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Brunswick Sailor ParadeOn the morning of April 8, 1942, a German U-boat blasted and sank two tankers, SS Baton Rouge and SS Oklahoma, off the coast of St. Simon’s Island.  The attack shattered any previous notions among Glynn County citizens that the Atlantic Ocean insulated America from the war in Europe.  The tankers lost 21 crewmembers and survivors were taken to Brunswick hospital for treatment.  Awestruck spectators watched as the hull of one tanker was towed into St. Simon’s Sound, and the harsh truth about the war became violently apparent.  Rather than provide distance and protection, the ocean in fact provided a perfect cover that disguised the movement of enemy U-boats.  Worse yet was the fact that the U.S. was not yet in a position to defend its coastline from the U-boat threat. 

No longer would the citizens of Glynn County take their security for granted.

The attacks off of St. Simons were in fact part of a broad and highly successful German effort during the early war years to cut off North American merchant shipping and military aid to Europe.  Known as Operation Drumbeat, the offensive began almost immediately after Hitler declared war with the US in December 1941.  Between January and August of 1942, when the US coastal defenses were still weak, Axis powers sank hundreds of merchant ships along the Atlantic coastline and lost only a handful of U-boats.  Brunswick was a particularly tantalizing U-boat target because, like nearby Charleston and Jacksonville, it was home to a shipyard that produced Liberty ships that carried supplies to Europe. Libery Ship Launches from Brunswick

The U-boats’ strategy was deadly, simple, and for many months uninterrupted by the American military.  During the day, submarines cruised underwater along the east coast and surfaced at night to blast merchant ships illuminated by their own running lights or outlined by city lights in the background.   U-boat 123, which sank the Baton Rouge and Oklahoma off of St. Simons, was one of the most successful during the offensive, sinking 10 ships totaling over 57,000 tons. 

Despite repeated British warnings and instruction, American ships continued to ignore basic defensive strategies such as sailing in convoys, avoiding standard trade routes, and blackouts of running lights.  By the summer of 1942, the Navy mandated these actions and began providing more armed escort services to convoys.  These measures provided vastly increased protection, but it was the development of the Navy’s Lighter-Than-Air program of armed dirigible airships that finally gave the US the defensive upper hand.  With the construction of dirigible Naval Air Stations like Glynco along the east coast, U-boat attacks were virtually eliminated for the remainder of the war.