Walter Dutch of suburban West Palm Beach called in May about a historical event that involved his dad, the longtime real estate executive and one-time Palm Beach County School Board chairman of the same name.
He said Dutch, while in the service in the region that later would be his home, made an executive decision that perhaps saved lives but nearly led to his court-martial.
World War II was a world away for most Americans, but from February to May in 1942, German U-boats sank 16 ships from Cocoa Beach to Boca Raton.
Ironically, the deadliest local disaster didn’t come under fire.
Two ships under wartime orders to travel without lights collided off Jupiter Inlet, just before 11 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1943.
The empty Gulf Bell, torpedoed once before and salvaged, rammed the Gulfland, which was full of gasoline and caught fire.
Dutch — the son of an Austrian immigrant, he then was known as Walter Deutsch — was a Long Islander stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard base in West Palm Beach. “We approached the empty tanker from windward,” he said in an Associated Press story, that, as was common during the war, doesn’t identify the ships by name. “Only one man could be seen on deck. He refused to jump until we shouted we were going to leave. There was a lot of screaming.”
The junior Dutch says his dad’s boat “was the first one out. As soon as they got the call, they just took off. When he came back, they wrote him up, (saying) he took the boat without permission.”
Dutch said supervisors demanded his dad admit to wrongdoing . He refused.
“They threatened to court-martial him,” the son said. “But they dropped it.”
In all, of 116 seamen on the Gulf Bell and Gulfland, 88 died.
The Gulf Bell ran aground. Rescuers later found a dog aboard, singed but alive.
The Gulfland burned off Hobe Sound for more than seven weeks.
Later, workers poked holes in the Gulfland, and it sank in 30 feet. A year after the accident, salvagers made a grim discovery on it: The bones of 15 men who had sought refuge in a shower.
The stern was moved off but the bow remains at the bottom, where it is a popular diving spot.
Special thanks to Post staff researcher Niels Heimeriks.
The tanker Gulfland is seen burning off Hobe Sound in 1942 after it was struck by another tanker, the Gulf Bell. Both were traveling without lights to avoid German submarines that hunted ships along the Florida coast during 1942. The Gulfland burned for more than seven weeks. Later, workers poked holes in the Gulfland, and it sank in 30 feet of water. (Photo courtesy of Florida Photographic Collection)