By Gary Corsair
August 19, 2007
Accuracy is something R.E. Johnson holds dear, whether he’s playing in The Villages Concert Band, volunteering at the Lady Lake Police Department or manning his ham radio in an emergency.
He’s the ultimate “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” guy, which is why he bristles at a grave error that for 59 years followed the submarine chaser he served on during World War II.
“This just shows what the desk writers do to people,” says Johnson, a Village of Del Mar resident. “They ride their chairs at the desk and try to manipulate other people. They make decisions without being at the scene.”
The scene of Johnson’s ire: the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisiana coast, where a German U-boat sank the freighter, Robert E. Lee, with a torpedo on July 30, 1942. The Robert E. Lee was being escorted by the USS PC-566.
“As I understand from bits of information I have been given, the PC-566 was criticized for not getting the sub,” said Johnson, who joined the crew of PC-566 in December 1944.
By then — two-and-a-half-years after the incident — mum was the word among crew members. A pall of shame seemed to hang over the PC-566.
“I guess there was not much said about it at that time because the commander of the 566 was not in good graces,” Johnson said.
That’s an understatement. Sixty-five years ago this month, PC-566 skipper, Lt. Commander H. C. Claudius, was reprimanded for the incident, even though he acted quickly and decisively.
“Skipper laid down two 5-ton salvoes, got a ping, dropped another, then proceeded to the Robert E. Lee, and started picking up survivors,” Johnson said.
The salvoes seemed to produce the desired effect. The men aboard the PC-566 saw a diesel oil slick on the water shortly after the depth charges were deployed. Still, no one could say for certain that the sub had been crippled. U-boat commanders trying to escape depth charges often released oil to deceive their attackers.
Claudius always believed he had crippled the sub. The “desk writers” disagreed.
“The naval review board went as far as to say he could not have possibly sunk the sub and sent him to additional training to learn the ‘right way’ to deploy depth charges,” says marine archaeologist Robert Church.
Turns out Claudius and his men were right. In fact, the PC-566 was the only ship to ever sink a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
The fate of U-166, the sub that sank the Robert E. Lee, remained a mystery until January 2001, when C&C Technologies discovered the U-boat in 5,000 feet of water 45 miles off the tip of the Mississippi River Delta while surveying a route for a 100-mile natural gas pipeline for BP and Shell. U-166 lies just 5,000 feet from the Robert E. Lee.
What became of the U-166 (Germany reported it lost at sea) would probably still be a mystery if not for advanced technology. The sub was located by C&C’s HUGIN 3000 (High Precision Untethered Geosurvey and Inspection System), which utilizes multi-beam bathymetry and imagery, dual-frequency chirp, side-scan sonar, chirp sub-bottom profiler, and acoustic tracking.
Unfortunately, the discovery came too late for Claudius, who died of a massive heart attack in 1981 following a distinguished Naval career. And the men he commanded aboard the PC-566 have also passed on, leaving Johnson as the keeper of the flame of history rewritten.
“I guess I am about the only one still looking down at the grass who was a member of the PC-566,” he said.