Off the coast of North Carolina lie dozens of shipwrecks, remainders of a forgotten theater of World War II
It’s a World War II campaign largely forgotten, a coastal reign of terror Joe Hoyt and a team of marine archaeologists are determined to bring into sharp focus 70 years later.
During the first six months of 1942, German U-boats, often hunting in wolf packs, sank ship after ship just miles off the East Coast of the United States, concentrating their ambushes along North Carolina, where conditions were most favorable. From the beaches, civilians could see the explosions as the submarines sank more Allied tonnage in those months than the entire Japanese Navy would destroy in the Pacific during the entire course of the war.
German submariners dubbed it the “American Shooting Season.” While estimates of the carnage vary according to where boundaries are drawn, one survey concluded that 154 ships were sunk and more than 1,100 lives lost off the North Carolina coast in that period.
“It’s always surprised me that it’s not something everyone knows. It was the closest war came to the continental United States,” says Hoyt, a marine archaeologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary staff in Newport News, Virginia. “For six months, there were sinkings nearly every day off the coast. We think it’s an important part of American history.”
Flowing like massive rivers in the sea, the cold-water Labrador Current from the north and the warm Gulf Stream from the south converge just off Cape Hatteras. To take advantage of these currents, vessels must draw close to the Outer Banks. This area off the North Carolina coast is a bottleneck where U-boat commanders knew they’d find plenty of prey. In addition, the Continental Shelf comes close to shore, offering deep water nearby where they could attack and hide.