Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.
During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.
Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.
In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”
In the months following America’s entering the war, the Kriegsmarine sank 56 Allied ships, including 17 tankers, while losing only one submarine, U-boat 166.
German submarine attacks so threatened the war effort that American government and the petroleum industry responded with the longest pipeline project ever undertaken, building the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” from East Texas to Illinois, and as far as New York. Learn more in WW II Big Inch and Little Big Inch Pipelines.
But for the U-166, the war was over. Its final resting place remained a mystery for almost 60 years.
The last victim of the U-166 was the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee, sunk by a single torpedo on July 30, 1942, while on its way to New Orleans. Her Naval escort ship, PC-566, rushed in to drop ten depth charges. The U-166 was believed to have escaped. It did not.
In 1986, a Shell Offshore vessel using a deep-tow system of the day recorded two close wrecks about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast in 5,000 feet of water.
Thought to be the Robert E. Lee and cargo freighter Alcoa Puritan, it was May 2001 before an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) using side scan sonar revealed the U-166.
The discovered surprised many military historians.
The lost World War II submarine was separated from Robert E. Lee by less than a mile on the sea floor.
The AUV, which required no cable connection to its mother ship, found the Alcoa Puritan 14 miles away. Learn more about the petroleum industry’s offshore robotics in ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.
Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys.
As a result of the U-166’s discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site and government archaeologists notified the U.S. Navy Historical Center of the discovery.
“They, in turn, notified the German Embassy and military attaché,” the MMS article explains. “Since the remains of the U-166’s 52 crewmen are still on board, the German government has declared the site to be a war grave and has requested that it remain undisturbed.”
In 2011, the Minerals Management Service became the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The first offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico was completed in 1947 (learn more in offshore oil history).
Recommended Reading: Torpedoes in the Gulf: Galveston and the U-Boats, 1942-1943 (1995). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-in-war/petroleum-survey-finds-u-166. Last Updated: July 23, 2021. Original Published Date: April 18, 2012.