Saturday, November 15, 2014

At all costs........

"We have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic," stated Joe Hoyt.

On Oct 21 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it had discovered the wrecks of two ships that had been involved in the Battle of the Atlantic.  The wrecks were found after lying on the bottom, within 240 yards of each other, more than 72 years after the battle.  One ship, the Bluefields, was part of a 24 ship convoy heading from New York to Virginia to Key West FL and finally to Havana Cuba when it was sunk on July 15 1942.  The other wreck is the German U-Boat U-576, was sunk minutes later during the battle.  Both of the ships were located about 30 miles off of the coast on North Carolina, in the area known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."

The Bluefields was a motor merchant class ship completed in 1917 by the Manitowoc Ship Building Corp in Manitowoc WI.  She was first launched as the Norwegian ship Motor I but was requisitioned by the US Shipping Board and when it was completed in October 1917, she was renamed the Lake Mohonk.  In 1919 it was renamed again as the Astmacho III after Astmacho NY and that was followed by it being renamed yet again in 1921 as the Ormidale after the Ormidale SS Corp of Wilmington DE.  She was sold two more times, in 1927 and 1937 to different companies in New York and in 1938, she was sold to Honduras and was renamed the Jupiter.  In 1941, she was sold once again and renamed for the last time as the Bluefields and was carrying a cargo of two cars, empty burlap bags and drums of oil and carbide when she joined the convoy.


The 19 merchant ships in that convoy were delivering cargo to aid in the war effort and were accompanied by five US Navy and US Coast Guard escorts.  It was by this time, the safest way for merchant ships to move along their shipping routes, since the German U-Boats had been destroying them in huge numbers when they had been traveling solo earlier in the war.

Hans-Dieter Heinicke had radioed back to his commanders in occupied France on July 13 1942, that his ship was damaged and they would be heading back to Germany.  The U-576 had been on patrol for about a month and had not had much success in sinking US ships.  This was Heinicke's fifth patrol against Allied shipping and he had not managed much success at all, so when his U-Boat crossed paths with the convoy, he saw an opportunity.  Even though his ship was damaged, he saw the chance for possible redemption if he was able to sink some of the Allied ships in convoy KS-520.

At approximately 4:15 pm, U-576 attacked the convoy when it was not too far from Ocracoke NC and within four minutes, three ships had been hit.  The Chilore, an American cargo ship built in 1924, was hit by two torpedoes and the J A Mowinckel, a Panamanian tanker built in 1930 was struck by one torpedo.  Both of these ships were damaged but did not sink, while the Bluefields which was hit by one torpedo, sunk within minutes.  The Armed Guard crew which was manning deck guns on the Unicoi, a mobile dry storage ship built in 1920, opened fire on U-576 when it surfaced about 350 yards away from it.  They scored a direct hit with at least one shell and two US Navy Kingfisher aircraft that were escorting the convoy dropped a series of depth charges that sent the U-576 to the bottom.  It lay there, next to the Bluefields, undiscovered until this year.


J A Mowinckel

The Chilore and the J A Mowinckel were damaged and far from safe at this point though.  They both managed to stray into a minefield off of Cape Hatteras and were damaged further.  The tugboat Keshena was attempting to salvage the boats and it too struck a mine and sunk.  The Chilore would later sink but the Mowinckel was finally towed into Hatteras Inlet, pumped out and floated so that it could eventually be towed to Baltimore MD for repairs.  The Allied casualties consisted of two crewmen from the tug Keshena, a naval gunner and a merchant seaman.  The entire crew of  45 on the U-576 perished in the sinking of the submarine.

Crew of U-576

The German U-Boat 576 was launched on April 30 1941 and was a Type VIIC submarine.  Her Captain, Hans-Dieter Heinicke was born May 18 1913 and commanded five patrols with the U-Boat.  The first two patrols of U-576 led to no encounters with Allied ships but by the third patrol, they sank one ship, the Empire Spring off of Nova Scotia.  Their fourth patrol led to the sinking of the Pipestone County off Cape Henry VA and the sinking of the Taborfjell off Cape Cod MA.  It was this dismal record that led Heinicke to risk everything to take on the convoy, since a commander's record was what led him up the ladder of command.


The discovery of the Bluefields and U-576 was the result of a partnership formed in 2008 between the Bureau of Ocean Management and NOAA that was meant to document and survey WWII ships that were lost along the North Carolina coastline.  They had conducted a survey earlier this year based on historical data and returned to the site later to identify and map the location of both wrecks.

They had not expected to find both ships lying so close to each other even though they had been lost within minutes of each other.  Both ships are protected under international law and because the U-576 went down with her entire crew, the site will be considered a war grave.  As such, it is not to be disturbed and will most likely not allow recreational diving but there may be further exploration of the wrecks for scientific purposes.

The U-576 is not the only German U Boat that has found a watery grave off of the coast of North Carolina.  The U-85 was sunk at around midnight on April 13 1942 after the USS Roper spotted it on radar while it was patrolling near the Bodie Island Lighthouse.  The U Boat was on the surface at the time and tried to head south to escape the USS Roper.  The two ships exchanged gunfire before it managed to get below the surface of the water.  The U Boat was sunk by depth charges and went down with all 46 of her crew.  Twenty nine of their bodies were recovered soon after, some of them dressed in civilian clothes and they were buried in Hampton VA.  The hatch was recovered and is on display at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the enigma machine that was on board is on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic museum in Hatteras NC.

On May 9 1942, U-352 was destroyed by the US Coast Guard off of Cape Lookout in North Carolina.  The U Boat was launched on May 7 1941 and Hellmut Rathke was awarded the command of her almost immediately after he completed submarine training.  It spent a very uneventful first cruise in the North Atlantic and then was readied for a second cruise that would take it to the waters off of the North Carolina coastline.


The U-352 came across the SS Freden, a swedish merchant ship far off the coast of NC and attempted to sink her but all they were able to do was cause the crew to abandon ship twice.  The crew drifted all night the second time and actually drifted up to the Freden, which was untouched, so they reboarded her and continued on their way.  On May 9 1942, U-352 spotted the USCG cutter Icarus and fired.  The torpedo either malfunctioned or hit the sea bed but the Icarus responded by dropping depth charges.

The charges badly damaged U-352 and Rathke chose to play dead on the bottom in an attempt to hide from the Icarus.  Eventually though, it was forced to the surface and damaged so heavily that it sank.  The crew of the Icarus approached after a short time and rescued 33 of her crew who became the first German prisoners of war on US soil.  They were taken Charleston SC where they were imprisoned.  The wreck was rediscovered in April 1975 after many years of searching for her and lies south of Morehead City NC at about 115' deep.

On July 7 1942, U-701 was sunk near cape Hatteras NC and became the last U-boat to be sunk in those waters during WWII.  The U-701 was launched on April 16 1941 after delays in her construction and refitting.  Her captain Horst Degan and many of her crew were assigned to her even before she was launched and assisted in the completion of her construction.

The U-701 was far more successful than the other two U-Boats on her patrols and is credited with damaging four ships and a destroyer, sinking four auxiliary warships and five ships on her three patrols.  She arrived off of the east coast of NC on June 11 1942 and deployed her cargo of magnetic mines near the Chesapeake Bay and then set about trying to find targets to sink.

They engaged several targets and received minor damage.  At one point, her air scrubbers were not functioning properly and Degan was forced to surface more often to clear the air within the sub.  The US had several ships become damaged or sunk by the mines Degan had set and they were on alert to the possibility of a U-Boat in the vicinity.  On the afternoon of July 7 1942, Degan surfaced to clear the air again and they were spotted by an A-29 from Cherry Point NC that was on routine patrol.

Even though a air alert was sounded, the U-701 was trapped at the surface and bombed from overhead.  The air assault was fatal, tearing open the pressure hull and she headed for the bottom in minutes.  Seventeen men including Degan survived the sinking but there were only seven alive two days later when they were spotted by a blimp and rescued.

The wreck of U-701 lies about ten miles off Avon North Carolina in the unpredictable waters of Diamond Shoals.  The wreck lies about 110' deep at the bottom and conditions are ever changing because of the currents that run there.  It is not a deep wreck to dive but it certainly an advanced dive due to the conditions that exist on site.

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