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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands

World War II

At the outbreak of World War II, the United States assumed Britain's defense responsibilities in the Caribbean. In September 1940, the two countries agreed to the Lend-Lease Agreement (also called the Bases-for-Destroyers Agreement). It involved the loan of forty out-of-date American destroyers in return for leasing, rent free for ninety-nine years, British naval and air bases on five British West Indian islands--the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago--as well as British Guiana, Bermuda, and Newfoundland. The Lend-Lease Agreement was signed formally in London on March 27, 1941. Under its terms, the United States established eleven military bases in the area (and in Bermuda) and quickly transformed five British colonies in the West Indies into outposts of Caribbean defense for use against German submarine warfare. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Caribbean as a coastal frontier, the Eastern Caribbean became the forward edge of American defense strategy during the war. American strategists at that time referred to the West Indies as "the bulwark that we watch."

The strategic significance of the Caribbean became evident during the war. More than 50 percent of the supplies sent to Europe and Africa from the United States were shipped from ports in the Gulf of Mexico. One year after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States Caribbean Defense Command reached a total of 119,000 personnel, half of them stationed in Panama to protect the canal from Japanese attack. Although the expected Japanese attack did not come, the Germans inflicted massive damage on shipping in the Caribbean in 1942. German submarines even slipped into the region's small harbors to shell shore targets and to sink cargo ships at anchor. By the end of the year, U-boats operating in the Caribbean had sunk 336 ships, at least half of which were oil tankers, with a total weight of 1.5 million tons.

Data as of November 1987