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A Tale of Two Wrecks: U-166 and SS Robert E. Lee

The wrecks of SS Robert E. Lee and U-166 rest only a few miles apart in the Gulf of Mexico, both sunk within several minutes of the other during World War II. Find out more of their story through these photos captured on our visit to the wrecks in July, 2014, nearly 72 years after they sunk.

Ocean Exploration Trust

SS Robert E. Lee - Anemone-covered Gun

While many people think of U-boats as patrolling the cold waters of the Atlantic, they also ended up closer to home, running patrols and sinking ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ocean Exploration Trust

SS Robert E. Lee - Bow

One of those ships was SS Robert E. Lee, an American passenger steamer on its way to New Orleans from Trinidad.

Ocean Exploration Trust

SS Robert E. Lee - Anchor Chains

The ship was carrying 283 passengers, mostly victims of other U-boat attacks around the Atlantic Ocean. All but 15 of them survived the attack.

Ocean Exploration Trust

SS Robert E. Lee - Top Deck

On July 30th, 1942 at 10:30 PM, a torpedo from U-166 hit the vessel, which took about 15 minutes to sink. One officer, nine crewman, and fifteen passengers died as the vessel went down.

Ocean Exploration Trust

Robert E. Lee - More Anemones

The wreck of the Robert E. Lee was discovered in 2001 only two miles from another wreck, U-166. 

Ocean Exploration Trust

U-166 - Conning Tower

U-166 sank three ships in July, 1942 before attacking the Robert E. Lee, all in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ocean Exploration Trust

U-166 - Top Gun

Once the torpedo was sighted, the Robert E. Lee's escort vessel, PC-566, dropped several depth charges before assisting survivors of the wreck.

Ocean Exploration Trust

U-166 - Close-up

Those depth charges sank the U-boat with all hands. The wreck is considered a war gravesite and cannot be disturbed.

Ocean Exploration Trust

U-166 - Life Finds a Way

For many years, the military believed that the U-boat had escaped and was destroyed the next day in another part of the Gulf by a Coast Guard plane. The error wasn't remedied until the wrecks were discovered only a few miles apart and proper credit was given to PC-566

Ocean Exploration Trust

U-166 - Gun Close-up

Now the two wrecks rest in 1,500 meters of water, a permanent monument to the lives lost on board and a reminder of a dark time in U.S. history.

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