Friday, February 18, 2011

Danger & Death in Torpedo Junction

Danger & Death in Torpedo Junction

Joe A. Mobley
Reprinted from Tar Heel Junior Historian (Spring 1986)

Explosive action erupted off the North Carolina coast during the first six months of World War II. Even before Germany declared war on the United States in December, 1941, the waters of the Atlantic had become a major site for German submarines or U-boats [unterseeboots] on the lookout for the ships of their enemies. North Carolina fishermen often reported spotting German submarines on the surface before the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. After that event, when the war between America and Germany became official, American ships in the vicinity of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras also fell prey to the skilled and deadly hunters on the U-boats.

Unlike the United States, Germany entered the war well prepared. The powerful German navy boasted an entire fleet of 500-ton U-boats, each manned by a determined crew. Shortly after Pearl Harbor the German Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the submarine fleet, dispatched six of the dangerous underwater vessels to destroy American East Coast shipping. He called his naval campaign Paukenschlag, which means “Roll of Drums.” By January, 1942, at least nineteen German submarines patrolled the western Atlantic. The accuracy of their attacks quickly earned the ships and crews the nicknames of “hearses” and “pallbearers” among American seamen because death followed U-boat strikes time after time.

These Nazi raiders first struck off the Tar Heel coast on January 18, 1942. Several hours before the dawn of that day the oil tanker Allan Jackson was proceeding northward in a calm sea sixty miles off Cape Hatteras. The tanker transported crude oil from Colombia, South America, to New York. At 1:30 A.M. a German U-boat lurking in the area fired two torpedoes that struck the Allan Jackson and exploded. The second explosion split the ship in two and spilled its cargo of 7.5 million gallons of crude oil into the Atlantic. The vessel and the oil-soaked sea around it were engulfed in flames. Unfortunately most of the tanker’s lifeboats were not serviceable and many sailors died. Some of the crew who managed to abandon ship clung for hours to wreckage. Later that day the United States destroyer Roe picked up the survivors.

The first submarine attack along the Tar Heel coast had been costly. The tanker and its valuable cargo were lost, and only thirteen of the thirty-five crewmen survived. The sinking of the Allan Jackson marked the start of the large-scale destruction of Allied shipping that quickly earned the North Carolina coast the wartime name of Torpedo Junction.

U-boats sank eight more Allied ships during January, 1942, and the same number went down in February. Among these victims was the British tanker Empire Gem. Only the captain and one crewman survived its sinking. One Hatteras resident recalled watching the ship’s demise. “Here at Hatteras the island shook with explosions at sea. We could hear the cannon. We felt the shocks, one after another. Windows rattled. . . . A big oil tanker, the Empire Gem . . . burned for days, filling the sea with flames and smoke.” Another victim was the American Venore. Twenty-one sailors from the Venore died when that vessel sank off Diamond Shoals. Other ships destroyed by German torpedoes included the Brazilian passenger ship Buarque and the Norwegian cargo vessel Blink. Although twenty-three men from the Blink escaped in a lifeboat, seventeen died after drifting on the wintery Atlantic for three days.

By March, 1942, the Nazis had organized their U-boats into killer packs that communicated by wireless radio and attacked at night. Too often North Carolina residents unwittingly aided the German attackers by burning electric lights at night. Incredibly unprepared for war, American officials had failed to order a blackout of the Atlantic coast. City and harbor lights lit up the Tar Heel shoreline. Prowling German submarines caught their prey silhouetted against the illuminated horizon. Allied ships were also easy victims for other reasons. Their convoys were unescorted by warships, they failed to take evasive action like zig-zagging while running the gauntlet off the North Carolina coast, and they filled their radio transmissions with information about their cargoes and destinations. Even American naval vessels foolishly radioed their positions and departure dates, to the delight of the listening Germans.

During March the U-boats sank an average of almost one Allied ship per day along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. On the night of March 18, five vessels went down off Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout—the tankers Papoose, W. E. Hutton, and E. M. Clark, and the freighters Liberator and Kassandra Louloudis. People living next to the shore heard the explosions and watched the fires burning at sea. America’s wartime government did not allow official reports on the shipping destruction to be released, but coastal residents “knew that wasn’t the ocean burning out there.”
As the destruction continued, death tolls ran high. The sinking of the American tanker Dixie Arrow, for instance, claimed eleven lives on March 26. On the following day the Panamanian freighter Equipoise sank with the loss of thirty-eight crewmen. At least one North Carolinian, James Baugham Gaskill of Ocracoke Island, was killed by the German raiders. Gaskill was an engineer aboard the freighter Caribsea, torpedoed southeast of Ocracoke. The total number of deaths mounted as the U-boats repeatedly moved in for the kill.

The crews of the undersea boats that hunted so effectively in North Carolina’s waters were men especially suited and trained for submarine warfare. They were sailors who could withstand danger, cramped quarters, and long hours of tension. These “sea wolves” worked and slept in shifts. Sometimes they suffered "Blechkaller", a form of nervous strain that could drive them to violent hysteria, especially after long hours hiding on the bottom of the ocean while depth charges dropped by the Allies exploded around them. The tenacity, self-control, and “killer instinct” of German submariners, especially the commanders, accounted for much of their success. In less than three months the U-boats sank fifty large vessels off the Tar Heel coast. So far not a single submarine had been destroyed.

By mid-April, 1942, however, the tide of battle began to shift in Torpedo Junction. The United States and its friends slowly developed methods to combat the sinister undersea boats. The American government finally ordered a blackout of the eastern coastline. Great Britain dispatched a number of armed trawlers to search for U-boats off North Carolina. United States Navy and Coast Guard planes patrolled for submarines, and ship convoys adopted protective maneuvers. American mines and nets blocked the approach of submarines and provided safe anchorage at Cape Lookout.

Depth charges dropped by the Coast Guard explode in the Atlantic
during a sub hunt. (USCG Photo)
With the enactment of these antisubmarine measures, the scene was set for the first sinking of a German U-boat by an American vessel during World War II. That event occurred on April 14, 1942, when the United States destroyer Roper caught the German U-85 on the surface at Wimble Shoals. The Roper eluded a torpedo fired by the U-85 and then opened fire with its deck guns, seriously damaging the U-boat as it submerged. Depth charges from the destroyer tore apart the submarine. The Roper crew recovered the bodies of a number of German sailors who floated to the surface.

The United States Navy claimed another victory on May 2, 1942, when a destroyer sank a U-boat off Cape Fear. A week later the Coast Guard cutter Icarus sank the U-352 at Cape Lookout with depth charges and sustained fire from its deck guns. A number of the U-352’s crew, including Captain Hellmut Rathke, were captured and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in North Carolina. The United States Navy sank two other U-boats at undisclosed sites off the Tar Heel coast, one on May 11 and the other on May 19, 1942.

These American successes did not halt entirely the destruction of Allied shipping off North Carolina. Between May and July, 1942, twelve vessels were sunk, a number by German mines. Nevertheless, from the end of July, 1942, to the close of the war, the Germans managed to sink only a few ships in North Carolina waters. According to David Stick, an authority on North Carolina ship disasters, eighty-seven vessels were lost off the Outer Banks during the war. Two thirds of these went down during torpedo attacks by U-boats. The others struck mines, were stranded, or foundered at sea. When these ships descended to the ocean floor, they joined hundreds of other silent wrecks in North Carolina’s maritime graveyard. There they still rest—eerie underwater reminders of World War II’s naval battles off our coast when German U-boats patrolled and briefly dominated Torpedo Junction.

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