TAMPA — The war with Nazi Germany was closer to home than many knew.
On seven occasions, ships either bound for Tampa or coming from the city were sunk by Nazi submarines during a yearlong World War II German expedition in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
In total, submarines from Operation Drumbeat sank 70 U.S. sea vessels, killing an estimated 700 crewmen.
This chapter of the Great War became public, if never really famous, in the years afterward.
But at the time, through a collaboration by the government and news organizations, the public remained in the dark.
Operation Drumbeat is one of two secrets to be shared during the next episode of the television series “Museum Men,” airing at 10 p.m. Saturday on the History Channel’s H2 Network.
The other secret is how exhibits for teaching history are created.
“Museum Men” follows Creative Arts Unlimited of Pinellas Park as its staff researches and builds historical re-creations for museums throughout the country. Along the way, they tell stories about their subjects — people, objects, building techniques from a bygone era.
The focus this weekend is the new Operation Drumbeat exhibit by Creative Arts Unlimited at the Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St. in downtown Tampa. The exhibit runs from Sunday, the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, through mid-April.
The centerpiece is a 30-foot replica, inside and out, of a Seahund — a WWII-era German vessel also called a midget sub.
“Not a lot of people know how this industry works,” said Roger Barganier, founder and president of Creative Arts Unlimited, whose trained sculptors, muralists and artists work in a 34,000-square-foot studio.
“I think people just accept that the exhibits are at the museum without thinking about how much work goes into them. This show is an inside look at how it is done — not just the design and construction but the research as well.”
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Before this project, Barganier said, he knew little about the Nazi threat to Florida.
Operation Drumbeat ran from May 1942 through April 1943, when 16 Nazi U-boats patrolled the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean searching for sea vessels to attack off communities from Miami to Jacksonville and Tampa to New Orleans, said Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell.
Ships and tankers left Tampa’s port carrying aviation fuel and supplies, and its shipyard built vessels for the war.
Tampa was also home to three airfields whose planes flew missions — including attacks on the Nazi U-boats. Four submarines were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Nazi crews had several goals — death and destruction, preventing ships from leaving U.S. waters, and sinking the the morale of U.S. citizens.
That explains the collaboration to keep the attacks secret.
“When someone would see an oil tanker burning off the coast of Louisiana or somewhere else, it would get reported, but not in a major way,” Kite-Powell said. “It would be treated like an isolated incident rather than part of a larger operation.”
When Nazis were captured, some had movie tickets in their pockets.
“That’s how close they got,” Kite-Powell said. “They came onto land.”
The U-boat on display at the history center typically was used for defensive purposes in the Baltic Sea. Attack subs were usually bigger, some 220 feet long.
“That’s too large to fit in the museum,” Barganier said. “We had to use the midget sub as an illustration.”
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To accurately re-create the sub, Creative Arts Unlimited tracked down original technical drawings and a 360-degree video of the inside of an authentic Nazi sub.
“It’s real detective work,” Barganier said. “Those are not things you just find on a library shelf. Luckily we were able to find a museum in Munich that wanted to help.”
The life-sized sub will help visitors understand the extreme conditions submariners endured at war, both inside cramped quarters and above water.
The History Channel calls this project one of the most complicated undertaken by Creative Arts Unlimited in the first season of “Museum Men.” The team had to figure out how to display the inside of the Seehund while still maintaining the submarine silhouette.
Kite-Powell said he has always wanted an exhibit like this but couldn’t afford one. The History Channel is paying, and that’s one reason Barganier agreed to do the show when he was approached by Group Productions.
The company also created reality shows “Storage Hunters” and “Container Wars.”
“I did not want to be on television for the sake of being on television,” Barganier said. “I wanted it to focus on the work I do for my current clients.”
Creative Arts Unlimited also designed the gift shop at the Tampa Bay History Center and its exhibit on the history of Tampa’s cigar industry.
Ten 60-minute episodes of “Museum Men” have been filmed. The show premiered last week with an episode featuring the St. Petersburg Museum of History, a Creative Arts Unlimited client. The company was commissioned to build a King Tut exhibit there around the museum’s 3,000-year-old mummy, “Lady of the Nile.”
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In future episodes, Creative Arts Unlimited builds replicas of an Apollo lunar lander and Byzantine throne for Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, a Bell X-1 aircraft for the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, and President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral carriage for the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
Each is a client of Creative Arts Unlimited.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Barganier said. “My industry gets exposure and the museums get exposure and great exhibits.”
The Tampa Bay History Center episode will also feature Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club on Bayshore Boulevard. Creative Arts built a functioning secret door bookcase for the VIP room at the 1920s-themed restaurant.
There will be more on display at the Tampa Bay History Center than the submarine. The Operation Drumbeat exhibit includes World War II-era artifacts such as tableware, bottles, glassware and a silver ingot — all found on the SS Gairsoppa, a British merchant ship sunk by a U-boat while en route to Galway, Ireland.