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By David Malakoff

For nearly 60 years, historians believed they knew exactly what happened off the coast of Louisiana on the muggy evening of July 30, 1942. Eight months after the United States entered World War II, the tramp steamer Robert E. Lee was carrying roughly 425 passengers and crew across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans when those on deck noticed something—maybe a dolphin?—splashing through the waves. In fact, it was a torpedo fired by the U-166, one of nearly two dozen German submarines Adolf Hitler had deployed to the Gulf to disrupt shipping. The weapon smashed into the Lee’s stern, unleashing a massive explosion. “I was thrown 30 feet into the air and ended up in the water, unconscious,” Michael Cullen, a seaman aboard the Lee, later recalled.

Cullen was lucky. The Lee sank within minutes and 25 of those aboard died. But most were able to scramble into lifeboats, and crewmates pulled Cullen, injured but still breathing, from the sea.

Photo showing the aft deck and gun of a sunken UBoat.

The deck gun on Robert E. Lee’s upper aft deck.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ocean Exploration Trust

As the Lee slipped into waters nearly a mile deep, a U.S. Navy patrol craft escorting the freighter charged after the fleeing U-boat, dropping several salvos of underwater explosives. Lieutenant Commander Herbert G. Claudius, the captain of the PC-566, reported that after a cat-and-mouse chase lasting more than 20 minutes “the submarine was sunk or so mortally wounded that she would never return to her base.” But the Navy disagreed. Official accounts later concluded that the U-166 had escaped, only to be sunk days later and 150 miles away by a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft. The records also showed that Navy officials reprimanded Claudius for botching his attack—and even recommended he be relieved of his command.

But that official history turned out to be grossly mistaken, maritime archaeologists Robert Church and Daniel Warren wrote earlier this year in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.  Drawing on a trove of archaeological data—as well as the clever use of some math and physics—they have reconstructed, nearly minute-by-minute, what really happened during that chaotic, terrifying sea battle some 80 years ago. The sophisticated reconstruction marks the culmination of an extraordinary 20-year research effort that has left a lasting imprint on archaeology. It included dogged archival sleuthing and more than a dozen field expeditions that demonstrated how new technologies could pry open a largely unexplored archaeological frontier: the cold, dark waters of the deep sea.

This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2023 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!