It is an hour past mid-night, June 29, 1942. For most Americans, World War II is oceans away, but this night, the war, with its death and destruction, would come within a mere 40 miles of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola.
HMS Empire Mica, a 431-foot British tanker built only a year before, is on her second voyage and is following the 60-foot or 10 fathom depth as recommended by the U.S. Navy. At this depth submarines are supposedly at a disadvantage. Fully loaded with 11,200 tons of aviation fuel from Baytown, Texas, she is on her way home to Britain to fuel the Royal Air Force. She is to find a protected harbor each night because, when the sun sinks, the Sea Wolves begin their prowl. None of the bays on this section of the coast are deep enough to accommodate the loaded ship. Cruising at 11 knots, she leaves the Cape San Blas sea buoy in her wake and begins an ESE course that will seal her doom.
Soon after the sun sinks and a brilliant full moon rises, a sleek, gray wolf awakens from her sleep on the floor of the Gulf and begins her deadly hunt. The “wolf” is the German Type IXC-Unterseeboote, U-67, which has already sunk two ships since her fifth cruise began in May. When the cruise is over, six ships will lie at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and two others, damaged by U-67’s torpedoes, will make it back to port. Empire Mica is number three.
U-67 was the seventh German submarine to enter the Gulf. The first, U-507, had sunk the American tanker, Norlindo, on May 4, 1942. Thus began the “turkey shoot” of Allied ships in the Gulf. Before the last U-boat, U-193, withdrew on December 3, 1943; 24 U-boats would roam the Gulf, sinking 56 ships and wounding 14. Only one U-boat was sunk in the Gulf, U-166 south of New Orleans.
There is a local myth of a U-boat being sunk off Panama City. The story still shows-up in local history articles by authors that haven’t checked the facts. Many times pilots would bomb or depth-charge a sub and report it sunk. Unknowingly, it would slip away to fight another day. Our own navy, to placate civilians, reported that U-boats were being sunk regularly, when in fact, few, if any, were being sunk.
U-67 had lain submerged during the day to avoid detection from Navy patrol planes. She had been spotted on June 24th and her captain was taking no chances. As the night wears on, U-67 submerges twice as plane lights are seen. Over the steamy Apalachicola swamps, thunderstorms rage. They appear as heat lightning to the U-boat captain and are noted in his war diary. Finally, at 12:25 a.m. her luck changes as a huge “shadow” approaches out of the north-west.
In the glassy, moonlit Gulf, Kaptanleutnant Günther Müeller-Stockhëim aligns his crosshairs of the periscope on the heavily laden ship. The unescorted Empire Mica will be easy prey. The U-boat’s captain methodically and coolly figures the necessary mathematics that will send the torpedoes on their deadly course. In November he will receive the Knight’s Cross for his successes.
At 12:50 a.m. two torpedoes are launched. One strikes just astern of the bridge on the port side, the other at the stern where the engine room is located. It instantly erupts into flames and most of the crew in the stern are killed instantly. Within minutes the Gulf is ablaze as the giant ship explodes into a gigantic fireball. Second Engineer, Joseph Steele, hurries to disengage the engines so that the lifeboats can be launched. Flames devour the engine room and Steele, a hero to the survivors, does not escape. Of the three lifeboats lowered, two, along with their occupants, are consumed with flames.
In Apalachicola the news of the torpedoed ship is received from the Coast Guard Station at the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. With the Coast Guard boat, Sinbad, in dry-dock, two local pleasure boats, the 32 ft. Countess, owned by Dick Heyser, and the 40 ft. Sea Dream, owned by W.F. Randolph, are asked to proceed to the blazing hulk and search for survivors. It is now 2:00 a.m. It is daylight before the Countess spots a life boat with a red sail. Huddled under blankets are 14 of the 47-man crew. The Sea Dream continues to search hopelessly for more survivors. Finding none, the survivors, mostly teenage boys and their 70 year-old captain, Hugh Bentley, are transferred to the faster Sea Dream for the trip back to Apalachicola. Empire Mica continues to burn that day and into the night before it sinks in 110 ft. of water, 21 miles due south of Cape San Blas.
On July 16, the following year, the Mica’s nemesis, U-67, on her 8th war cruise, is surprised and bombed in the mid-Atlantic by an Avenger dive-bomber for the Carrier USS Core. Before the U-67 could dive, four or five bombs fall and she disappears at a 45-degree angle. Three crewmen on deck-watch survived and are saved by the Americans. U-67 and the rest of her crew now lie eternally entombed in the Stygian depths of the Sargasso Sea.
In August of 2006, Pam, Trip, and I ventured out to Empire Mica with our friend, Patsy Johnson. Even though the Gulf was a giant, glassy pond, visibility wasn’t that great. The whims of the currents will often give one 100 ft. visibility one day and 30ft. the next. As we swam down to the wreck, clouds of minnows obscured much of the wreck making Patsy’s photography a trying experience.
We explored the bow and bridge section where the first torpedoe struck. You must understand that the ship resembles very little of its former self. The bow is still intact but has broken away and tilts to starboard. The rounded stern, with its massive propeller shaft protruding towards the open sea, also lies broken and tilted. (Empire Mica’s massive four-bladed prop can be seen at Captain Anderson’s Restaurant.)
If you saw the demolition of our paper mill or have seen the Loizeaus family demolish buildings of TV, that pile of rubble that’s left is what Empire Mica looks like today.
After WWII the Coast Guard blew-up the stern and bridge of the ship, as they were so near the surface as to create a hazard to navigation. Rust and hurricanes have managed to reduce what’s left to a jumbled pile of iron and steel. Only one small section between the bridge and the engine room still stands. We swam through it on our exploration of the wreck. This large room, Cavernous and eerily serene with sunlight filtering in through breaks in the hull, once held millions of gallons of gasoline.
Hundreds of snapper and grouper dart in and out of the thousands of hiding places. The big fish know the sight and sound of divers and the spear guns they carry. They have witnessed the sight of their schoolmates on the end of a spear and want no part of it.
In the past I have seen the deadly Bull Shark (No. 1 man-eater of the shark family) cruising about. If they are here today the water is so planktonic that we can’t see them. Only the steely barracudas approach us, teeth always bared, looking for a speared fish to steal if the opportunity arrives.
As we ascend, the wreck slowly recedes into the depths, an oasis of abundant life in this desert of the Gulf, and a ghostly metal tombstone to the 33 men and boys who lost their lives here 75 years ago.