When the War Came to the Bay

By Henry S. Parker, PhD

            Around the shores of Chesapeake Bay and beneath its murky waters, the legacy of World War II lies buried and largely forgotten. As we approach Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day, we naturally think of Normandy on the Atlantic and the far-flung islands of the Pacific. But how many of us know about the Bay’s important role in the war?

Consider the Annapolis Yacht Yard (AYY). This company operated in Eastport from 1937 to 1947, when Trumpy’s, the famous yacht builder, bought the property (the site later became the location of the Chart House restaurant). During the Second World War AYY was an important manufacturer of naval craft. The yard’s specialty was Torpedo Patrol (PT) boats. You’ve heard of these amazing craft, but don’t know much about them? Here are a few highlights:

  • Wooden-hulled, fast and highly maneuverable, they ranged in length from 70-80 feet and could reach speeds of 40 knots.
  • They were armed with torpedoes, 50-caliber machine guns, and, sometimes, depth charges.
  • Their primary mission was to locate and attack enemy targets, including warships and supply vessels. Usually operating with deadly effectiveness under cover of darkness, these “mosquito boats” were greatly feared by the Japanese.
  • Their fame spread when PT-41 evacuated Gen. Douglas MacArthur from besieged Corregidor Island, Philippines, in 1942. And nearly everyone knows about the exploits and sinking of PT-109, skippered by John F. Kennedy.

Most of the PT boats built for the U.S. Navy in World War II were manufactured in Bayonne, N.J., and New Orleans. Annapolis Yacht Yard’s entire output went to allied navies (28 Vosper PT Boats for the British navy and another 100 PT Boats for the Russian Navy). Still, they were the third-largest producer of PT Boats during the war. The yard also built submarine chasers early in the war.

The Bethlehem Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore also played a critical role in the war effort, building a number of vessels for the British Merchant Navy under the U.S. government’s Emergency Shipbuilding Program. At its peak in 1943, the yard employed nearly 50,000 workers. In 1941 the facility built and launched the world’s first liberty ship, the Patrick Henry. Before the war ended, 383 more liberty ships slid down the yard’s way.

A number of important military installations arrayed around the Bay made critical contributions in World War II. These included:

  • The U.S. Naval Academy;
  • Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland’s Upper Chesapeake Bay;
  • The Severn River Naval Complex in Annapolis, which carried out ground-breaking engineering R&D;
  • Langley Field in Hampton Roads, Va., which pioneered aircraft-based antisubmarine warfare techniques;
  • The sprawling Norfolk, Va., Naval Base and Shipyard complex at the mouth of the Bay.

Even as area shipyards and other facilities contributed to fighting the war, the Bay itself was threatened by the German navy. U-boats posed the principal risk. At least two carried out successful attacks on allied shipping at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay. In June 1942, U-701 arrived near Norfolk, on a top-secret mission to lay mines in the shipping channels coming out of the Bay. On June 15 and 17 three allied merchant vessels struck these mines. Two were sunk and one was damaged. U-701 also torpedoed, but failed to sink, a British tanker not far from the Chesapeake Lightship.

On July 28, 1943, U-230 laid 24 mines near the U.S. Navy Base in Norfolk. There is no record of allied ships striking any of these mines.

A third U-boat, U-1105, lies at the bottom of Chesapeake Bay today. No, it was not a war casualty, and it never got close to U.S. shores during World War II. This sub, nicknamed the “Black Panther,” was launched in 1944 and stalked Allied convoys off the coast of Ireland. But U-1105 had special technology that later caught the attention of U.S. engineers. The sub was one of 10 U-Boats that was covered in sound-absorbent rubber tiles to help it evade sonar detection. After the war the Black Panther was brought to the United States for study. When the research was complete the sub was used for target practice in the Patuxent River until it went down for good in 1949. For nearly four decades its remains lay forgotten on the bottom of the Bay. Then, in 1985, the broken hull was discovered by recreational divers off Piney Point. Today the U-1105 site is a Maryland historic shipwreck preserve and a magnet for sport divers.

These accounts only scratch the surface of the important role of Chesapeake Bay in World War II. But anyone who wants to learn more about U.S. Navy in World War II will find a treasure right in Annapolis: The U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Located on the grounds of the academy in Preble Hall, the museum is open to the public seven days a week and hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year. Non-military personnel with a valid government-issued ID can enter the academy through the pedestrian entrance. For more information, see http://www.usna.edu/Museum/

If your World War II curiosity is still unsated, and you’d like to combine a little history with other cultural (and earthier?) pursuits, head down to New Orleans. Between courses of Cajun cooking and sessions of jazz music be sure to leave time for the World War II Museum on Magazine Street. This gem is ranked as the city’s top attraction, which is saying something given the area’s competing venues. Open daily, the museum suggests that you allow at least three hours for a visit. You may want to linger for three days. For more information, check the web site at http://nationalww2museum.org/

Whether your World War II research is limited to the Bay Area or extends farther afield, you will enlarge your understanding of a fascinating, and often sobering, subject. And your new knowledge of the last great war this country fought will likely make you appreciate even more the courage and sacrifices of both civilians and military personnel of the Greatest Generation—a generation that, sadly, is fast disappearing.

The author’s parents were together in Honolulu when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His father was skipper of a PT boat, which saw action at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. His mother remained in Hawaii where she worked for the Army’s Office of Censorship and the Women’s Air Raid Defense.

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