From January to July 1942, some 347 civilian vessels were sunk or severely damaged by German submarine attacks off the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The threat was severe, since oil pipelines generally did not extend east of the Mississippi before the war—meaning that most of the Eastern Seaboard’s supply of gasoline and petroleum products was shipped by vulnerable oil tankers.
The Germans’ offensive was made easier because U.S. officials were slow to enforce blackouts along the East Coast. (U-boats were reputed to use the brightly lit Lumina pavilion at Wrightsville Beach as a navigation landmark.) Also, Adm. Ernest J. King, the U.S. chief of naval operations, was slow to introduce a convoy system.
In North Carolina waters, U-boat attacks were concentrated along the Outer Banks, particularly around Cape Hatteras, which became known as “Torpedo Junction.” Attacks also took place off Southeastern North Carolina, though—most memorably, the sinking of the tanker John D. Gill on March 12, 1942, in sight of Southport.
Flames from sinking ships, out at sea, could often be seen from Wrightsville Beach. Wreckage and globs of oil from sunken vessels frequently washed ashore both at Wrightsville and Carolina Beach. For a brief period, the U-boats seemed invincible. No wonder people thought the German crew members could come ashore and wander around with impunity—even take in a movie.
U-boat losses fell sharply after July 1942, when blackouts were finally imposed and “dim-outs” were ordered for cars and small boats in coastal areas. In July 1942, U.S. 74 and 76 were temporarily closed near the coast, out of concern that submarines were “assisted by lights from motor vehicles,” according to the Associated Press. Such restrictions were not relaxed until well into 1943.
Two good books about the U-boat war off the East Coast are Torpedo Junction by Homer Hickam (author of the memoir Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky) and Operation Drumbeat by Michael Gannon.
Found at www.myreporter.com.