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Gulf U-boats

Ft. Clark Cavalry Tidbits from WWII

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
By February 1942, Fort Clark had been guarding the Texas border for nearly 90 years.

But the world was changing. Since Germany’s Sept. 1, 1939 blitzkrieg in Poland, even most die-hard cavalrymen had begun to understand that men on horses made no match for machine guns or tanks. Still, the U.S. Army kept mounted soldiers at the venerable post on Los Moras Creek across from Brackettville, 125 miles southwest of San Antonio.

Most of the soldiers belonged to the 112th Cavalry Regiment, a component of the Texas National Guard’s 56th Cavalry Brigade. Patrolling regularly between Del Rio and Sanderson, their job was to keep the Southern Pacific Railroad safe from sabotage.

On February 7, The Centaur, the fort’s weekly newspaper, appeared with a banner headline that must have caught most readers’ eyes in a hurry: “Soldier Inventor Solves Submarine Defense with Oil Paint Bombs.”

A hell-for-leather horse soldier thinking about submarines?

Indeed, as the story explained, “Unauthoritative and unreliable sources revealed this week the discovery of a secret weapon to be utilized in submarine warfare. The invention is credited to Pfc. Vernon Skinner of Troop A, 112th Cavalry.”

Said Skinner: “My weapon will revolutionize submarine warfare. It will be as effective as a trench mortar in a telephone booth.”

Skinner, whose company came from the Dallas area, envisioned his weapon as standard armament for all ships operating in sub-infested waters.

“The bomb is filled with an oil paint the exact color of the sea water,” the story continued. “When a submarine is suspected to be near the convoy, the ships release a number of these bombs. The bombs burst and spread a film of paint over the surface of the ocean.”

The way Skinner had it figured, the story went on, when a submarine rose to periscope depth paint spread on the water by his “oil bomb” would cover the lens. Not able to see, the enemy captain would not know when his boat reached the surface “so the submarine just keeps on rising.”

Once the boat rose 300 or 400 feet into the air, it could be shot down with anti-aircraft guns, the horse soldier postulated, bridle-bit-in-cheek.

“The weapon will be tested Sunday at midnight on the surface of the Rio Grande River near Eagle Pass,” the Fort Clark newspaper concluded. “The Nazis have obligingly loaned Pfc. Skinner an old Munich Pact submarine to be used in the experiment. Great secrecy will surround the proceedings. Only foreign spies and fifth columnists will be admitted.”

Two months after Pearl Harbor, the phony story must have provided a little comic relief to the Texas men stationed on the border.

But in a way, as the story reflects, the war was not all that far from Fort Clark. In 1942 and continuing into 1943, the German navy had more than 20 U-boats operating in the Gulf of Mexico. The Nazis skippers had orders to sink oil-laden tankers departing Texas and Louisiana ports.

For a time, Germany was winning the war in U.S. waters. The so-called Wolf Packs sunk 56 ships, 39 of them off Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

This “like shooting fish in a barrel” stage of the conflict drug on until late 1943, when a concerted U.S. military effort, along with the use of armed convoys for merchant ships, the development of the Intracoastal canal and the “Big Inch” pipeline from Texas to New Jersey finally thwarted the German operation.

And soon enough, the horse soldiers of the 112th got into the fight. Shipped overseas on July 8, 1942, the Texas cavalrymen served in the Pacific theater throughout the rest of the war. Proving they had more than a good sense of humor, the outfit spent 434 days in combat, losing 224 men while claiming an estimated 7,200 Japanese soldiers.



© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - January 20, 2006 column, modified May 4, 2015

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