Tom Kugler hunted German submarines as the bombardier on a B-24 Liberator during World War II. Some people are surprised when they hear where he did it.
In the Caribbean, often quite close to Florida.
"I don't think the few young people I talk to have an understanding of what went on with the Germans in World War II except in Europe," said Kugler, 94, a Kansas resident who was based at what was then called MacDill Field in Tampa at the start of the war.
The Tampa Bay History Center hopes to provide a lesson about how close the Germans brought the war to the shores of Florida with an exhibit opening today, featuring a life-sized replica of a German midget-submarine. With the exhibit, museum officials say they want to highlight the deadly submarine war that was waged so close to Florida, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico.
Seven cargo ships sailing to or from Tampa were sunk by U-boats in the gulf during World War II, killing 60 people.
The exhibit opens on the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That may be appropriate since it underscores the fact that U-boat warfare on the U.S. East Coast and in the gulf was far more damaging to the U.S. war effort, some historians say, than the bombing by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
"The idea that there were U-boats that were pretty darn close to Florida and affecting all the shipping that's going on in the gulf is something that is not talked about very often," said Rodney Kite-Powell, a history center curator. "We're showing the reality that the war really was a world war that included our own shores."
The replica also provides the Tampa museum with national exposure because the construction of the Seehundclass minisub is featured in the second episode of a new History Channel series, Museum Men.
The series is focused on the work of Creative Arts Unlimited, a Pinellas Park company that since the 1990s has manufactured historical exhibits for museums and which built the history center's replica.
The series, which airs at 10 p.m. Saturdays on the History Channel's H2 network, debuted last month. The episode featuring the submarine premiered Saturday and will be aired again Tuesday at 11 a.m. with repeats throughout December.
The producers of the program footed the bill for the sub build, though history center officials said they did not know the total cost. Creative Arts officials said they had to construct the replica on a rushed schedule of four to six weeks in order to finish in time for the series' scheduled opening after extensive research.
"We were literally working around the clock, seven days a week," said Daryl Mosher, Creative Arts exhibit manager. "There is definitely some drama that will be portrayed in the show. And it's all real drama."
The exhibit also will include artifacts recovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration from the shipwreck of the SS Gairsoppa, a British cargo ship that was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic in early 1941.
Germany built 285 Seehundsubmarines in the final two years of World War II. Given the ship's size and limited range, it never saw service close to the U.S. The Germans used it closer to their own territory, especially in the Baltic Sea.
Kite-Powell said the minisubs were not very effective, and they sank just eight Allied vessels.
Though Seehunds did not see action in or near U.S. waters, Kite-Powell said it was far more practical for the museum to display the 30-foot Seehund replica than the bigger submarines the Germans used in the gulf, which came in at more than 200 feet.
But the Seehund, he said, nonetheless provides an opportunity to talk about submarine warfare off Florida shores.
The history center says the Germans started sending submarines to U.S. coastal waters soon after Pearl Harbor. The first of those subs reached gulf waters in May 1942. In a year, the Germans launched 49 attacks in the gulf, sank or damaged 63 ships and killed 682 people, the center says.
Shipping losses were high up and down the East Coast with some estimates showing Allied losses of 228 ships from just January to April 1942.
Early in the war, the United States did not employ stringent blackouts, and sub skippers could easily spot ships making coastal runs by their silhouettes against the lights on the shore.
"I remember the big Ferris wheel at Coney Island lit up at night," German U-boat captain, Reinhard Hardegen, told the Times in 1991. "It was something to see. And then, farther down south, the resorts. The ships would be silhouetted against this and we could just fire away. It seemed too easy ... We were expecting the worst, but the Americans were totally unprepared."
But the tide was turned against the U-boats by the end of 1942 with the use of coastal blackouts and the greater utilization of convoys. The last U-boat losses in the gulf occurred in the fall of 1942.
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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IF YOU GO
Tampa Bay History Center
801 Old Water St., Tampa
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The German submarine exhibit, "Operation Drumbeat: Nazi Threat in the Gulf," is expected to be open until mid April.
For more information about the center, including ticket prices, visit tampabayhistorycenter.org or call (813) 228-0097.