The absolution lights of the Atlantic Pearl Harbor

Remember those Florida dates that live in...meh? No, probably not. What that tells us about our own worth, relative to our forebears.

I find great comfort and peace in studying historical human behavior honestly: specifically humanity’s endless confrontation with its own stubborn selfish fecklessness across generations.

The historical reality of human behavior confers an empowering absolution. It’s hard for you to do much worse than the other humans and human-created structures who came before; so why not try to better? You don’t have much to lose — in terms of self worth — and your new failures will connect you to the old failures of everyone who came before. There is some universal kinship in that.

I suspect this feeling of absolution is vaguely similar, in a secular way, to what animates a truly “saved” Christian, one who has surrendered his or her fallen existence to Jesus Christ and truly committed to living his confounding teachings. So you might say this is my religion.

History already informs almost everything I write — in education and beyond. See the “Jeb Crow” series. But I want to write a bit more explicitly and a bit more often in coming months about how study of the past — real confrontation with it, including my own family and heritage — is a joyfully constructive force in my present day life and in my ambitions for the future. It is effective inoculation for me against the sensations captured quite well in this tweet.

This immobilizing sense of human and American stalemate is brain and soul poison — or at least it would be for me. History has taught me instead that what may feel in the moment like the doom of endless inertia hides an endless range of possibilities and uncertainty.

Real history has taught me that status and hierarchy and power are always in flux, never settled. They are indeed inert — but in the sense of objects tending to stay in motion, not still. Rebellion and reaction and aggressive indifference to both never stop; nor do they ever stop generating new mechanisms and angles of perceiving them. Winning and losing are the wrong terms for what the human confrontation with our ourselves produces.

The struggles inherent in that flux are shaped in familiar ways by individual human behavior and interest at scale — which is both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. Power and violence and capital buy time for hierarchies and status and perception and indifference; but they never buy permanence. That uncertainty is the fuel of my fatalistic optimism.

So here’s an article (fairly short, for me) about the early days of World War II that I find quite useful for today. It concerns German submarine warfare in the Atlantic — including off the Florida coast — in 1942. It will play a prominent role in the book I’m writing about the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek invasion of privacy lawsuit and trial — in which my great aunt and great grandfather were the plaintiff lawyers.

In early 1942, America was fighting a formally declared war; and the American eastern coast — including Florida — saw a ruthlessly effective German U-Boat offensive on vital coastal shipping.

Just five U-boats, unleashed right after Pearl Harbor, delivered arguably the greatest strategic blow against the entire U.S. war effort in the first weeks after Adolph Hitler declared war. But they weren’t a surprise attack. They were a “legal” act of war; and British intelligence tracked the progress of each sub and relayed their approach to the American Navy, which did essentially nothing.

The coastal U-boat attacks then expanded and continued for months, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sailors. Through the end of March 1942, U-boats sank at least 132 vital merchant ships in or around American coastal waters. By comparison, the famous cross-Atlantic convoys lost only six ships during that time, from a single convoy.

The coastal onslaught put the entire Allied war effort for Europe in jeopardy at roughly the apex of Hitler’s power and reach. He bragged about it in March 1942:

I myself have been surprised at the successes we have met with along the American coast lately. The United States kept up the tall talk and left her coast unguarded. Now I daresay that she is quite surprised.

Acting like there was no war

Indeed, as this was happening, in the middle of it, two months after Pearl Harbor’s “date that will live in infamy,” as Hitler was trash-talking, here’s what the “Greatest Generation” was doing in American coastal communities.

The Americans were continuing to act as though there was no war: the beaches and towns were still a blaze of lights; lighthouses and buoys still operated as in peacetime, though some were dimmed; shipping moved singly instead of in escorted convoys; traffic traveled straight ahead from point to point rather than follow zig zag courses on sheltered sea lanes.

That’s an excerpt from Florida historian Michael Gannon’s “Operation Drumbeat,” which provides an amazing account of 1942’s coastal U-boat war based on German documents and interviews with U-boat personnel.

It is hard to imagine a more abject failure of both military command and the American public at large than the early months of World War II and the utterly failed defense of the American coastline and coastal shipping.

This is a World War II reality that has never — to my knowledge — made its way into any narrative-defining movie or mass media. Does it sound vaguely familiar — or relevant — today? — when America is again fighting Nazis (albeit feral, weak, and homegrown Nazis) and a wider, deadlier threat that requires civic cooperation and mobilization.

The “Greatest Generation” would have pouted about masks, too

Why wouldn’t the Greatest Generation turn off the lights to protect the faltering war effort and the dying men? For the same reason politicians resist mask mandates today. Freedom!!!!!! And money. From Gannon again:

Since the President’s Executive order 9066 of 19 February the services had authority “to assume control over all lighting on the seacoast so as to prevent the silhouetting of ships and their consequent destruction by enemy submarines.” Their reluctance to take action came principally as a result of intense pressure exerted by coastal business interests such as beach resort operators who did not want to “inconvenience tourists.”

In the meeting of 4 March it was decided by the military representatives that control of the coastal lights was “a Navy function.” Accordingly, five days later…Admiral King sent out a halfhearted “request”to Andrews in New York. “It is requested that the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier take such steps as may be within his province to control the brilliant illumination of Eastern Seaboard amusement parks and beaches in order than ships passing close to shore be not silhouetted and thereby more easily exposed to submarine attack from seaward.”

An additional five days later, King made it clear that what he was requesting was not a blackout but a “dim-out”; blackouts “were not considered necessary” since only the glare of the brightest lights posed a danger to shipping. This tragic misjudgment, repeating an error and Andrews had made on 10 February (see chapter 5), would lead by omission to further loss of lives and treasure.

Gulfamerica, not “Greyhound,” is the U-Boat story of 1942

Indeed, weeks later, on April 10, German U-Boat 123, under command of Reinhold Hardegan would spot the brand new oil tanker "Gulfamerica” steaming north near St. Augustine. U-123 had lain in wait off the St. Augustine area coast, navigating with the help of the historic St. Augustine lighthouse, which blazed into the night.

U-123 stalked the Gulfamerica north to Jacksonville Beach, where the U-boat commanders could see it clearly when they fired:

Both men now stared at the large fast-moving shadow now sharply outlined against the brilliant Jacksonville Beach lights

A hit lit up the night within close sight of the Jacksonville Beach pier.

In the incandescence [the U-boat captain] saw people on shore pour out of their hotels, homes, and places of entertainment. “A rare show for the tourists,” [Hardegan] wrote… “who probably were having supper now.”

Later that year, in June of 1942, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall wrote:

The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort…Of the 74 ships allocated to the Army for July by the War Shipping Administration, 17 have already been sunk. 22 percent of the bauxite fleet has already been destroyed. 20 percent of the Puerto Rican fleet has been lost.

The recent Tom Hanks movie Greyhound, about the Battle of the Atlantic and the troop/merchant ship convoy crossings, underscores the absence of this abject failure from popular American history.

Greyhound is set in February 1942. It’s a gripping montage of different U-boat threats, all of which existed, met heroically by Capt. Hanks and his men.

But in February 1942, the commander of Greyhound and the cross-Atlantic convoy shepherded was in much less danger than the captain of the virtually undefended Gulfamerica. (Setting Greyhound a year later in March 1943 would have been much more accurate. That’s when the most pitched and defining convoy combat of the Battle of Atlantic happened.) From Gannon:

The cross oceanic convoy routes became so quiet in early 1942 that merchant seamen on those routes became careless about showing lights.

What if Pearl Harbor happened and nobody really cared?

Thus, the Atlantic U-boat assault proved exponentially more effective militarily than the attack on Pearl Harbor, which missed American fuel reserves and carriers that would become the heart of the Pacific war effort and turn the tide at Midway in June 1942.

Americans were kinda ¯\_(ツ)_/¯about this Pearl Harbor. Why should I turn off my lights or stop partying at the pier? It’s just Hitler. What about my freedom?

In April 1942, this is what the American home front and Atlantic Naval commanders had to show for their war effort:

Realizing that backlighting from the Jacksonville Beach shore had enabled the U-boat to sight its target Florida Governor Spessard Holland on 11 April declared a “screen out” of all lights showing to seaward in coastal and beach communities. The regulations and their enforcement would never be adequate, however, to prevent silhouettes at sea.

Four days after the Gulfamerica attack a Requiem Mass was sung at the Cathedral of St. Augustine for several of the dead crewmen who were Roman Catholic…

…On 16 April, Gulfamerica, which had settled by the stern with a 40 degree lost st starboard, finally rolled over, bubbled, and sank from view, her maiden voyage now completely ruined.

On the same day COMINCH issued an order halting all further oil tanker traffic on the East Coast. Molasses could travel from the Gulf to Port Everglades. But as far as il was concerned Hardegen’s attack on Gulfamerica has been the last straw. No oil would move in tanker bottoms for the remainder of the month. The Allied war effort would have to live off its capital.

You can view a YouTube video of the Gulfamerica wreck site here. It’s become an artificial reef.

Of course, American power and capacity and capability eventually overcame the lethal lethargy and aversion to homefront sacrifice of 1942 — lights or no lights. (And it’s worth noting that 1942’s lethal lethargy and aversion to shared sacrifice killed a lot fewer people than COVID.) Will we do so again, in overcoming the largely self-inflicted harms and pathologies of this age?

I don’t know.

But if we do, I feel certain that years from now human beings will look backward to this time with the same splintered understanding of it that we apply to World War II and all other eras today. Unsplintering that understanding for oneself is one of life’s great great pleasures in my experience.

I heartily recommend it.