War casualty holds deep secrets
Is the British oil tanker Coimbra — torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off Long Island 76 years ago — still leaking?
That’s the question the U.S. Coast Guard wants to answer when the ship is examined during a deep drive starting next week.
Capt. Kevin Reed, commander Sector Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound in New Haven, said the operation will assess the condition of the 423-foot-long tanker and its potential to have an environmental impact.
“We have assembled a team including members of the Navy Supervisor of Salvage, the Coast Guard Academy Science Department, the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and New York Department of Environmental Conservation to provide consultation for this assessment,” Reed said.
The Coast Guard has contracted Resolve Marine to conduct an underwater assessment of the Coimbra from June 19-27.
“This assessment will help determine any potential environmental threat the tanker poses,” Reed said. “Our top priorities are safety of the public and protection of the marine environment.”
According to U-boat.net, the merchant steam tanker was hit by one torpedo on Jan. 15, 1942. It was carrying 8,038 tons of lubricating oil and left Bayonne, N.J., a day before, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Of the 46 crew members, only 10 survived the attack. J.P. Bernard, the tanker’s captain, went down with the ship.
“Residents from the Hamptons on Long Island could see the fire at sea 27 miles away and alerted the authorities,” said the account at Uboat.net. “Less than an hour later, a coup de grâce was fired from a stern torpedo tube that struck the tanker on starboard side underneath the funnel in Number Six main tank and caused the ship to settle fast by the stern, striking the sea floor after five minutes.”
The Coimbra was sailing under the British flag. It was built in 1937 in
Keil, Germany, by HowaldtswerkeDeutsche Werft. As with most Allied tankers attempting an Atlantic crossing during the war, she was lightly armed with a 4-inch gun, six light machine guns, a Holman Projector anti-aircraft weapon and several small arms.
During the upcoming assessment of the Coimbra, boaters are requested to stay at least 500 yards from the dive operation. The wreck, in more than 180 feet of water, is about 30 miles southeast of Shinnecock, N.Y., off Long Island Island’s south shore.
It’s believed the Coimbra may contain about 42,500 barrels of oil, or about 1.2 million gallons — about one-tenth as much as was leaked by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The wreck has been monitored since 1967; in 2009 recreational divers reported some oil seepage.
According to Coast Guard research, some of the Coimbra’s oil may have leaked out, owing to the ship’s extensive torpedo damage and its collision with the sea floor.
U-123 had a productive career harassing Allied shipping lanes in the North Atlantic. It sent 50 vessels, most of them cargo ships like the Coimbra, to the bottom.
The U-123 made it through the war. After Germany’s surrender, it was handed over to the French Navy and remained in service as the Blaison until mid-1959.
The U-boat’s commander, Reinhard Hardegen, survived, too — and then some. After the war he ran an oil trading business, U-boat.net says, and at 105 years old Hardegen is the last living U-boat captain.
The British oil tanker Coimbra was sunk by a German U-boat on Jan. 15, 1942, off the south coast of Long Island.