At 1pm on the sunny afternoon of May 4, 1942, the master of the 9,767-ton British tanker Eclipse was horrified to see a torpedo speeding toward him from the shore near the Boynton Beach Inlet. Incredibly, the 220 foot-long submarine U-564, commanded by German ace Reinhard “Teddy” Suhren, had been patiently resting for hours on the shallow, sandy bottom just a few hundred yards from the beach. The U-boat quietly rose to periscope depth and fired a twenty-three-and-a-half foot long electric G7e/T3 torpedo that raced towards the tanker at 35 mph while it was surrounded by pleasure craft only one and a half miles off Boynton Beach.
Two and half minutes later the U-564’s torpedo slammed into the Eclipse. Even though the explosion flooded her engine room, the British tanker was relatively lucky. She didn’t sink and suffered only four casualties that included two fatalities. Other ships attacked by the U-564 off Palm Beach County would not be as fortunate.
German submariners referred to this period in early 1942 as the Second Happy Time or The American Shooting Season. Only months before, Pearl Harbor had been attacked and America was woefully unprepared for war. After traveling two weeks across the Atlantic from their French bases, arriving German U-boat captains were astonished to see none of the U.S. coastline blacked out. At night, the silhouettes of ships traversing the Gulf Stream were easily distinguishable against the lights of Palm Beach County.
What followed was a bloodbath along the Eastern seaboard of the United States that resulted in hundreds of ships damaged or sunk. Returning submarine captains complained to German Admiral Karl Dönitz that they didn’t have enough torpedoes. During World War Two, German U-boats attacked twenty-four ships in Florida waters with the U-564 solely responsible for all attacks off Palm Beach County.
Besides the Eclipse, the other ships torpedoed off of Palm Beach County by the U-564 were the 6,078-ton American steamer Ohioan on May 8, 1942 off Boynton Beach and the 7,138-ton Panamanian tanker Lubrafol the next morning off Delray Beach. Unlike the Eclipse, both ships sank. The Ohioan lost fifteen of her thirty-seven crew and the Lubrafol lost thirteen of her forty-four.
The U-564 eventually met her fate when she was sunk on June 14, 1943 northwest of Cape Ortegal, Spain by depth charges dropped from a British Whitley aircraft. Only eighteen of her forty-six crew survived. However, her decorated commander Reinhard Suhren was not on board. He had relinquished command In October 1942 to become an instructor. Suhren survived the war and died in 1984 in Hamburg, Germany at the age of sixty-eight from stomach cancer.
In mid-May of 1942 the United States went on the offensive and instituted convoys to protect the ships. U-boat attacks instantly plummeted. There were only four ships torpedoed off the Florida coast in 1943 and none in 1944 and 1945.
The Coast Guard cutter Nike reported that it may have sunk a U-boat off the Jupiter Lighthouse on May 18, 1942, but neither the U.S. or German military recorded any U-boats sunk off the coast of Florida during World War Two. Besides the U-564, the only other U-boat in the area in May 1942 was the U-333 patrolling off St. Lucie and Martin Counties. The U-333 damaged the Java Arrow off Fort Pierce and sank the Amazone off Hobe Sound and the Halsey off Jupiter Island. All three ships were attacked within the space of only five hours on May 5th. The U-333 was lost with all hands on July 31, 1944 west of the Isles of Scilly after being depth charged by the HMS Starling and the HMS Loch Killin.