Scientists hunt for WWII shipwrecks off the Outer Banks

Off the Outer Banks, marine archaeologists dive to videotape World War II wrecks

CorrespondentAugust 5, 2012 

Seventy years ago last month, a convoy of 19 merchant ships guarded by five armed naval escorts sailed south along the Outer Banks, making its way toward Key West, Fla.

The United States had entered World War II eight months earlier and shipping along the Atlantic coast from New York to New Orleans was under attack by German submarines. The targets of the U-boats were tankers and freighters that potentially carried fuel and supplies for the Allied war effort.

After Convoy KS-520 swung around Cape Hatteras on July 15, 1942, a German sub stalking it fired four torpedoes. They hit three merchant ships, sinking a tanker and damaging two others. When the sub surfaced, two U.S. aircraft and gunfire from an escort sank it. A Navy tug sent to tow the damaged ships sank when it hit a mine in a defensive U.S. minefield.

Today, the ship, Bluefields, a Nicaraguan tanker, and the sub, U-576, repose on the seabed. Their exact location isn’t known. Both shipwrecks are the focus of a research project, now in its fifth year, to locate and document with photos and videos ships that sank off North Carolina during the war.

The project is called the Battle of the Atlantic Expedition. The expedition is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coastal Studies Institute of the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University and other federal and state partners.

Co-principal investigator Joe Hoyt of NOAA said many people don’t know that the Battle of the Atlantic not only was fought in the north Atlantic, where convoys carried supplies to Britain, but also in U.S. waters along the East Coast.

The greatest concentration of the submarine-warfare battles took place near Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, claiming hundreds of lives. Expedition data indicate the remains of 50 to 60 ships, friend and former foe, lie within 100 miles of the coast.

“When people think about World War II, they think it happened in the Pacific, it happened in Europe. That it wasn’t here, it was someplace else,” said Hoyt, maritime archaeologist for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Hatteras.

“This is the closest place (of combat engagements) in the continental United States. This happened right here. We had ships sinking off our shores, bodies washing up on our beaches.

“It’s just as significant to the American story,” said Hoyt, as Pearl Harbor.

Hunting by night

The submarine warfare spread to the East Coast, and later into the Gulf of Mexico, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Within a month, Germany sent the first five U-boats, including U-123.

The captain of U-123, Reinhard Hardegen, sank a tanker off New York and then steered toward the sea off the Outer Banks. Once there, he waited for merchant ships to pass around the capes to pick them off. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Subs Get Two More Ships Off N.C. / Raiders Sink Vessels Near Cape Hatteras,” exclaimed a headline in The Charlotte Observer on Jan. 22, 1942, unknowingly reporting two of Hardegen’s kills.

Hardegen, in a 1991 Observer interview from Germany, said he sat on the bottom during the day and surfaced at night to hunt passing ships, silhouetted by the glow from coastal towns. He said the U-boat tuned in WBT in Charlotte for swing music and news.

Hardegen said he was astonished that he met almost no opposition from the Navy or Coast Guard. The military was unprepared for the U-boat invasion and slow to respond, leaving the East Coast wide open. “I was very surprised,” he said, then 78. “There was no defense on the coast of the United States ... No blackouts, no dimming, nothing.”

For seven months, until the U.S. began to drive out the U-boats, the waters around Cape Hatteras became a shooting gallery. The area was so dangerous and deadly that sailors dubbed it “Torpedo Junction,” a play on the popular 1939 song, “Tuxedo Junction.”

Residents of Ocracoke Island got a front-row seat to the growing disaster. They heard loud explosions at night, saw orange fireballs and smoke from burning ships and came upon bodies of sailors and debris on their beaches. When the tanker Dixie Arrow was torpedoed on March 26, 1942 near Ocracoke, 4 million gallons of crude oil caught fire, according to the 1989 book, “Torpedo Junction,” by Homer H. Hickam Jr.

The expedition’s survey of the shipwrecks began in 2008. That year, researchers photographed sunken subs U-85, U-701 and U-352, the last of which rests in 115 feet of water south of Morehead City.

In 1992, Morehead City hosted eight surviving U-352 crew members who paid homage to their entombed shipmates. The elderly Germans went on a dive boat to the sub’s site, where divers placed a wreath on the conning tower. At the same time 30 miles away, a Coast Guard cutter laid a wreath off Cape Lookout to memorialize Americans and others who lost their lives.

In 2009, researchers documented two U-boat victims, the Bedfordshire, sunk March 11, 1942, and YP 389, a Navy patrol boat sunk June 19, 1942. The Bedfordshire was one of 24 sub-chasing ships Britain sent over. Four dead Bedfordshire crewmen who washed ashore on Ocracoke Island lie in the British Cemetery where the Union Jack flutters above their graves.

The hunt continues

During 2011 and this year, the expedition team has been searching for the Bluefields and U-576 from the Battle of Convoy KS-520. To locate them, researchers aboard an 85-foot-long NOAA ship use a self-guided submersible vehicle to make sonar sweeps of the ocean floor. Hoyt said they won’t know whether they’ve found the wrecks until data have been analyzed. The team on Friday wound up this summer’s work at sea.

(Overall, in the first six months of 1942, German subs sank 397 ships and with the loss of nearly 5,000 lives in U.S.-protected waters along the East and Gulf coasts and through the Caribbean to Panama, historian Michael Gannon wrote in his 1990 book, “Operation Drumbeat.”)

So far, 27 N.C. shipwrecks have been documented by Hoyt, 30, and his team. Most have been known to scuba divers. Research divers filmed those marine-life-encrusted wrecks in 300 feet or water or less with 3-D cameras.

Hoyt said the divers explore the exterior of the ships but typically don’t enter them because they’re deemed war graves – and because they’re unsafe.

Modern imagery has resurrected parts of the battlefield. Photomosaics and videos can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras and the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island at Manteo as well as at http://vimeo.com/unccsi/videos.

Monitor sanctuary research coordinator Lauren Heesemann, in Manteo, said NOAA is creating a web-based “Outer Banks Maritime Heritage Trail” consisting of 10 videos, three of which pertain to the Battle of the Atlantic. By fall, she said, tourists can download the narrated videos into a smart phone and, as they drive beside the ocean from Nags Head to Hatteras, watch the video nearest its coastal location.

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