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'Nova: Nazi Attack on America' review: U-boat terror

German U-boats on display for Admiral Horthy regent

German U-boats on display for Admiral Horthy regent of Hungary, guest of Hitler, from "Nova: Nazi Attack on America." Credit: Courtesy of Everett Historical

THE SHOW "Nova: Nazi Attack on America"

WHEN|WHERE Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "Operation Drumbeat," which began in 1942, was the name of a long and devastating German U-boat campaign off the East Coast of the United States. More than 600 ships went down, with over 5,000 lives lost, although only 10 subs were sunk in U.S. waters. This "Nova" joint venture with National Geographic tells the story of one -- U-166, which attacked a passenger ship, then itself came under attack by an escort ship, USS PC-566. The sub sank, and the ship's captain, Herbert G. Claudius, claimed the kill. But the Navy discredited both Claudius' claim and Claudius himself, maintaining a Coast Guard plane sunk the U-boat. Undersea explorer Robert Ballard sets out to discover exactly why U-166 went down.

MY SAY At 72, Ballard may not be as famous as the wrecks he has dived -- from the Bismarck to the Yorktown to the Titanic -- but his name is indelibly attached to them all. By discovering or exploring a ship that was part of history means -- and has meant -- changing the actual record of that history. It's the promise with any Ballard production, and is delivered here, too, although the scale this time seems vastly reduced. A forgotten sub goes down in an engagement that was disputed by the U.S. Navy? Seems trivial compared to the global theater of World War II, but this program does prove that behind every "established" fact may lurk another fact -- potentially, even the correct one.

For the family of one Herbert Claudius, that particular fact assumes enormous importance. Ballard and his team bring their trademark vigor to this forensic investigation, while viewers get a reasonably engaging lesson on U-boat technology and why it was the attack was so devastating. But it's not a particularly deep overview, which mentions only in passing Operation Pastorius (the German plan to drop off agents on our shores) -- of special interest to local viewers because Nazi agents landed at Amagansett, brought here in 1942 by . . . U-boats.


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