The SS Robert E. Lee was hit by one torpedo from Nazi Submarine U-166, steaming at 16 knots about 25 miles southeast of the entrance to the Mississippi River on July 30, 1942.
Lookouts had spotted the torpedo wake about 200 yards away before it struck the former Eastern Steamship Line coastal liner just aft of the engine room.
- The explosion destroyed the #3 hold, vented through the B and C decks and wrecked the engines, the radio compartment, and the steering gear.
- The vessel had been bound for Tampa, but no pilot was available so she was diverted to New Orleans under escort by the American submarine chaser USS PC-566, which now began dropping depth charges at a sonar contact, sinking the U-boat.
The badly damaged Robert E. Lee first listed to port then to starboard and finally sank by the stern about 15 minutes after the torpedo hit. One officer, nine crewmen, and 15 passengers were lost.
- The survivors of the eight officers, 122 crewmen, six armed guards (the ship was armed with one 3in gun) and 268 passengers on board abandoned ship in six lifeboats, eight rafts, and five floats and were soon picked up by USS PC-566, USS SC-519, and a tug.
- The passengers aboard the Robert E. Lee were mostly survivors of previously torpedoed ships on their way to the U.S.A. Among the rescued were all 28 men from the Andrea Brovig and 44 men from the Stanvac Palembang, while one man from the latter died in the sinking.
On December 11, 1941, days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler addressed the Reichstag to declare war on the United States.
- Although American efforts to assist Great Britain were well underway, Hitler’s declaration officially brought the country into the European theatre. The United States was at war on both fronts.
- By early 1942, the United States had drastically increased its naval presence in the Atlantic and presented a distinctive challenge to German U-boats who previously had patrolled with little resistance.
- This newfound challenge coerced U-boats to find less militarized areas to patrol and harass. The Nazis turned their attention to the Gulf of Mexico.
- Heavy traffic from New Orleans and the consistent flow of oil from the region made the waters a prime target. The Gulf Coast was unprepared to defend against Nazi submarine attacks. The Nazis felt they could significantly undermine the American war effort if they could successfully disrupt the free flow of oil.