Saving a sunken sub from salvage

By CATHERINE KOZAK, The Virginian-Pilot
© June 30, 2004

HATTERAS — Under the churning seas off Diamond Shoals, a recently rediscovered German submarine lies on the edge of the continental shelf.

It’s an underwater tomb, war artifact and historic gold mine that has been virtually untouched for 62 years.   In an innovative effort, the diving community is working with the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and the German government to create a diving preserve that will ensure that the U-701 is protected from salvage and looting.

“It’s rare that you find an intact wreck like this,” said Craig Cook , a Richmond physician who frequently dives off Hatteras. “ It’s a piece of history. We really don’t want to see it disturbed.”

Although there are other diving preserves in American coastal waters, none so far have been created outside of U.S. territorial waters, said Joseph Schwarzer, the executive director of the museum in Hatteras Village.

“This whole thing was started by the diving community,” he said. “This is an enormous step. It’ll be, really, the first of its kind in terms of a collaborative effort.”

The U-701 sank July 7, 1942, in 110 feet of water about 22 miles off Cape Hatteras.

It was first discovered in 1989 by diver Uwe Lovas, but the coordinates of its location were kept secret. The wreck was recently rediscovered by a local diver.

With the secret out, some feared it was only a matter of time before divers started taking artifacts.

Two other U-Boats, the U-85 off Oregon Inlet and the U-352 off Morehead City, have been essentially stripped of artifacts, most of which have never been seen again, Schwarzer said.

Some divers have been known to take a dredge down to a wreck to suck out its contents. Local lore tells about one diver who tried to use dynamite to remove the propellers from an Outer Banks shipwreck.


But after the U-701 was rediscovered, Cook said, Hatteras divers agreed that it would be much better to dive on the wreck if it was preserved intact. With as many as 10 German sailors entombed in the submarine, it is also a matter of respect, he said.

At a meeting Cook and Schwarzer attended held last week at the German Embassy in Washington, the German representatives reaffirmed that any unauthorized salvage of the U-701 would be regarded as a violation of the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, of international law and of U.S. policy.

Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Justice Department and the Coast Guard also attended.

The wreck sits in an area that starts 12 miles and ends 24 miles offshore, where international and some territorial laws apply, said Ole Varmer, an attorney at the NOAA office of general counsel for international law.

“This is one of those wrecks that falls in between the cracks of maritime law,” Varmer said.

Varmer said that NOAA is not directly involved in the creation of the dive preserve, but instead has acted as a technical advisor about the options that are available to protect the U-701.

With the cooperation of the involved parties, the diving preserve could be created by Congress and would be the most realistic way to both encourage diving and prevent looting of the boat, Varmer said.

Divers love getting souvenirs off the ships they explore, Cook said. But they also recognize the value of diving an undisturbed wreck. It’s like the difference, he said, between visiting a historic battlefield that has been preserved and one that has been trampled, dug up and has a shopping mall built on top of it.

“It’s not that it has to be a U-boat,” he said. “It just has to be a virgin wreck that no one has salvaged.”

The U-701 has a dramatic history, said Kevin Duffus, president of Board of Directors for the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

The mission of the U-701 was to lay mines in the channel leading into the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton Roads and to then operate off the coast of North Carolina until its torpedoes were gone.

Sub commander Horst Degen surfaced frequently to launch attacks, Duffus said. During its one year in service, the submarine was responsible for the sinking of 14 ships.

On July 7, 1942, the U-701 was hovering off Hatteras when it was spotted by U.S. Army pilot Harry Kane from his A-29 bomber. After dropping three depth charges, he watched the U-boat sink and saw its surviving sailors bob to the surface.

When he circled back around, rather than spraying them with machine gun bullets, Kane dropped life preservers and a raft for the men.

Of the 33 men who survived the sinking, only six sailors and Degen were rescued three days later from the shark-infested waters of the Gulf Stream.

Kane and Degen were later introduced, and Degen reportedly saluted his enemy’s skill. The two men eventually became friends.

“If you had to take the story of one German U-boat to best describe the general experience encountered by U-boat sailors, I guess the U-701 is the best example,” Duffus said. “This one U-boat represents all the successes and calamities experienced by U-boat mariners.”

Reach Catherine Kozak at (252) 441-1711 or at cate.kozak@piloton