At two o’clock in the morning on Monday, January 19, 1942, an earthquakelike rumble tossed Gibb Gray from his bed in his house in an Outer Banks village. His father looked out the windows toward the ocean. A great orange fireball had erupted, with a column of black smoke blotting out the stars.
Seven miles away, a German U-boat had just torpedoed a U.S. freighter, sinking the ship and killing most of the crew. The same U-boat attacked two more ships that night. Less than six weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, World War II had arrived on America’s East Coast and North Carolina’s beaches.
The name “U-boat” comes from a German word meaning “undersea boat.” U-boats were warships that sailed mainly on the surface, submerging to attack or evade detection by enemy ships.
For the next six months, along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico at least sixty-five different German U-boats attacked American and British merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the Allies in Europe— cargos of oil, gasoline, raw vegetables and citrus products, lumber and steel, aluminum for aircraft construction, rubber for tires, and cotton for clothing.
The greatest concentration of U-boat attacks happened off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where dozens of ships passed daily. The waters near Cape Hatteras earned a nickname: “Torpedo Junction.” U.S. military and government authorities didn’t want to cause panic, so news reports of enemy U-boats near the coast were marked classified, and they were not made public for national security reasons. But families living on the Outer Banks knew.
“We’d hear these explosions most any time of the day or night and it would shake the houses and crack the walls,” remembered Blanche Jolliff, of Ocracoke village. Even though ships were being torpedoed by enemy U-boats just a few miles away, coastal residents had no choice but to live as normally as possible. “We sort of got used to hearing it,” Gibb Gray said. “The explosions were mostly in the distance, so we weren’t too scared. I remember we were walking to school one day, and the whole ground shook. We looked toward the ocean, just beyond the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and there was another huge cloud of smoke.”
The war limited a favorite summer pastime for Outer Banks kids. “That summer we had to almost give up swimming in the ocean—it was just full of oil, you’d get it all over you,” Mrs. Ormond Fuller recalled of the oil spilled by torpedoed tankers.
Some local residents worried Germans might try to sneak ashore. Others suspected strangers of being spies for the enemy. “We were frightened to death. We locked our doors at night for the first time ever,” said Ocracoke’s Blanche Styron.
The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard increased their patrols, and the Army Air Corps began to prevent the U-boat attacks. The military set up top-secret submarine listening and tracking facilities at places like Ocracoke.
On April 14, 1942, the first German U-boat fought by the American navy in U.S. waters was sunk sixteen miles from Nags Head. Within the next couple of months, three more U-boats were sunk along the North Carolina coast. By that July, the commander of Germany’s U-boats redirected his remaining warships to the northern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
The remains of at least 60 ships and unexploded torpedoes, depth charges, and contact mines are submerged off North Carolina’s beaches. On Ocracoke Island and at Cape Hatteras, cemeteries contain the graves of six British sailors who died in North Carolina’s waters.
Source: U-Boats off the Outer Banks
By Kevin P. Duffus, Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian. Spring 2008. Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History; via NCpedia. org