Did a Nazi Submarine Attack a Chemical Plant in North Carolina?

Multiple eyewitnesses say that one night in 1943, their calm, quiet beach briefly became a war zone

(Shaylyn Esposito)
smithsonian.com

It’s a sizzling July day at Kure Beach. Kids in bathing suits walk barefoot along Fort Fisher Boulevard; moms and dads lug lawn chairs to the sand. Motels with names like “The Hang Ten Grill” and “The Salty Hammock” bespeak a chilled-out lifestyle in this summer community, located 15 miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina.

But just down Atlantic Avenue, a narrow four-block-long road from Kure (pronounced “Cure-ee”) Beach Fishing Pier, an old seaside cottage bears witness to a time when things weren’t all sunshine and Cheerwine along the Carolina coast. It was here on a July night in 1943 that a German U-Boat supposedly surfaced and fired shots at a factory complex located a half-mile off shore. If the incident actually occurred—and many believe it didn’t—it would have been the only time the East Coast of the United States was attacked during the Second World War.

“It’s a tradition among the old timers on Kure Beach that this happened,” says John Gregory III, who along with his sister, now owns a shorefront cottage built by his grandparents in the late 1930s. “It wasn’t just because my grandparents saw it, but lots of other people at the time, too.”

The now infamous story that Gregory’s grandmother told him goes like this: On the night of July 24, John E. Gregory Sr. and his wife, Lorena, both of whom would have been in their mid-50s at the time, were sitting on the porch in their rocking chairs (one of the chairs is still on the porch. It’s John’s favorite place to sit and admire the view.) Everything was swathed in a darkness accentuated by the blackout curtains that houses had hung to make the coastline less visible. (Civil authorities had imposed blackouts to hide the profiles of merchant marine ships from lurking U-Boats.)

The waters off the Carolinas had been swarming with U-Boats since the United States entered the war in December, 1941. The enemy fleet had collectively inflicted enormous damage to merchant shipping along the East Coast and elsewhere in the first six months of the war. By the summer of 1942, however, a combination of improved Allied intelligence, stronger coastal defenses, including anti-submarine technologies and air reconnaissance, and the all-important implementation of the convoy system, had weakened the U-Boat force.

Off the North Carolina coast alone, four U-Boats had been sunk in the summer of 1942. In his 2014 history The Burning Shore, military historian Ed Offley wrote that the U-Boats had concentrated their efforts along the Carolina coast for its relative safety; the U.S. had not yet organized a coastal defense system. “In July 1942,” he wrote, “that was longer the case.”

This is the U-85
This is the U-85, the first U-boat sunk by the U.S. in WWII. It was sunk of Nags Head, NC on April 14, 1942 in action with the USS Roper with the loss of all hands. (NC Maritime Museums)

But those advances against the Germans weren’t readily apparent to the Gregorys or any other civilians along the coast. Military patrols “along the beach were still a common sight and a nighttime curfew was in effect. Suddenly, as the couple gazed out on the water, a spotlight just off shore bathed their porch in blinding light. It moved to the left, then to the right, scanning the beach. Then they heard what Lorena would describe as “artillery fire,” before poof! The light went dark.

“The whole thing happened in a minute or two,” says John Gregory, recounting the story his grandmother told him. “They just sat there petrified. There was nothing they could do. There was no phone in the house back then, so they couldn’t call anybody.”

The next morning, a number of neighbors said they’d also seen the light, or heard the firing. John Sr. sought out a military officer at the nearest command post to tell them what they’d witnessed. “The response was, `Nothing happened. You didn’t see anything,’” says John Jr. “But my grandparents and their neighbors knew what they saw...it was a German submarine.”

When Wilbur Jones, a local historian with a special interest in World War II-era Wilmington, came to see John Jr. about the matter in 2015, Gregory was happy to share the tale with him. Jones, a retired U.S. Navy captain, grew up in Wilmington and was a child during the war. Now 83, he is the author of two memoirs about life in the city during the war years, including A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs of a Wartime Boomtown (2002).

A boomtown it was: During the Second World War, Wilmington was one of the great “Arsenals of Democracy.” The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company employed about 21,000 people during the war years. In their massive Wilmington shipyards, they produced the so-called Liberty Ships, cargo vessels that hauled all kinds of freight (and later, troops) and became a symbol of American industrial might. According to Jones, by mid-1943, construction time at NCSC for a single, 441-foot long, 10,800-ton Liberty Ship—from keel-laying to delivery—was about 30 days. A wartime commission headed by then-Senator Harry Truman had found the Wilmington operation one of the most efficient in the entire country.

There were other important military installations in and around the city, including the Ethyl-Dow plant, which extracted bromine, a component of aviation fuel, from seawater. The facility—a partnership between Dow Chemical and the Ethyl corporation—employed 1,500 people.

“That plant was one of just a couple in the U.S. that was producing the compound for aviation gasoline,” Jones said. “It was an important part of the defense industry in Wilmington at that time.” And, he adds, it would have been a high value target to the enemy, and its where many locals, the Gregorys included, thought the artillery fire was directed.

In the mid-1990s, when Jones began researching his memoir, he interviewed another man who had worked at the plant and claimed to have heard the whistling of the shells that night (which, the man pointed out, not only missed the factory but exploded harmlessly over the nearby Cape Fear River).

“We think [the shells] are still there, along the bank,” says Jones. He also read accounts and interviewed witnesses who said that the lights of the NCSC shipyard were turned off that night from roughly midnight to 5:30 a.m.—a drastic move at an around-the-clock operation, and probably the only time the plant shut down during the entire war.

After consulting other records and historians, including a 1946 report in the Raleigh News and Observer quoting eyewitness accounts from a chemist at the plant that night and the commander of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, he reached his conclusion: “I think it’s very possible that a lone sub was operating here for intelligence,” Jones says. “They realized they had an opportunity to do something, so they did.” He hastens to add, “I’m not going to swear on a stack of Bibles, but all common sense and circumstantial evidence points to this.”

Jones gave considerable space in his book to the views of those who believe the attack never took place, foremost among them another retired Navy officer and Wilmington resident named David Carnell, now deceased. In a letter to Jones, Carnell—who had done his own research—dismissed the attack as “mythology.”

Jerry Mason, a retired U.S. Navy pilot whose website is widely recognized as a definitive source of information on the German submarines, agrees. “It’s highly unlikely,” he says. He bases his naysaying on his work with both the National Archives and WWII scholars in Germany, as well as his extensive set of U-Boat logs. Mason says that according to these records, by July 1943, there was only one submarine operating off the coast of the Carolinas—U-190—and its commander, Max Wintermeyer, was known for being cautious; a sensible posture for a U-Boat skipper at this point in the war.

Additionally, Mason says, the U-190 logs suggest the ship was far from Kure Beach that night and mention nothing about shelling the coast on that night in July, 1943. “Doing so on his own initiative would have been highly unusual,” he says, “because shore bombardment was a special task normally approved at the highest level of command.” Indeed, he points out, using deck guns to fire upon land was used rarely after a failed attack upon an oil refinery in Dutch-held Aruba resulted in missed targets and the gun exploding in the face of its operators.

Other experts—while stopping short of saying they believe the attack took place—argue that an attack by a lone wolf sub on a random, but symbolic, target is not something that should be completely ruled out. (It should also be noted that, Mason’s records show two other U-Boats entered North Carolina waters that same week).

“Is it possible that a U-Boat commander would sneak up as close as he could, take a couple of pot shots and hope he gets lucky?” asks Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum System.  “Yes, it’s possible.”

A maritime archaeologist, Schwarzer has done extensive research on the U-Boat war along the Outer Banks, about 300 miles up the coast from Wilmington. There, enemy activity was most intense. “The German U-Boat commanders were pretty brazen in a lot of cases,” he says.

Richard MacMichael a historian with the Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, concurs. “U-Boats sank ships just outside Halifax and New York Harbors,” he said. “So it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a submarine might be looking at targeting places along the East Coast, even later in the war.” And the fact that the story of the Kure Beach incident didn’t emerge until after the war isn’t all that surprising, he says. “If that submarine did pop up to say `Hi’ off Wilmington in July, 1943, well I’m not surprised if someone said ‘We don’t want this released,’” says McMichael. “You can imagine the panic. It would have been something they would have wanted hushed up.”

If what the Gregorys—and apparently many others—saw off the coast of Kure Beach wasn’t an enemy submarine, what else could it have been? And why did the NCSC go dark that same night?

Carnell believed it was a false sonar reading that caused the shutdown. But unless some hitherto-unknown documents turn up or fragments of German ordnance are someday fished out of the Cape Fear River, the argument may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Regardless, John Gregory—who maintains that what his grandparents saw was an enemy vessel—believes the history here should be well-known to Kure Beach visitors. He has put up a historic sign about the incident in front of his cottage to educate the public about the alleged U-Boat sighting, as well as the realities of wartime life in this now-idyllic seaside retreat.

“Hundreds of people walk by here, all summer long,” he said. “And they have no idea that this was once a war zone.”

About John Hanc

John Hanc is a writer for Smithsonian, The New York Times, Newsday and Runner's World. He teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. Hanc’s 15th book—the memoir of Dr. Arun Singh, a cardiac surgeon who has performed more open heart surgeries than almost anyone in history—will be published in 2018 by Center Street, an imprint of Hachette.

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