Submarine artifacts and divers reveal the history of Torpedo Junction | Reportage
HATTERAS – As thousands of visitors happily play in the waves of the Outer Banks beaches, a new exhibit at the Atlantic Museum’s cemetery reminds us that a vicious German U-boat campaign in the early months of World War II world had once raged off the coast. barrier islands, igniting the sea and filling the air with explosions.
While the Battle of the Atlantic from 1939 to 1945 was the longest military campaign of the war, it came closest to Cape Hatteras, where U-boats lurked in the sea off the shallow sandbars of Diamond Shoals to hit passing ships with devastating success.
“I envision the Battle of the Atlantic exhibit eventually becoming the museum’s flagship exhibit,” Joseph Schwarzer, director of Maritime Museums of North Carolina, said in an interview on June 29 during the day. opening of the exhibit which commemorates the U-boat campaign from a local perspective with many artifacts recovered from the waters of the Outer Banks. “Most people have no idea this ever happened.”
Opened in 2002 on the southern end of Hatteras Island, the Museum of the Atlantic Cemetery focuses on four centuries of Outer Banks maritime and shipwreck history.
What makes the museum’s new Operation Drumbeat exhibit a unique place to tell the story of “Torpedo Junction” – as wartime ship captains dubbed Cape Hatteras – is that the museum’s location encompasses the area which has experienced war at its front door.
Cape Hatteras was targeted by submarines because its shipping lane was close to deep continental shelf waters where submarines could hide. Forced to skirt the coast to avoid being wrecked on a shoal, the ships were ducks against the prowling German submarines. The area suffered the most casualties from U-boat attacks along the East Coast.
“Flaming tankers burned so brightly off the Outer Banks that ashore, it was said, one could read a newspaper in the glow of the night, while the grim wreckage of the war – oil, wrecks and corpses – littered the local beaches,” the National Park Service wrote on its online site about Torpedo Junction, which lay along what is now part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Many artifacts in the Cemetery of the Atlantic exhibit come from the German U-85, whose remains still lie in the ocean off Nags Head, about 60 miles north of Hatteras.
During the first half of 1942, during “Operation Drumbeat”, or Paukenschlag in German, the code name for Germany’s initial World War II assault on the United States, 90 ships were sunk off the North Carolina coast – mostly off the Outer Banks – killing 1,600 people, including around 1,200 merchant seamen, according to Monitor National Marine Sanctuary online information on the Battle of the Atlantic .
Much of the bloodshed of the early months went unanswered by the United States, which underestimated the skill and scope of the German U-boat operation. The losses were so severe, General George Marshall had said, that they threatened the entire American war effort.
The tide began to turn on April 14, 1942, when the Navy destroyer USS Roper, guided by a new radar system, spotted U-85 on the surface of the sea, just 16 miles southeast of Nags Head. Between a combination of machine gun fire and depth charges, the Roper sank the German U-boat, with the bodies of 29 crew members later recovered.
Short for the German word “unterseeboot”, submarines were used more as warships that mostly stayed on the surface and attacked with deck guns. When underwater, it was usually for short periods to avoid detection.
The disappearance of U-85 was the first successful surface attack by the United States Navy against a German submarine since the start of the war in December 1941.
For the museum’s good fortune, Schwarzer said, local Dare County diver Jim Bunch, along with Roger Hunting and his brother Rich Hunting, and Billy Daniels, loaned many of the artifacts they recovered during their many dives on the U-85. .
“No one has seen this before,” Schwarzer told the roughly 75 opening day attendees, greeting the divers. “They really came for us.”
The exhibit also includes a rare Enigma code machine that divers had previously donated.
In a later interview, the 81-year-old Bunch said he completed nearly 1,000 dives on the U-85 over a 30-year period. Accompanied by the Hunters and other diver buddies, Bunch said they recovered everyday items like dishes, but also manuals and armaments. The meticulous work to recover the contents of the submarine was detailed in Bunch’s 2003 book “Germany’s U-85, A Shadow In The Sea” about the dives and the history of the ship.
Although the Navy sent divers to the wreckage of the U-85 shortly after it sank – and many other divers after it was rediscovered in the 1960s by a Virginia Beach fisherman – Bunch and his friends were able to salvage important items, including 88mm cannon cartridges. and an MP-40 machine gun. But for Bunch, the Enigma machine on display at the museum was probably the biggest prize.
“There were very few left,” he said. “The one they have over there was in bad shape. Most people who saw something like this would think it was a piece of junk.
“We were just lucky to stumble upon it,” he added. “With permission from the German government, we donated it to the Cemetery of the Museum of the Atlantic. It is probably the most important piece of history to come from this wreck.
Developed in Germany in the 1920s, the Enigma machine was an encryption device used by all branches of the German military during World War II to share battle plans and top secret information. But even before the start of the war, Polish cryptologists had cracked the cipher and continued to work to best decode it with French, English and later American intelligence. While constantly tracking changes in Enigma codes, the Allies were able to secretly read German communications, a vital contribution to defeating the Nazis.
The exhibit also includes examples of male and female Coast Guard WWII uniforms, life jackets, goggles and a toolbox, all from U-85, as well as historical photographs and numerous armaments, depth charges and artillery. A large Nazi swastika flag hanging from one wall of the exhibit is a chilling symbol of the chaos wrought by submarines off our coasts.
Several models of submarines are also on display. By far the most detailed was created by Michael Mills, a craftsman from Brunswick, Maryland. Mills, whom Schwarzer hosted at the ceremony after Mills requested to be part of the exhibit, gave a slide presentation about his demanding job of building miniature representations of every detail of U-552.
Three days after the submarine attacked the tanker Byron B. Benson in April 1942 off the northern Outer Banks, the ship sank about 15 miles east of Duck.
“He’s not a model maker,” Schwarzer said admiringly of Mills, “he’s an artist.”
Bunch said that aside from U-505, captured intact by the Navy in 1944 and now on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, he is not aware of any other exhibit on the battle of the Atlantic in the United States as convincing as that of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
“I like it,” said Bunch, a longtime board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. “I thought it was good. I don’t know what we could do to improve it.”
Bunch said there is also an interesting collection of submarine artifacts at Olympus Dive Shop in Morehead City which were collected by diver and shop owner George Purifoy, who died in 2008 aged 63. George’s son Robert Purifoy now runs the business.
Artifacts from U-352, which was sunk in 1942 off Morehead City, are still on display, filling five shelves in a small crate, said Olympus sales manager Dottie Benjamin. Of the 100 items, she says, there are china, badgers and razors, boots, coins, buttons, a gas mask and a gun holster.
In addition to U-85 and U-352, there are the remains of two other submarines, eight Allied Navy ships and 78 merchant ships sunk off the North Carolina coast, according to the Monitor National. Marine Sanctuary.
For Roger Hunting, also of Dare County and Virginia, who dived U-85 for about nine years, preserving the boat’s artifacts became his life’s goal. As Bunch’s book shows, Hunting painstakingly restored a second Enigma machine he salvaged from U-85 – one of only 32 known four-rotor machines – along with an ornate toolbox and all of its tools.
“I cleaned it all up myself,” Hunting said in a recent interview. This involved treating each part individually, which could include sandblasting.
“It took years to restore all this material,” he said.
Hunting, 70, has carefully documented, researched and photographed each item, many of which have been loaned to the shipwreck museum. From his research – “and this was before the Internet”, he noted – he knows where each item had belonged on the boat and what it was used for.
Showing a photograph of a long tool, Hunting explained that it was a voice pipe or talking tube.
“It came out of the turret,” he said. “The captain was in the turret when they attacked a ship. He was calling the numbers to someone who was calculating the depth.
Of the total 38 U-85 artifacts on loan to the museum, the collection includes keys, a chisel, a lighter, a pipe, rubber boots, board game pieces, pots of ointment with contents intact, gas masks, a torpedo trigger, spare parts for the gun, a microphone and headphones for the radio operator, coffee mugs with swastikas and dates on the bottom, and a tag wooden screwed in a locker.
All of the items were recovered before the sunken warships were granted federal protection in the early 2000s, Hunting said. Additionally, the German government agreed around 2003 to relinquish all control over the Enigma.
Whatever the future holds for other donations, Hunting said selling the artifacts isn’t in the cards. “Never,” he said.
And Hunting hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility that other submarine artifacts could materialize from other scuba divers seeking tax deductions for generous donations to the museum. But, for now, “maybe” might be the key word.
“Divers are funny guys – they’re very possessive,” Hunting said. “We know a lot of people who have really nice artifacts. But they won’t let them go.