During World War II, German U-Boats Took Advantage of Shipping Traffic Off Brevard Coast
By Space Coast Daily // January 3, 2022
Cape Canaveral historically a bottleneck for shipping along the Florida East Coast
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Cape Canaveral has historically been a bottleneck for shipping traffic along the east coast of Florida, and because this point of Brevard County juts out into the Atlantic, vessels traveling north or south along the coast would invariably pass close so they could change course as appropriate and continue on their way.
During World War II, German U-boats took advantage of this abundance of shipping traffic. Rather than actively hunt targets and expend their precious fuel supply, U-boats patiently waited for the targets to come to them.
It didn’t take long: While over 40 ships were sunk by enemy action off Florida, nowhere else off Florida is there a greater density of war casualties than the area between Port Canaveral and Sebastian Inlet.
Little did they know that the German submarine U-128 under Ulrich Heyse lay in wait, freshly arrived from Europe in early 1942. The first victim to fall to a U-128 torpedo was the tanker Pan Massachusetts just 20 miles off Cape Canaveral while en route from Texas to New York on February 17, 1942. On February 22, the tanker Cities Service Empire was sent to the bottom about 30 miles off the Cape.
Today, these two wrecks lie in deep water less than five nautical miles apart off Cape Canaveral. Popular with anglers out of Port Canaveral, the wrecks teem with life. Until divers identified the then-unknown wreck in 2001, the Pan Massachusetts was known only as the “Copper Wreck.”
The Tanker SS Pan Massachusetts, the first casualty of World War II lost off Florida is upside down and split in half. Only the bow portion resides off Cape Canaveral, and to date, the stern section has not been found.
Pan Massachusetts was struck by two torpedoes. The explosion caused a shower of flaming gasoline to cover the ship and water. The flames burned the lifeboats and many of the crew attempted to escape by swimming under the flames covering the surface of the water. Many never came up. Survivors were rescued by SS Elizabeth Massey and USCG ship Forward.
Conversely, the 465-foot-long Cities Service Empire, known simply as the “Tanker,” is upright and intact in 240-feet of water, and provides habitat for gag, warsaw and snowy grouper, as well as abundant schools of amberjack.
The unescorted Cities Service Empire was hit by two torpedoes from U-128 about 25 miles north of Bethel Shoals off the Brevard County coast. The torpedoes struck the vessel amidships at the after pump room deep in the ship´s bowels on the starboard side and fire broke out immediately and within seconds the ship and the water around the tanker were ablaze. The ship was armed with one 5-inch gun, two .50 caliber machine guns and two .30 caliber machine guns.
Though all the lifeboats were destroyed, 34 survivors were able to jump off the ship and get away from the burning oil in two of the ship’s life rafts.
U-128, a Type IXC U-boat, ultimately met its fate and was sunk May 17, 1943, by American action off the coast of Brazil.