Diving for the Secrets of the Battle of the Atlantic

Off the coast of North Carolina lie dozens of shipwrecks, remainders of a forgotten theater of World War II

According to NOAA marine archaeologist Joe Hoyt, shown here, 50 to 60 Allied, Axis and merchant vessel wrecks rest off the North Carolina coast. (Image Courtesy of Office of National Marine Sanctuaries)

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One battle Hoyt and his team were searching for took place on the afternoon of July 15, 1942. KS-520—a convoy of 19 merchant ships headed from Hampton, Virginia, to Key West, Florida–steamed about 20 miles off the North Carolina coast with war supplies. U-boats, at times hunting in wolf packs, had been viciously attacking the shipping lanes, especially off Cape Hatteras, sending 154 vessels to the sea floor along the East Coast.

Escorting the convoy were five naval vessels, two Kingfisher floatplanes and a blimp. Lying in wait was the U-576, a 220-foot-long German submarine that had been attacked days earlier, suffering damage to its ballast tank. But Hans-Dieter Heinicke, its commander, couldn’t resist attacking, firing four bow torpedoes. Two struck the Chilore, an American merchant ship. One hit the J.A. Nowinckel, a Panamian tanker, and the fourth tore into the Bluefields, a Nicaraguan merchant ship loaded with kapok (a ceiba tree product), burlap and paper. Within minutes, the Bluefields went to the bottom.

Just after firing, the U-576 popped to the surface only a few hundred yards from the Unicoi, an armed merchant vessel that fired upon it. The Kingfisher aircraft dropped depth charges and soon after sailors from the convoy saw the U-boat upend, props spinning out of the water, and spiral to the bottom.

Hoyt thinks it could be the only site off the coast where an Allied vessel and a German U-boat sank so close to each other. “It’s my hope that we have already gotten a ping on one of those, but it’s a matter of getting back, getting detailed imagery or an assessment of the site to be able to identify them,” he adds.

The team extensively filmed the wreck of the U-701 in 100 feet of water. In June 1942, the submarine set 15 mines in the approaches to the Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads and the Baltimore Harbor resulting in the damaging or sinking of five ships, including a destroyer, a trawler, and two tankers. On the afternoon of July 7, 1942, the U-701 surfaced to air its interior and was spotted by an A-29 bomber, which dropped three depth charges, tearing open the hull of the diving submarine and sending it to a watery grave.

The NOAA team surveyed the Diamond Shoals site, an area of high currents and shifting sands. “In 2008, the boat was almost completely covered,” Hoyt says. “Now, it’s totally exposed so we’re seeing a lot more of the wreck. We’re also learning because it’s been covered up for so long that it’s much more well preserved than some of the other sites.”

Seventy years later even on the bottom, the relic remains fearsome. The conning tower rises above the rest of the wreck, giving it an ominous profile. “It’s incredible,” Kovacs says. “You’re looking at the old killer of the sea. You can see figuratively and literally how this thing would strike fear.”

“Forgetting about what really happened,” he adds, “is not something we should be allowed to do.”

About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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