Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Molly Murray, reporter for the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, about the oil that was spilled in the Atlantic during World War Two when German U-boats torpedoed U.S. oil tankers.
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MARCO WERMAN: Forecasters said today that oil from the BP spill could threaten the coast of Mississippi and Alabama this week. The disaster is now in its 42nd day and it’s already the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Note we said the worst, not the first. Thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the waters of the North Atlantic nearly 70 years ago. Reporter Molly Murray writes for the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware. She recently wrote an article about the oil spills that occurred during the early days of World War II.
MOLLY MURRAY: The German military launched an operation called Operation Drumbeat. They left France on Christmas Day 1941 and they headed over to the Atlantic Coast. Their mission was to disrupt shipping. When they got here they realized that we were completely ill prepared. And it was literally like shooting fish in a barrel.
WERMAN: And fish in a barrel, what exactly were they shooting at?
MURRAY: They were shooting at cargo ships, oil tankers, even some fishing vessels off the coast of Nova Scotia.
WERMAN: And what kind of tankers were they? Were they enlisted with the Navy or where they private merchant marine ships?
MURRAY: These were all merchant marine ships; merchant vessels. The German Navy’s real key here was to disrupt shipping. As you probably know, there was a program to convoy ships across the North Atlantic to Europe to get supplies there, but there was also coastal transportation of ships and that was really what they were targeting.
WERMAN: Now many people died in the effort to move oil to the troops in the Atlantic. How many attacks were there on oil tankers during World War II off the coast?
MURRAY: The International Maritime Organization estimates that there were 3,002 ships sunk in the North Atlantic. Of those, 452 were oil tankers.
WERMAN: What kind of volume of oil does that equate to?
MURRAY: Well a typical tanker at that time was carrying something like 65,000 barrels. A barrel is about 42 gallons of oil.
WERMAN: So how did the U.S. and its allies put an end to these large numbers of ships, these tankers, sunk by Germans?
MURRAY: Well there were a couple of strategies. In May, there were some regulations that were put in place and that basically required people along the shore to use blackout lights, blackout curtains.
WERMAN: Now this was May 1942?
MURRAY: May of 1942. What was basically happening prior to that was the ships would be silhouetted against the lights from the shoreline and it made it very easy for the German submarines to pick them off and hit them. There are very dramatic stories in some cases of people on shore watching ships burn off the coast after they had been struck.
WERMAN: What is known about the oil that spilled into the ocean? Were the effects immediately visible and is there any evidence of these spills today?
MURRAY: The affects would have likely been tar balls washing up on the beach, oil slicks out in the ocean. But people just didn’t have the same attitude about oil that they do today. After all, there was a war going on, we were really in the fight of our life and at that point, we weren’t doing so well.
WERMAN: Now you’re from Delaware, Molly. The story you wrote for the News Journal on World War II oil spills is more than history for you, it’s personal as well, you grew up with the stuff.
MURRAY: Oh yes. In the early 70′s there were series of spills in the Delaware River and of course there was a lot of oil that washed ashore and people started noticing the impact of these spills, particularly on wildlife and birds. In the sort of mid-1970′s, there were several very large spills, one each year. And as a child, tar balls on the beach were a pretty normal way of life. I mean, you couldn’t go to the beach and not have tar on your feet.
WERMAN: And was that the case as well during World War II?
MURRAY: I believe so. When you talk to the old timers, they talk about tar balls, large numbers of tar balls on the beach.
WERMAN: Reporter Molly Murray with the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, thank you very much for your time.
MURRAY: Thank you.
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