Many never knew how close German U-boats came to US soil during World War II, but new high-def footage reveals several wrecks on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Robert Ballard, known for discovering the Titanic, is now mapping some of these wrecks, including the SS Robert E. Lee that was torpedoed by the German U-166 in 1942 and sank 45 miles off the coast of Louisiana. While most of the Lee's 286 passengers survived, the U-166 was hit by the Lee's Navy escort and sank less than a mile away with all 52 still aboard; it now slumbers as a protected war grave. Though U-boats sank more than 50 US ships in the Gulf, the U-166 is the only U-boat of the 22 that were directed to the Gulf that Americans managed to down, reports WFAA. Though the sub's location has long been known, a rep for the expedition tells the Sun Herald that the new "surveys of the area ... will help our archaeologists better understand what happened and how she sunk."
The 120-day deep-sea exploration, launched last month, is being carried out by Ballard and what will eventually total 200 explorers; they're searching the area using the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, in an effort funded in part by BP oil spill reparations. The explorers first investigated the area's corals and rare sea life, including the deep sea vampire squid, and are now turning their lenses on the region's military history. "Many souls were lost on these wrecks and others, but now they are teeming with corals and undersea creatures," Ballard tells the Houston Chronicle. "It's the amazing tapestry of life." Follow the explorers' live stream here or view photos here. (Another German sub, the U-550, was found off Nantucket.)