NOAA Contributes to U.S. Coast Guard Mission to Recover Oil from Sunken WWII Vessel

Posted Mon, 09/13/2021 - 17:15
By Vicki Loe, Doug Helton, and Lisa Symons, Office of Response and Restoration
A black and white photo of a sinking vessel.
Chief Petty Officer Christopher Taylor, assigned to the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, tends a hydraulic line for the deep-sea hydraulic drill to be used during offshore operations, near Key West, Florida, July 8, 2021. The National Strike Force is overseeing pollution mitigation efforts from the tanker Munger T. Ball shipwreck that was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1942. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.

At about 1:30 a.m.on Tuesday, May 5, 1942,  the American Steam Tanker Munger T. Ball, en route to Norfolk, Virginia, from Port Arthur, Texas, with a cargo of 65,000 gallons of gasoline was hit twice by torpedoes and machine gun fire from the German U-507 about 80 miles northwest of Key West, Florida. The first hit caused the tanker to burst into flames, preventing the crews’ ability to launch lifeboats, leaving 30 dead and four survivors who were able to swim away from the burning vessel and be rescued four hours later. The vessel sank within 15 minutes of the second hit.

In June 2021, following reports of intermittent oil sheens in the area, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, NOAA, the Maritime Administration, with the contract salvage company, Resolve Marine Group, conducted an assessment of the source. For many years, the wreck at that location was thought to be that of the American Steam Tanker Joseph M. Cudahy, a vessel that was hit by torpedoes from U-507 at 4:15 a.m. also on May 5, 1942, a few hours after the burning of the Munger T. Ball. But the marine archeological study done as part of the recent assessment ultimately helped to uncover the actual identity of the vessel as the Munger T. Ball, not the Joseph M. Cudahy

Operation Paukenschlag "Drumbeat" started in January of 1942. In April of 1942, coastal city blackouts were instituted and convoys of ships were used more frequently and the U.S. stepped up efforts to destroy U-boats. Both the Munger T. Ball and the Joseph M. Cudahy were transporting fuel to support the Allied ships as part of the WWII effort. The German Navy had just begun their effort to disrupt shipping of oil and other cargo through the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard. At that early stage of the German effort, the U.S. Navy was not as focused on the Atlantic and woefully under-resourced. Most of the U.S. Navy focus was on the Pacific, post Pearl Harbor.

The Munger T. Ball and the Joseph M. Cudahy were only two of 56 ships sunk by German submarines during that month in May 1942. By August of 1942,  the losses had decreased. Most ships were sunk within 30 miles of shore, sometimes two to three vessels a day. Passengers coming into airports saw flaming wrecks; sunbathers in Virginia and North Carolina saw ships go down as burning tankers became a familiar sight off coastal resorts. Black oil and tar balls coated beaches.

There are thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters and back in World War II, there was not much concern about oil as a marine pollution source. Because of the ongoing war effort, the nearshore wrecks were often intentionally blown up to decrease hazards to navigation and to preclude them being used as hiding places for U-boats; offshore wrecks were often left as they were.

In more recent years, however, the pollution contained in these wrecks have become a greater concern, and in 2010, Congress directed NOAA to conduct a national risk assessment, focusing on the ships that most likely still contained large amounts of oil as fuel or cargo. That effort screened over 20,000 potential targets to identify 87 priority wrecks, including both the Munger T. Ball and the Joseph M. Cudahy. A detailed report was prepared for each of the priority wrecks.  

The national risk assessment effort, known as NOAA's Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET), was a key tool in the planning and response to the Munger T. Ball. The RULET database helped to identify the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. The focus of RULET sites are wrecks with continued potential to leak pollutants including vessels sunk during past wars, many of which are also grave sites, as in the case of the Munger T. Ball. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration jointly manage the RULET database.

As with many responses, several NOAA components were involved in the effort. The Office of Response and Restoration contributed to the mission with statistical modeling and trajectories; determining resources at risk; and consultation considerations concerning the Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) (Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries provided input on consultation issues associated with the National Historic Preservation Act as well as EFH and ESA considerations. The National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) provided ongoing satellite analysis of sheening occurring from the Munger T. Ball. The National Weather Service, Weather Forecast Office Key West, provided marine spot forecasts that were critical in the support of on-water operations, including issues associated with Hurricane Elsa. 

Using divers and remote operated vehicle technology, the assessment determined that while most of the oil on board had likely burned or been released, intact tanks remained that were found to be the source of the leaks causing the visible sheens.The mitigation efforts involved safely removing the remaining 35,00 gallons of oil product from port tanks 4, 6, and 7, concluding a 40-day coordinated response on July 16, 2021. Those that participated in the effort to recover the oil were sensitive to the fact that the wreck is the final resting place of the 30 crew members who perished in the attack.  

CAPT. Adam Chamie, Coast Guard Munger T. Ball, federal on scene coordinator, summarized:

“Despite facing many challenges, our crews wrapped up a very successful and historical response to the tanker Munger T. Ball and I could not be more proud. Coast Guard members deployed from across the nation and integrated seamlessly with our agency partners and private marine contractors to safely and efficiently remove oil from the ship while also paying respects to those who laid down their life for their country.”

On July 12, 2021, with mitigation efforts almost complete, a ceremony was held at the site, laying a plaque on the hull to commemorate the 30 crew members who died in the early hours of May 5, 1942.

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