Frank Leonard Terry and a colleague had just gone to the stern of the W.D. Anderson for coffee on the night of Feb. 22, 1942, when a torpedo slammed into the engine room of the 500-foot, 10,277-ton freighter, filled with oil and headed north, 12 miles north of Jupiter.
"The ship stood, in a fraction of a second, from forward to astern in flames,' U-boat commander Fritz Poske wrote.
As Terry went over a rail and into the water, a second torpedo hit. Covered in oil, he bobbed for hours in water so cold he thought sharks had bitten off his legs. He was surprised when rescuers told him they were still there. He was the only survivor.
"It was my first trip to Florida. I didn't like the experience," Terry said in a 1992 interview for a Palm Beach Post section marking 50 years since World War II came to Florida.
Between February and May 1942, U-boats sank 24 ships off Florida, 16 of them from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton.
In all, from Maine to Texas and from California to Alaska, U-boats sank about 400, killing about 5,000 seamen. Sinking with them: oil, paint, cotton, sugar; airplanes, tanks and trucks. Now, six decades later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to know whether any of that foul cargo still leaches into the water.
Starting as early as next spring, the Coast Guard will be looking during regular patrols. Salvors will dive to any wrecks believed to be a significant threat; money for that comes from a spill fund financed by the oil industry.