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    Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

    1943 Secret Storm

    by Wanda Orton
    Wanda Orton
    In the summer of ’43, German U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico, too close for comfort for Texas coastlanders.

    With our Baytown home being just a block away from Black Duck Bay, an appendage of the Houston Ship Channel, I felt it was my duty as an 8-year-old patriot to protect family and friends from a German invasion. And the only way I knew to do that was to search for subs in the bay, using a telescope purchased at the downtown Houston Woolworth store.

    By late July 1943, my family was ready for a summer vacation, the annual trek to see relatives in Nacogdoches, so I had to put the bay watch on hold.

    I just hoped that “das boot” would not surface in Black Duck Bay while I was not on duty. In such a crisis, someone would have to warn our neighbors that the Germans were coming, the Germans were coming.

    While we were gone, Baytown did suffer from an invasion but not from the enemy below.
    German U Boat in Gulf of Mexico

    "German U-Boat U-166 in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy of The PAST Foundation" - Photo part of a Public Display in Sabine Pass Battleground Park

    In a surprise attack – a war of winds and water -- a hurricane hit Baytown on July 27, 1943, dealing extensive damages and leaving much of the population reeling in the aftermath. “What was THAT?”

    Local residents were not prepared for this mighty storm before it slammed into the upper Texas coast.

    Weather forecasters back then relied on reports from ships at sea, and, because of the German U-boat activity, radio broadcasts from ships were silenced. In other words, wartime censorship was affecting our weather news.

    Censorship prevailed even after the storm, and without exact reports, rumors flew around like storm-propelled debris, spinning exaggerated tales of damages and deaths.

    The red hills of East Texas rocked with the horror stories about a hurricane that “wiped Baytown off the map.”

    Fearfully, we cut our vacation short, returning home to see if we still had one.

    I’ll never forget the relief and joy we felt as we approached the entrance of our town, driving past the ship channel docks of Humble Oil & Refining Co.’s Baytown Refinery.

    No need to change the map of Texas, we concluded. Although hit hard, our town was still there.

    Power lines and trees were down, roofs were ripped off, and for many days we didn’t have water and electricity. It did appear, however, that Baytown had survived this mystery storm that blew in from nowhere, packing 132 mph winds.

    Initially we didn't know how badly the Baytown Refinery had been hit. The damage wasn’t visible from the road, but the storm had demolished four large cooling towers, plus other facilities inside the plant.

    Production of high-octane gasoline for aviation fuel, vital for the Allied Forces, had to be suspended for days after the storm.

    For security’s sake, the full impact of the hurricane on the refinery and other plants along the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay area was not publicized.

    The timing couldn’t have been worse as the tide finally had begun to turn in our favor in World War II.

    We heard that the FBI even shut down a telegraph office in La Porte because someone sent a wire describing the hurricane damages.

    Because of its arrival in the midst of WWII, the hurricane of 1943 always will be remembered as a “military secret.”

    On a positive note, it did help to make military history.

    Col. Joe Duckworth, an instructor at the air field in Bryan, made the first flight into the eye of a hurricane. He proved that he could fly his single-engine, two-seat AT-6 into the storm and that both the plane and his instrument flying technique were sound.

    In weather forecasting, Duckworth’s flight marked the beginning of aircraft reconnaissance.

    I could have used some of his help around Black Duck Bay.

    © Wanda Orton
    Baytown Sun Columnist
    "Wandering" June 17, 2012 columns

    Related Topics: World War II | Aviation | Texas Gulf Coast |
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