World War II
On The East End
By Richard Gambino
On May 6, 1945, the last German submarine sunk by the Allies in World War II, the U-853, was downed by U.S. warships and aircraft about20 milesfrom Montauk Point, off Block Island. On the previous day the same submarine had torpedoed and sunk theU.S.coal ship, Black Point, killing 22 of her crew. In fact, afterGermanydeclared war on theU.S., onDecember 11, 1941, the first sinking of an Allied ship by a U-boat, the tanker,Coimbra, onJanuary 14, 1942, was also off our shore. And much of theBattleof theAtlantic, in which 2,828 of our ships were sunk by U-boats, and in which we sank 632 of the subs, was fought offLong Island. People here called the police to report debris washed up on our ocean beaches, including the bodies of dead seamen. Appropriately, as it were, on May 7, the day after the U-853 was sunk, the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Doenitz, authorizedGermany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II inEuropethe next day. (Hitler had committed suicide on April 30.) Recently, a relic of that war, right here at home, brought me to a standstill.
I’m an amateur nature photographer. So, one day I was hiking alone throughCampHeroState Parkabout1.5 mileswest of the Montauk Lighthouse, carrying my photo gear. I was inland of the high dunes there when I came to a break in them that allowed me to walk through a winding area that led right to the ocean’s edge. I came to a very rocky small beach, intent on taking photos of where the ocean approached the bluffs on either side of me. Instead I stood there, unmoving. In front of me, to my left, was what appears to be part of a reinforced concrete fortification, of the kind we’ve all seen in films, used against us in World War II by the Germans atNormandy. But this was right here, to protect us from those same Germans. Once sitting high and dry, decades of coastal erosion has brought the ocean to it.
As a matter of fact, theEast Endwas involved in World War II right to the ends of its twin forks, and beyond. In the earliest months of the war, civilian boaters in Greenport, with their boats, were recruited as volunteers by the U.S. Coast Guard. The boaters were given military two-way radios, a minimum of training, and asked to sail the ocean nearby at night to find U-boats, and to rescue survivors of ships sunk by the subs. The U-boats stayed underwater in daylight, but had to be on the surface at night running their diesel engines to charge the batteries that powered the subs when underwater. The first of the Greenport “picket boats,” the Two Pals, sailed on its first patrol from the town onJuly 29, 1942. One night, the crew of one of the boats, using only its sails, to stay silent, heard diesel engines. Then men’s voices. Speaking German. The Greenport sailors quickly calculated their location, then sailed from the area as fast as possible, and radioed the U-boat’s position to our military.
In the early 1990s, I had another surprising reminder of the war, this time in Southold. “Skip” Goldsmith took me inside a large building in which his father’s “The Boat Shop” had made one hundred and thirty-eight 25ft. and 33ft. wooden “Plane Rearming Boats” for the Navy, used to ferry supplies between seaplanes and shores. To my amazement, wood working machinery was there as it was left at war’s end, and a 1945 calendar still hung on a wall. Nearby, the Greenport Yacht and Ship Building Company made 49 minesweeping vessels for the Navy, 8 of them weighing 205 tons each, and 41 of them each weighing 278 tons, all with wooden hulls, which would not set off mines with magnetic triggers.
AtCampHerothere are several wartime structures, as there are also at the Shadmoor Preserve west of it, including big concrete bunkers and small sentry shelters. At Hero one may also see large concrete bases on which once sat coastal artillery aimed out to sea. These included sixteen-inch guns, the largest artillery theU.S.had, meaning they fired2,000 lb. armor-piercing explosive projectiles,16 inchesin diameter and several feet long, which had a range of over20 miles. When their crews practice-fired them, the resulting concussions rattled buildings in Montauk village, and the guns’ reports were heard over both forks.