By April of 1942, American resolve ran deeper than optimism.
Shock still registered from the Japanese surprise attack four months earlier on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), which killed more than 2,300 Americans, ravaged the U.S. Navy and plunged the nation into a world at war. A valiant months-long fight by shoddily-supplied U.S. troops in the Philippines was just then ending in surrender to a larger Japanese force at a peninsula called Bataan.
The strategically important and morally uplifting victory over the Japanese navy in the battle of Midway was still a few months off in the Pacific. American ground troops were almost a year away from joining British allies to push German Gen. Rommel out of north Africa in their first significant campaign of the war.
But if folks on the home front here in the Golden Isles thought things could not get any worse, a German submarine captain was about to prove them wrong. Capt. Reingard Hardegen would later recall that the tanker ships SS Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge were easy targets in the predawn hours of April 8, 1942, outlined as they were by lights from St. Simons Island.
German U-boat 123 first took aim at the 9,200-ton tanker Oklahoma shortly after midnight, blasting its bow with a torpedo. The sub then surfaced and sprayed the sinking ship with machine gun fire.
“The lights on shore were illuminated,” Hardegen recalled years later from his home in Bremen, Germany. “She was a sitting duck.”
Half of the crew’s 38 seamen perished, most caught asleep in their quarters as the ship went down in shallow waters about 10 miles offshore from St. Simons Island.
Oklahoma’s Capt. Theron Davenport and another crewman left the safety of a lifeboat and returned to the sinking ship upon hearing a man’s screams for help. Davenport waded into waist deep waters inside the sinking ship to retrieve William E. Howell, who would later die on the lifeboat.
Meanwhile, the menacing U-boat 123 continued prowling off the coast of St. Simons Island. About an hour later, the U-boat aimed its torpedoes at the Esso Baton Rouge. Crewman Frank Trubisz, 24, had trouble sleeping that morning, so he went up on deck for a smoke.
“All of a sudden, there was a violent explosion beneath him, tearing a huge hole in his ship,” The Harbor Sound, a local weekly, reported from an interview with Trubisz in 1999. By the time he made it to a lifeboat, “the Esso Baton Rouge was listing to a 45-degree angle.” Three of the crew’s 38 men died as the ship went down.
Word of the horrific attack quickly began to hit home for folks in the Golden Isles.
Reports say several locals took to boats and joined the Coast Guard in rescue efforts. Most notably was St. Simons Island native and lifelong mariner Olaf Olsen. German torpedoes be damned, Olsen headed out to the wreck of the Baton Rouge at the helm of a 42-foot luxury yacht. Olsen captained the yacht for its owner, Howard Candler Jr. of the Coca-Cola Candlers.
“Upon receiving word of the attack, Captain Olsen refueled his boat, picked up a crew, overtook the coast guard vessel, and proceeded to the scene ... “ C. Howard Candler III wrote in a letter to The Brunswick News in 1989. “Disregarding his own safety, Olsen took three lifeboats in tow, picked up a doctor from the then-approaching coast guard boat, took the doctor and wounded aboard his boat, and proceeded to St. Simons.”
Wounded men from the attack were taken to the Brunswick hospital. Local folks in Brunswick and St. Simons Island found food, clothing and lodging for the other survivors, masking their fear and panic behind time-honored Southern hospitality. “The people were just exceptional,” recalled Trubisz, a Long Islander.
But the deadly reality of this day was lost on no one, not even a child. Sharon Smith Henderson was not quite 9 years old. Her home on Egmont Street was within sight of Gibson-Hart Funeral Home. “The war was no longer confined to those far-off shores whose names I was only beginning to learn,” Henderson recalled in her 1996 book ‘From My Veranda.’ “The war had come to us ... By ambulance, hearse, station wagon, and even in open truck bed, came the bodies.”
Folks in the Golden Isles would not get caught with their lights on after dark again. The Baton Rouge and Oklahoma both sunk in shallow waters, the bows pointing above the surface.
Both ships were raised within a couple of weeks. Both eventually went back into Allied service for the war effort, only to be sunk again by German U-boats.
But German U-boats simply could not keep up with the industrious spirit of the American men and women on the war’s home front. Proof of that soon sprouted on the Brunswick River, where the J.A. Jones shipyard put thousands of men and women to work building Liberty Ships. The local population boomed to over 65,000 as workers went on to build nearly 100 of these supply ships that proved so essential to the war effort.
Naval Air Station Glynco opened its airship base in 1943 at site of the present day Brunswick Golden Isles Airport. The blimps, working in concert with airship bases up and down the coast, provided aerial escorts to departing merchant ships.
The Civil Air Patrol operated out of McKinnon St. Simons Airport, as did Marine and Naval pilot training bases.
U-boat 123 had awakened a sleeping giant here in the Golden Isles, it would seem.
In fact, enough activity took place on the local scene during World War II to fill a museum. Conveniently enough, the World War II Home Front Museum opens this weekend at the historic Coast Guard Station at Coast Guard Station Beach on St. Simons Island.
Pay them a visit. See for yourself how this community pitched in to help win the war.