North Carolina's U-Boat Wrecks

Ghostly Reminders of Torpedo Junction

by J. M. Pressley
First published: January 26, 2011

During World War II, Germany brought the war in the Atlantic to American shores. Sunken U-boats off the North Carolina coast are a grim testament to the cost of that strategy.

In 1942, German Admiral Karl Dönitz implemented Operation Paukenschlag ("drumbeat"), a series of U-boat patrols targeting the U.S. eastern seaboard. Dönitz sought to hit North American merchant shipping with the same success that his U-boat command had enjoyed against the British in 1940 after the fall of France. American shores provided ample opportunities. U.S. Navy officials, despite numerous recommendations from their British counterparts, largely ignored the U-boat threat until ships began erupting in flames within view of the coast.

Cape Hatteras played a critical role in seagoing navigation—as much for the German U-boat commanders as for their victims. In a short time, the cape became grimly known among merchant captains as "Torpedo Junction" for the swift attacks that ensued in the surrounding waters. The Graveyard of the Atlantic would add more than eighty ships to its depths by the summer of 1942 as a result of U-boat successes. Wreckage and bodies were common sights on the beaches of the Outer Banks, and locals said that one could read a newspaper at night from the glow of burning tankers offshore.

By July, however, the United States finally had begun to take the threat seriously. Convoys were utilized, along with many of the countermeasures that Britain had adopted early on in the war, and sinkings rapidly decreased. At the same time, military planners gave the Navy and Coast Guard the resources necessary to step up surface and air anti-submarine patrols. Germany started to lose U-boats in American waters. Several were sunk off the coast of North Carolina.

There are three accessible U-boat wrecks in North Carolina waters. There are other confirmed losses in the area whose wrecks have yet to be discovered. Perhaps there is some solace in their secret resting places. The U-boat wrecks are popular dive sites, and although the majority of the diving community appropriately respects them as war graves, souvenir hunters have taken a toll on all three ships.

The case of the U-701 is particularly galling; it was virtually unknown and in pristine condition prior to 2004. Since then, when the coordinates became more widely known, divers have reported evidence of dredging around the wreck and the theft of artifacts. The other two sites have long been picked clean. Rumors persist that in one case, divers even removed the skeleton of a German sailor from a U-boat wreck.

Fortunately, a coalition of officials, scientists and responsible divers has made strides in protecting these sites. If you are planning a dive, keep in mind that these wrecks are protected by federal and international laws. The Project Aware Foundation has an excellent set of guidelines titled Responsible Wreck Diving Considerations.

U-85

On the night of April 14, 1942, the U-85 encountered the destroyer USS Jesse Roper while cruising on the surface near Bodie Island. The Roper caught the U-boat in its spotlights and raked the submarine with gunfire from its deck. A three-inch shell struck just aft of the conning tower, forcing the crew to abandon ship. Unfortunately, the destroyer followed up with depth charges, and the entire crew of 46 was lost; 29 of their bodies in life jackets were recovered on the surface the next morning. The U-85 was the first U-boat lost in Operation Drumbeat, as well as the first enemy submarine of World War II to be sunk by a Navy warship. She lies in approximately 100 feet of water some 14 miles east of Oregon Inlet. The water temperature here ranges cooler than the other sites with less visibility. View underwater footage of U-85.

U-352

On May 9, 1942, the U-352 encountered a ship while on patrol south of Morehead City and fired two torpedoes. It was a mistake; the ship turned out to be a Coast Guard cutter, the USS Icarus. The U-boat dived to get away, but depth charges from the Icarus severely damaged the conning tower and forced the submarine back to the surface. The captain gave orders to abandon ship and scuttle the vessel. The 33 survivors were rescued and interred as prisoners of war in Charleston. The U-352 lies in over 100 feet of water approximately 26 miles southeast of Beaufort Inlet. Currents are moderate with generally good visibility. View underwater footage of U-352.

U-701

On July 7, 1942, the U-701 surfaced near Cape Hatteras. A previous depth charge attack had damaged her air circulators, and the captain reluctantly surfaced in the afternoon to refresh the stagnating air in his ship. As it prepared to submerge, an Army A-29 Hudson on patrol spotted the U-boat and dropped three depth charges. The well-placed explosions cracked the pressure hull of the submarine; as water rapidly began pouring into his vessel, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. He and 17 of his crew managed to escape. They were adrift two days in the water until spotted by a patrolling airship. By the time they were rescued, the survivors were down to seven, including the captain. The U-701 now lies in 115 feet of water north of Diamond Shoals. The local currents routinely bury parts of the wreck and make diving conditions range from moderately challenging to impossible. View underwater footage of U-701.

Sources

Cyber Diver News Network, Daily Telegraph, North Carolina Wreck Diving, Uboat.net, U.S. National Park Service