four men were adjusting the gun controls, glancing nervously in our direction. They were hatless, and had long beards and very pale faces. An officer, wearing a visored cap, stood in the conning tower, and was visible from his waist up. He ignored us while signaling to the gun crew with both hands.
Our Colonel turned the B-18A into the wind, thus pointing its tail directly toward the submarine. I locked the tail wheel and called out, "Ready for takeoff, Sir!" He glanced at me, set the brakes, and after advancing the right throttle, used normal procedures to check magnetos and prop control. I could barely conceal my anxiety to get rolling for takeoff. Here we sat, almost within pistol range of a surfaced German submarine, while the Colonel made routine engine checks.
After completing both engine runups, he released the brakes, waggled the flight controls, and calmly pushed the throttles forward. We rumbled down the runway, spreading a protective cloud of dust behind us. The dust relieved my fear that a five-inch shell might blow us to bits during our takeoff roll. At 85 miles per hour, we lifted off into a buffeting wind. The Colonel called, "Gear up!" I had already flipped the switch to the up position.
Our B-18A, normally slow to climb after takeoff, inched upward at 200 feet per minute. At 300 feet, the Colonel started a shallow turn to the right, wrestling the flight controls as our plane rocked and yawed in gusty winds. I looked back to see the submarine racing into the harbor channel. Its bow submerged as it began to crash dive for safety in deeper water. I called out, "Colonel, he's diving fast. We'll never get there in time unless you tighten the turn and level off." He did not reply. He just continued climbing in a shallow turn.
Our Bombardier called, "Pilot, I can see the sub's wake. Center the PDI (Pilot's Directional Indicator) and level off here. Hold 130 miles per hour and keep her level." The Colonel replied, "Roger." We had reached an altitude of 1,000 feet.
I could see the submarine's wake merging into seething waves at the channel's mouth at least half a mile from the release point. The Bombardier calmly called his release angles. When he opened the bomb bay doors, he called out, "Pilot, hold this heading, altitude, and speed." His voice did not have its customary tone of confidence. Then he said, "I have lost the wake so I'll try to estimate the release point. Stand by for bombs away." The B-18A lurched upward as 1,200 pounds of TNT were salvoed.
Our Pilot banked the plane in a steep left turn as concussion from the exploding charges rattled the plane. We looked down to see among the white caps and streaks of foam, four circles clustered in a neat line a few yards beyond the harbor entrance. Blue surface color indicated we had bombed in very deep water. In a few moments, the circles disappeared.
We circled the harbor entrance for almost an hour hoping to see an oil slick, air bubbles, or any other evidence that indicated the U-boat had been damaged. We saw nothing, so we reluctantly headed north for our afternoon patrol.
As I recalled the astonishing events we had just experienced, I wondered: Could I have safely made a downwind takeoff? Would the Bombardier have had enough time to open the bomb bay doors, aim his sight, and salvo the charges? Would the exploding charges crack the hull of the fully surfaced submarine? Did the Colonel save our lives by reversing my decision to takeoff downwind? Finally, was the submarine damaged by our charges as it dived into deep water?
These questions were never answered. Later, we consoled each other with the knowledge that we did prevent the daring submarine crew from shelling tankers and the town of Oranjestad.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *