I’m just off the intersection of Fokkerstraat and Guterberg Straat, or Beligie and Arendstraat, or even Wilhelmina and Nieuw Straat. I’m drinking a kopstoot—near-frozen jenever gin with a beer chaser (if I was a real traditionalist, I’d have poured a shot of gin into a fluted glass and topped it off with beer). It’s September, 88 degrees F, and I have a picnic hamper full of stuffed cheese, bitterballen and little meat pies. I am en route to the white sands of Eagle Beach, trying to decide between diving one of two shallow-water WWII-era wrecks.
Where am I?
Well, the white sand beaches and 88 degree weather would argue against the Netherlands. And except for the WWII wrecks, I could be on any of the Netherland Antilles from Aruba, Bonaire or Curacao, to St Maartin, Saba or St Eustacius. All offer world-class diving and dive-related recreation, classic tropical beaches and abundant sea life. In fact –many aficionados rate the ABCs as the best scuba and snorkeling sites in the world.
But again – those same aficionados would know in a flash that I’m on Aruba. In my opinion these two wrecks, the es Antilla and the ss Pedernales, are “must sees” for snorkelers and divers alike, amateur or pro. Yep, there’s a lot more stuff out there, including the Jane Sea, the Debbie II, the Star Gerren, and the California—not to mention incredible reef and shore dives. But the es Antilla and ss Pedernales bookend events that were to define Aruba’s wartime experience, and here they are—tangible and touchable, seventy years later.
For me, their stories are captivating. The es Antilla was built Hamburg in 1939 – and didn’t survive her maiden voyage. She was an Electro Ship—powered by state-of-the-art electrics, run by two steam turbines. She’d made her initial rounds in the Caribbean, had loaded up a cargo of sulfur in Galveston, Texas and was about to head home, when on 28 August 1939, the Nazis ordered all German merchant vessels unable to return home by 1 September (the date set for invading Poland) to seek neutral harbors. Her skipper, Captain Schmidt, joined three other German freighters, the ss Consul Horn, ss Heidelberg and ss Troja in Malmok Bay, Aruba, only to be bottled up by an Anglo/French blockade. On 9 January 1940, the ss Consul Horn successfully evaded the allied blockade, and after repainting her markings and changing identities when challenged, was able to reach safe port in Europe. Two months later, the ss Heidelberg and ss Troya attempted to run the blockade, but were intercepted by British warships in international waters and chose scuttling over capture.
The Nazis invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 which placed German merchant shipping in the Netherland Antilles subject to confiscation and their crews to internment. When Dutch marines boarded the es Antilla, Schmidt ordered her scuttled. The es Antilla’s crew was transported to Bonaire for interment, (present site of the Divi Flamigo Hotel). All signs of the internment camps have vanished with time – but the es Antilla remains.
The old girl sunk in less than 60 feet of water – and at 400 feet long, and built to displace over 4,300 tons, she’s one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean. Largely intact, home to spectacular reef life, and only ten minutes from shore, the Antilla’s superstructure is easily accessible to snorkelers, and both beginner and experienced divers will reap rewards accessing compartments, corridors, and cargo holds.
Two years after the es Antilla sank, the war was in full cry. Aruba witnessed the first U-boat attack on allied shipping in the western hemisphere, when Wolfpack Neuland Gruppe, consisting of five German and two Italian subs under the command of Frigattenkapitan Werner Hartenstein drew first blood. Hartenstein ran operation Paukensclag (Drum Beat); his mission to disrupt oil shipments and cripple refining operations between Venezuela and the Antilles.
After stalking the Aruban coast for three days, identifying targets and risks, Hartenstein, in U-156, surfaced just outside of the St Nicolas harbor early on the morning of 15 February 1942. Two British lake tankers, the ss Pedernales and ss Oranjestadt rode at anchor within 100 yards of each other. Hartenstein took out the heavily loaded ss Pedernales first with a single torpedo amidships, and she burst into flames. The ss Oranjestadt was next, sinking in 230 feet of water.
Shock and awe in St Nicolas harbor.
Hartenstein wasn’t done yet. He surfaced and cruised northwest to shell the Lago refinery and storage tanks with his 105 mm deck gun. Fortunately for the Allies, less fortunate for the U-156, the gun crew failed to remove the big gun’s watertight barrel cap. The barrel ruptured, killing the gunner and seriously injuring the gunnery officer. Paukenschlag was U-156’s first real combat mission, and the oversight could have been a training issue – or simply operator error in the heat of battle. Either way, it saved the refinery.
With the main gun out of commission, Hartenstein opened up with his 37 mm antiaircraft gun. He lobbed 16 rounds at the storage tanks, but caused only nominal damage to the tanks (although a few rounds caused significant damage to a nearby school). Disgusted, Hartenstein headed north towards the Eagle refinery and the 700 foot-long Eagle Pier to strike the American tanker ss Arkansas – firing three torpedoes, seemingly without effect. Actually one torpedo did find its target—just forward of amidships, but as the tanker was still waiting for its cargo of aviation fuel, and the damage, again, was nominal. The other two torpedoes failed to detonate and went astray on Eagle Beach. Having lost the element of surprise, and fearing air attack, Hartenstein broke off the attack and set course for pro-Vichy Martinique to invalid out his wounded gunnery officer. As an interesting side note, the gunnery officer survived the war, was repatriated to Germany and spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully petitioning for an enhanced medical pension based upon his claim that the gun failure and his injury, were due to design flaws in the deck gun and not operator error. U-156 was lost in action with all hands on 8 March 1943 east of Barbados.
The ss Pedernales burned all night but stayed afloat, and when morning broke, was towed to shallow water near Sabaneta. The relatively intact front and aft sections were cut away, and welded back together in the Lago drydock, where she was fitted with a temporary wheelhouse. She steamed to Baltimore under her own power and after refitting, was returned to service. She was renamed after the war in1956 as the Esso Pedernales, and again in 1958 as the Katendrecht, before being scrapped in 1959 in Holland.
The rest of the ss Pedernales – the largely intact middle section—lies in relatively shallow water outside St. Nicolas harbor, about 20 minutes by boat. At just 25 feet deep, it makes for a great dive for beginners and even after 70 years, sections of cabins and furnishings, wash basins and heads, pipelines and pipe systems remain surprisingly intact.
Remember those two torpedoes that ran up on Eagle Beach? One was found the very next morning. Tragically, it exploded as Nederaland demolition technicians tried to disarm it.
And the second one? Well, last a few years back, a demolition team from the Royal Netherlands Navy’s HNLMS Pelikaan searched up and down the beach for four days with divers and the underwater robot REMUS—alas, without luck.
Something to think about next time you find yourself sipping a kopstoot and digging your toes into the white sands of Eagle Beach.