SS Robert E. Lee

American passenger steamship sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by a German U-Boat during World War II.
by Matthew Anderson

Year Built


Year Sank



6400 ft (1950.7 m)

Difficulty Level


SS Robert E. Lee

Wreck Location

The remains of the Robert E. Lee lie southeast of New Orleans in more than 6,000 feet of water at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in exceptionally deep water more than a mile below the ocean surface. As such, diving the Robert E. Lee can only be done with manned submersibles or ROVs. The water surrouding the wreck is clear allowing for great visibility when exploring the wreck. The exact location of the wreck has been hinted at, but has not been disclosed by NOAA in order to protect the integrity of the wreck and the adjoining wreck of the U-166.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   28° 40' 0.0012" N      Longitude:   -88° 42' 0" W


The Robert E. Lee was built in 1924 for the Eastern Steamship Lines, an Atltantic based coastal steamship company headquartered in Boston, Massechusetts. Robert E. Lee operated in the northeastern area of the United States in regular service. In 1942, the Robert E. Lee was leased to the Alcoa Steamship Company to ship wartime logistics and passengers around the Gulf of Mexico for the second World War. She was fitted with a deck gun in an attempt to defend herself against the threat of a German U-Boat attack

On July 30, 1942, the Robert E. Lee was travelling inbound to New Orleans, escorted by the USS PC-566. The German Type IXC submarine U-166 fired a torpedo and sunk the Robert E. Lee killing 25 people. Immediately, PC-566 went on the offensive and fired depth charges by order of Lieutenant Commander Herbert Claudius at the U-166. The U-166 crash dove in an attempt to escape, but a single depth charge landed on the submarine's deck. The depth charge detonated in turn detonating the submarine's torpedoes, blowing off the bow of U-166, flooding and sinking her immediately. Despite the victory, the United States Navy refused to credit Claudius for the sinking of U-166 until the early 21st Century when Dr. Robert Ballard and an accompanying dive team. Claudius posthumously recieved the Legion of Meritt for his actions

The Robert E. Lee now lies at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico covered in colorful marine growth and in fair condition. However, time has taken its toll on the wreck of the Robert E. Lee. The smokestack, wooden superstructure and floor of the main deck have rotted away. The deck gun installed to protect against U-Boat attack still lies upon the Lee's deck, having never been fired. The U-166 caught the Robert E. Lee off guard when it attacked. The lifeboat davits also remain in place, swung out over the side of the ship as they were the day she sank. Robert E. Lee lies two miles south of her killer, the U-166.


In 2002, a NOAA sponsored expedition mapped the sea floor where the Robert E. Lee had sunk, hoping to create a detailed map of the sea floor for construction of an oil pipeline. As expected, the Robert E. Lee was uncovered where she had sunk, but the U-166 had turned up two miles north of it quite unexpectedly. The discovery of the U-166 near the Robert E. Lee ultimately helped to re-write history in favor of Commander Herbert Claudius of the USS PC-566 for sinking the German submarine. The victim and killer lying on the ocean floor in the same place is an interesting discovery for maritime historians. A similar situation lead to the U-215 and the liberty ship Alexander Macomb sharing the same final resting place.


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