When Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S. just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most Western observers saw it as a major miscalculation on Hitler’s part; it seemed an unnecessary risk with little to gain other than a “new” war with a major power. The real voice over Hitler’s shoulder was that of High Seas Admiral Karl Donitz whose U-boats had been held at bay by the “neutrality” agreement that had permitted U.S. shipping to provide the aviation fuel and war supplies which almost alone kept Great Britain standing after nearly three years of German pummeling.
Beginning with two or three “wolf packs” of old VII class U-boats in March and an eventual attack force of over 400 by year’s end – including modern type IX far-ranging boats, the longest and most crucial battle of WW II was under way: The Battle of the Atlantic. By August 1942 Donitz’ “Operation Drumbeat”(Paukenschlag) had sunk 233 Allied ships, and 22% of the entire U.S. tanker fleet lay on the bottom of the Atlantic shelf, most having gone down within sight of land. In 1942 the most dangerous place to be was aboard a U.S. merchant ship, and the Merchant Marine – America’s oldest sea service – paid a high price without any of the rewards or compensations of the military services.
With most of Europe under Nazi occupation, the Far East and the broad expanse of the Pacific “owned” by the surging Japanese Military and our own Alaska under assault and occupation, the very idea that the United States was somehow going to lead the western world to victory should have been seen – even here at home - as the hopeful myth the world’s prior history would have painted it. Bent on taking swift action against the Empire of Japan, few civilian observers fully understood at the time that our most important and immediate task was to save Great Britain. England was like the free world’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. Without that “green and glorious” island there could be no aerial war to bring destruction to Germany’s industrial capacity to make war; and there would be no Allied invasion of the continent to save Europe’s millions.
At the same time the Japanese dagger was pointing at Australia in the Pacific while we knew the Philippines couldn’t be held. We put up a visible “holding action” by sending the under-strength and poorly-supported 1st Marine Division on a high-cost invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. It would be a bloody seven-month campaign rather than a quick victory as had been hoped for by Washington planners who still did not understand the depth and power of the Japanese Navy or the fighting spirit of the enemy soldier.
The Battle of the Atlantic went on as it would for two more years with the implementation of the convoy system introduced by the British, improved U.S. depth charges (“hedge hogs”) and the growing use of long range anti-submarine bombers (B-24 Liberators). Smaller aircraft carriers known as Escort Carriers would accompany convoys, with improved radar making it a deadly game even for the most daring U-boat commanders. By war’s end aircraft would dominate in winning the war against U-Boats.
As a boy of 9 and 10 I was a keen observer of the war, both at home where so much was going on around me and across the globe. Like everyone around me I was caught up in the patriotism of the time - which I am sorry to say – has never been seen since nor is likely to come again. I had cause every day to think deeply about what it meant to be an American and the pride I felt by continuous reminders that ours’ was an amazing country filled with respect and love for one another. If I was dreaming it, I hope never to wake.