War ca­su­alty holds deep se­crets

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - NEWS - By Jim Shay and John Burge­son

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.

NOAA photo

The Bri­tish oil tanker Coim­bra was sunk by a Ger­man U-boat on Jan. 15, 1942, off the south coast of Long Is­land.

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