During World War II, German U-boats took advantage of shipping traffic off the coast of Brevard
Cape Canaveral is historically a bottleneck for shipping along the east coast of Florida
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Cape Canaveral has always been a bottleneck for shipping traffic along Florida’s east coast, and because this point in Brevard County juts out into the Atlantic, ships traveling north or south along the coast would invariably pass close by so that they could change course if necessary and continue on their way.
During World War II, German U-boats took advantage of this abundance of shipping traffic. Rather than actively chasing targets and expending their precious fuel supplies, submarines patiently waited for targets to come to them.
It didn’t take long: while more than 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 the German submarine U-128 under Ulrich Heyse was waiting, fresh from Europe in early 1942. The first victim to fall under a U-128 torpedo was the tanker Pan Massachusetts just 20 miles offshore of Cape Canaveral while en route from Texas to New York on February 17, 1942. On February 22, the tanker Cities Service Empire was sunk about 30 miles off the Cape.
Today, these two wrecks lie in deep water within five nautical miles of each other off Cape Canaveral. Popular with Port Canaveral anglers, the wrecks teem with life. Until divers identified the then-unknown wreck in 2001, the Pan Massachusetts was only known as the “Copper Wreck.”
The tanker SS Pan Massachusetts, the first casualty of World War II lost off Florida, is overturned and split in two. Only the forward part resides off Cape Canaveral, and to date the after part has not been found.
Pan Massachusetts was hit by two torpedoes. The explosion caused a rain of flaming gasoline to cover the ship and the water. The flames scorched the lifeboats and many of the crew tried to escape by swimming under the flames covering the surface of the water. Many never came. The survivors were rescued by the SS Elizabeth Massey and the ship USCG Forward.
Conversely, the 465-foot-long Cities Service Empire, known simply as the “Tanker,” stands 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 coast of Brevard County. The torpedoes struck the ship amidships in the aft pump room deep in the bowels of the ship on the starboard side and a fire broke out immediately and within seconds the ship and the water around the tanker were in fire. The ship was armed with a 5-inch gun, two .50 caliber machine guns and two .30 caliber machine guns.
Although all the lifeboats were destroyed, 34 survivors were able to jump from the ship and get away from the burning oil in two of the ship’s life rafts.
U-128, a Type IXC submarine, finally met its fate and was sunk on May 17, 1943 by American action off the coast of Brazil.