By Scott A. Grant
On April 10, 1942, a US oil tanker, the SS Gulfamerica, was cruising north along the Florida coast on her maiden voyage. She was en route from Port Arthur, Texas to New York City laden with 90,000 barrels of heating oil. She sailed past Jacksonville Beach just before 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night. The beach was lit up like any other Friday night. People were riding the roller coaster, merry go round, and Ferris wheel. Some were dancing on the pier to the music of the Rusty Allen Orchestra.
No doubt, some of the seaman on the merchant ship looked out wistfully to the well-lit beach and imagined they were dancing on the pier or one of the rooftops or just walking down the boardwalk arm-in-arm with a pretty girl. They had no idea they were being hunted. For the past 45 minutes, a German U-Boat, the U-123, had been chasing the ship up the coast. As she drew abreast of the city, the commander of the Nazi submarine, who was already famous in Germany and about to become more so, made a fateful decision. He would launch one of his last torpedoes at a desperate angle in an attempt to bring down the ship in front of the crowded beach.
At the extreme range the torpedo took four minutes to find its target, but when it did it created a huge explosion that rattled windows on shore and could be seen up and down the coast for miles. Everyone ran to the boardwalk to see what had happened. At first, people on shore thought it was an accident of some sort. The idea that a Nazi submarine had come this close to our coast was incomprehensible. Aboard the ship, they knew what had happened and they knew they were sinking. The Gulfamerica listed hard to starboard and began to go down by the stern. The crew began an orderly effort to abandon ship.
At this point, the commander, Reinhard Hardegen, did something that has created controversy ever since. He took his boat to the landward side of the stricken tanker so that everyone on shore could see the outline of his sub as he shelled the Gulfamerica with his 10.5 cm deck gun a dozen times. Simultaneously, they opened up with their machine gun to take out Gulfamerica’s radio antenna so she could not send a distress signal.
What had started as an orderly effort to abandon ship now devolved into utter chaos. Men jumped off the ship into the burning water. Lifeboat No. 2 capsized. Everyone on the ship was in a panic. Many thought the Germans were trying to kill them. On shore, the tourists and locals watched in horror. Rescue efforts would take several hours to make their way out to the sinking ship. Nineteen brave Americans died in the attack.
Eighteen died that night. One survived for more than 30 hours before finally succumbing to his wounds. They say that when they pulled William Glenn Rhodes’ burnt and blackened body from the ocean that the skin literally peeled off his arm. Because of wartime security, no one in his family knew he was injured and suffering.
Several years ago, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the City of Jacksonville Beach joined forces to install a memorial honoring those 19 dead American heroes. It is located at Oceanfront Park.
Scott A. Grant is a local historian and author. By day, he is a fiduciary asset manager with Standfast Asset Mgmt. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.