Sunday, January 01, 2006

Gulf explorers study WWII wrecks


The Sun Herald
By Greg Harman
August, 2004

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Mineral Management Service.
A 3.7 mm deck gun aboard the German WWII sub U-166,
which was sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942 and was foundin

GULF OF MEXICO - Even as a tropical storm buffeted the waters above, rocking the research vessel HOS Dominator earlier this month, scientists examining a string of shipwrecks settled on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico were busily prying loose secrets from the dark below.

Hundreds of vessels lie silently settling into the desolate Gulf floor.

They date back to Spanish and French exploration of the New World. But this team focused its recently completed 18-day research expedition on a string of ships torpedoed by German U-boats during World War II. In all, the Nazis sank 56 vessels, mostly oil tankers, off the southern coast of the United States, most in just a few months of 1942.

"Each wreck has something new and unexpected on it," said Jack Irion, chief of the social sciences unit of the U.S. Mineral Management Service. "The Robert E. Lee, for example, had a small cluster of some of the ship's lifeboats that are still intact on the seafloor."

One of the most dramatic findings came after the underseas explorers were struck by the lack of debris surrounding one freighter, the Alcoa Puritan, about 100 miles south of the Mississippi Coast.

While other wrecks had contained telegraph poles and other scattered equipment, the area around the Puritan's resting place was stark, said Rob Church, project manager for C&C Technologies, the company contracted by the MMS to run the mission.

After scouting to the north, the team found an anonymous heap about 3,000 feet away. There lay a mess of Alcoa debris, including a chair and part of a cargo crane. Also amid the wreckage was an expended brass shell casing from a 10.5 centimeter deck cannon on the U-507, which is believed to be the first U-boat ever to enter Gulf waters.

"Alcoa Puritan really has almost that appearance of sort of the ghost ship," Irion said. "It's a rather spectacular shipwreck, sort of evocative of what you see from films like 'Titanic.'

The shell casing proved too valuable to leave behind. The team recovered the artifact and will donate it to Texas A&M University for preservation.

"It allows us to recreate the steps of how the chase took place between the U-boat and the cargo freighter and then where they actually caught up with him and sank him," Church said.

Viewing the images relayed back from an unmanned submersible, the team also was awed by thickets of white corals covering the Gulfpenn, an oil tanker sunk on May 13, 1942, as it attempted a voyage from Port Arthur, Texas, to Philadelphia.

The corals were found to be an important fish habitat for the likes of slimeheads and scorpion fish, said Will Patterson, a marine fisheries ecologist at the University of West Florida.

Patterson said he was anxious to get the fish back to shore to try to determine how old they were, since relatives of these lesser-known specimens, such as the orange roughy and rockfish, are known to live as long as 100 years.

One of the original concerns of the group - the potential for hazardous cargos harmful to the marine environment - appeared to be dispelled.

Core samples around the wrecks suggested there is no leaking of oils or fuels.

"Many of these vessels burned rather furiously when they were first torpedoed so we suspect very little of the original cargo is still onboard," Irion said.

Due to a tropical storm's passage to the northeast, the crew examined one final ship known to be further to the west before ending their expedition on Sunday (August 22).



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