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The Vermilion Cannery


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the Vermilion Cannery

The storm started out modestly near the Cape Verde islands off the coast of East Africa.

The prevailing winds took it across the warm waters of the tropical Atlantic where it grew to become a category 3 hurricane but it was too late in the season. When Hurricane Mona entered the Gulf, instead of strengthening like they often do in August and September, it meandered through the cooler waters of October and November losing strength. It brushed Hati and Cuba and then made a bee line for the coast of Louisiana and Texas.

The storm came ashore at Cameron, Louisiana as tropical depression Mona just short of hurricane strength. It collided with an East bound cold front and began to move East across Baton Rouge into Mississippi and finally Alabama before it came apart. In its path the storm dumped 6 to 18 inches of furious rain flooding parts of South Louisiana and Mississippi that most storms missed.

Cameron barely noticed the storm. Built on stilts, the town that had been destroyed so many times by hurricanes was built to survive them. The residents simply drove out of town and returned when it was over.

The swamps of south Louisiana are criss-crossed by numerous oil and gas pipelines. Before the refineries could make the crude usable, the pipes had to be checked from Port Arthur all the way to New Iberia.

Pilot Jeff Chandler and a couple of engineers from Acadia Oil and Gas got in a Bell 407 helicopter and began to follow the pipes west to east.

They could easily see that the storm had done its usual damage to the swamp but spotted no leaks and all of their transit and right of way markers were still in place. After spending most of the day looking at the lines, Chandler turned the helicopter North-West at Freshwater City to land at Lake Charles.

A few minutes later he saw it. Just a little West of Freshwater City was a huge old cannery. The factory had been built on a deep water channel so fishing boats could deliver their hauls for processing and be picked up by ocean going freighters. Chandler had used the old cannery for years as a reference point because in the vast, featureless swamp, you had to remember any sort of landmark.

Chandler had no idea how long the factory had been there. The pier was long since gone leaving only a row of posts in the water. The factory had collapsed and much of the timber scattered by the storm revealing a large concrete structure hidden underneath.

Chandler said to his passengers, "Hang on a minute. I want to see what we have here."

He circled the big factory twice. The waterfront side of the factory was gone. There was definitely a large concrete structure under the building which had originally stood on big steel I-beams.

One of his passengers said, "What do you suppose that is? Storm shelter maybe?"

Chandler replied, "I don't know. It would be an awfully big one. That old building has been here as long as I can remember. After surviving hurricanes Audry, Ike and Rita, seems a shame that little blow like Mona took her down. Well, we're burning the companies gas, lets go home."

After a fairly routine hop to Lake Charles, Chandler returned his passengers safely with good news. The oil and gas people could get back to work.

The mystery bug bit Chandler. He flew over the site any excuse that he had. There was nowhere safe to land but he took pictures and a got good GPS fix on the site. He even spotted mounds of oyster shells out behind the factory building.

After talking to a few people, he decided to go to the Vermilion Parish seat at Abbeville and see what he could discover about the mysterious cannery.

He drove the hour and a half from Lake Charles and camped out in the Parish Clerks office. It took him forever to find any documents regarding the site but they began in the thirties.

The company paid its taxes in 1938 as Finster and Klein. They wrote a check on the New Orleans Industrial Bank for the staggering sum of 1,812.35.

Chandler kept going backwards. 1937, 1936, 1935 until the property was purchased and the factory constructed in 1934. Every year they paid between $1200 to $2200.

The old country clerk brought him a dusty folder with very little contents with 1934 written in fine penmanship on the cover. He said, "Thought you might like to see this. It's the articles of incorporation for all the companies founded in 1934."

Chandler opened the folder. There was only one document. He looked at the old man who shrugged and said, "It was the depression. Not much was going on here."

According to the documents, in 1934 Finster & Klein of Wilhelmshaven, Germany founded the Vermilion Cannery. It paid taxes and abruptly stopped in 1939. So, it was a German owned company that abruptly shut down at the outbreak of World War II.

That was all Chandler could discover at the parish clerks office but at least he had a name and some dates.

Later that evening, Chandler got on his computer and began to do some searching. He found that Finster & Klein were a subsidiary of Krupp Industries. Their ownership was close to Hitler and very influential in the Nazi party. In 1940 their holding in the United States were seized by the FBI for suspected espionage activities at various sites along the East Coast. At a couple of locations that they missed, Nazi spies were radioing the comings and goings of allied ships at American ports. That wasn't completely sorted out until late in 1943.

Wow! Chandler rolled away from his computer. He picked up his cell phone and called a friend in Freshwater City.

"Hello Louis. This is Chandler, how you doing?"

"You still running charters?"

"Good. You free Thursday? There's a place I want to see up close..."

* * *

Chandler arrived at the marina at Freshwater City at dawn in time to catch Louis Bossard having breakfast.

Louis smiled at seeing his old friend and said, "Jeff, how you are boy?"

"Fair to middlin' Louis. How does the weather look?"

"Good, good. A little cold for fishing. What you got in mind?"

"You know that old fish cannery off Decater Point?"

"Yeah, sure. Mona knocked most of it down."

"I wanna see it up close."

"I can get you there. There a deep water channel all the way to the place."

Chandler told his old friend about the factories checkered past. Bossard agreed that it was worth a look so they loaded their modest gear in a Sea-Ray Weekender and took off. They had to go South for deep water before they could turn West. It took them about an hour to get to Decater's Point and they could see easily see the huge old factory.

As they were traveling Bossard said, "You know, I can believe there might have been Nazi spies in these parts. It's damn hard to get to, remote as hell and I run diving charters to about a dozen wreaks within a hundred miles of here."

Chandler replied, "It's about halfway between New Orleans and Houston. If I wanted to keep an eye on Gulf shipping, I couldn't think of a better place."

They approached from the deep-water channel and tied off on and old pier piling and climbed up to the railroad cross ties to what must have been the main dock. The first thing Jeff noticed was the rusting remains of a tall radio mast that had collapsed in the storm.

They could easily see the formed concrete underneath the collapsed rubble. After investigating it, Chandler discovered that it was even larger than he thought. He took out his camera and began taking pictures.

Bossard said, "Grab onto this big piece and pull Jeff."

They pulled on the old rotten timbers and they collapsed away from the structure revealing what appeared to be a very large rusty black metal door that extended along the waterline along the water front side of the factory.

Bossard said, "Well I'll be damned. Am I looking at.."

"Yeah. I believe so. It looks like an old U-boat pen. The Germans built a ton of these in France to service their U-boats safe from air raids."

"What's it doing here?"

"Isn't it obvious? The Feds could shut down the business but all of this stuff was still here. It's the only dry land in 30 miles in any direction. It's ideally suited between two of the United States biggest ports. They shut the place down but all the Germans needed to do was sneak a crew in here by sub and they are good to go."

Bossard said, "I think we just solved the mystery of why there were so many ships sunk out of Houston and New Orleans."

Chandler took his big mag light and struck the iron door knocking a hole in the rust. He braced himself and kicked enough of it the rust away to clear a small passage through.

Bossard said, "You aren't thinking.."

Chandler said, "I sure am."

He turned on his light and looked inside. There was a concrete walkway just inside and he stepped through.

Chandler disappeared inside and Bossard said, "You OK in there?"

"Yeah Louis. Come on in. You aren't going to believe this."

Louis crawled through the hole in the door and walked down the concrete walkway to join Chandler.

He whistled and said, "Would you look at that."

The unique black form of a U-boat was lying on its right side at a 20 degree angle against the opposite wall of the pen. On it's conning tower was the Nazi swastika and its identifier U-757 in white letters.

Chandler said, "I heard of this boat. When things were falling apart in 1945, a bunch of the Nazi big-wigs got aboard to escape being captured and tried for war crimes. The Allies thought that it was destroyed by a British bomber in the Irish Sea."

Bossard sighed and said, "Well, if you ask me, it looks like they made it."


see how y'all like that

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