The short version of World War II sounds simple: Pearl Harbor is attacked, Americans rage and promptly smite their foes.
The real; story, it seems, was tougher. For a wretched year, German ships kept sinking U.S. supply ships. Now -- under the imposing title "Nazi Attack on America" -- PBS tells the story Wednesday (May 6) on "Nova"; here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
into World War II with anger and optimism.
Pearl Harbor was a
one-time defeat, they figured. What they didn't know was that
subsequent losses – smaller, but consistent – kept happening;
near our shores, transport ships were being sunk.
prepared .... Two German U-boat commanders said, 'We had an easy game
there,'” said Kirk Wolfinger, whose “Nova” film debuts
Wednesday on PBS.
shooting supply ships. “They weren't taking any casualties,” said
underwater explorer Robert Ballard. “It was a turkey shoot.”
Ballard has led the
expeditions that found the Titantic, Bismark, PT-109 and more. On
Wednesday, viewers will see him locate the U-166 boat in the “Nova”
hour called “Nazi Attack on America.”
The title may be
exaggerated, but not by much. In a stretch that began two months
after Pearl Harbor, historian Martin Morgan said, the U-boats were
just off our coast.
That was after
Germans sensed that the British had cracked their “Enigma machine”
code. They switched codes, Morgan said, and dominated.
1942, until December, 1942, we were incapable of reading their
communiques,” Morgan said. U-boats went “into the Gulf of Mexico
and devastated our commercial shipping.”
In all, 609 American
ships were sunk in the Gulf and off the East Coast. More than 5,000
men were killed and three million tons of cargo was lost. Officials
managed to suppress news of the attacks ... which ended after the
code was cracked again and after the Americans -- overcoming a slow
start -- used new convoy methods.
later, the artifacts remain underwater. “It's an amazing graveyard,
(with) the deeper ships in an amazing state of preservation,”
A key discovery
began in 2001, he said, during work in the Gulf of Mexico. “The oil
companies were doing a pipeline survey and said, 'Hmm, I wonder what
that target is on sonar.'”
They soon found the
U-166; Ballard and others were able to revise history: A Naval
commander had been criticized for failing to sink the ship; 70-plus
years later, he got posthumous credit.
“It was quite a
moving ceremony in the Pentagon,” Ballard said, “when the
Secretary of the Navy put that medal on (the late commander's) son
.... It was a nice moment to get it right.”
There will be other
revisions, he said, with more than a million ships on the ocean
floor. “There's more history in the deep sea than in all of the
museums .... Technology is accelerating our rate of discovering our
chapters of lost human history.”
-- “Nova: Nazi
Attack on America”
-- 9 p.m. Wednesday,
PBS (check local listings)