It’s been called the greatest defeat in American naval history, the submarine war that Germany waged virtually unopposed off the East Coast in 1942. North Carolina’s Outer Banks were in the thick of it.
Few alive today remember that desperate time, and fewer still who saw the carnage first-hand.
Carlton Harrell, now in his mid-80s, is one of them. The retired Durham newspaper editor was 13 and living in the Mamie community on Currituck Banks during the U-boat war. He heard the torpedoes find their mark, watched in the night as orange flames danced on the horizon.
Thus began a lifelong interest in the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest campaign of World War II – six years – that has culminated in a book, “Ocean Ablaze: War Reaches the Outer Banks.”
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There are other accounts of the conflict, but I venture that none were written by someone who witnessed the disaster off the Outer Banks through the eyes of a youngster.
The sight of mangled bodies on oil-blackened beaches, beach, the burial of remains in country church cemeteries, the fear of German raiding parties and saboteurs – such events lay heavily on Harrell’s memory.
Currituck County at the time had 6,700 residents. Harrell’s family was fortunate enough to have a telephone, so his mother became a coastal spotter looking for anything suspicious – strange men, parachutists, aircraft, landing craft – in her sector.
Harrell himself occasionally acted as a spotter, too. That was heady stuff for a youngster, but the responsibility was as real as the torpedoes slamming into hapless, unescorted merchantmen.
For people in Mamie (named for his paternal grandmother), Harrell told me, the greatest fear was fear of the unknown. In early 1942, the Germans and the Japanese seemed invincible.
In such an atmosphere, rumors abounded. Some people on the Banks began to suspect someone – who could be anyone – was secretly supplying the U-boats.
It seems on the very cusp of belief today that Nazi sympathizers were at work on the Outer Banks, but the same suspicions led to the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. These concentration camps remain a blot on the nation’s ideals to this day.
U-boats did land would-be saboteurs – four on Long Island, four in Florida and two in Maine – but the agents were quickly captured. Their military defense attorney was Durham’s Col. Kenneth Royal, who argued forcefully but unsuccessfully to spare six of the men from execution.
All this and much more occurred as the United States was losing the naval war off the East Coast. Yes, losing because the Navy brass had expected the the battered British to fight the Battle of the Atlantic while we concentrated on the Pacific.
U-boat captains were dazzled by their good fortune. Except for a few Coast Guard cutters and obsolete World War I destroyers, nobody was protecting merchant ships off the East Coast.
Almost one a day
German submariners called this period in 1942 the “happy time.” They lay on the continental shelf during the day, rising at night to attack shipping along a coast still not blacked out. Thus did many a mariner meet his fate off Cape Hatteras, “Torpedo Junction” in the black humor of seamen.
In March 1942, for example, 26 ships – almost one a day – were blown apart by U-boats off the Outer Banks. Among them was the tanker Dixie Arrow, whose fiery death appears on the cover of Harrell’s book. (More than 60 ships would go down off our coast before Germany surrendered in 1945.)
By 1943, the convoy system, better warships and air surveillance were cutting losses sharply. Harrell remembers a convoy passing just off Currituck Banks, a line of ships so long that he could see neither head nor tail.
Today, the remains of four U-boats rest off the North Carolina coast. Then, as Carlton Harrell recounts so effectively, they were much more than the sum of their rusting parts. The Russians never came to the Outer Banks, but the Germans did, both real and imagined.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.