The Battle for Torpedo Junction
TThe Island Breeze - December 2000
About the cover story
This month's cover story was written by Kevin Duffus of Video Marketing Group in Raleigh, N.C., a producer of award-winning documentary films, including "Graveyard of the Atlantic," "The Cape Hatteras Light," and "Move of the Century."
This story is excerpted from Duffus' most recent film, a two-hour documentary, "War Zone: Infamy, Irony and Innocence Lost on the Outer Banks in 1942." The film tells the story of the year when America fought and suffered its worst Naval defeat of World War II off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is told by the men, women, and children who were swept up in the desperate war against German U-boats.
The production is expected to be released about Dec. 15. The two-tape set of "War Zone" will cost $39.95 plus tax and shipping and can be purchased by calling 800-647-3536.
"War Zone" features the big-band musical hits of 1942. recorded by a North Carolina jazz orchestra. A companion CD recording of the music can be purchased for $14.95.
The Battle for Torpedo Junction
In 1942 the United States fought and suffered one of its greatest defeats of World War II, not in Europe or the Pacific but along the eastern seaboard. As men and war materials were dispatched to foreign fronts the enemy, unchallenged, entered America's front door. Columns of black smoke and orange flames of torpedoed merchant vessels stretched from New England to New Orleans. Explosions offshore rattled windows and the nerves of startled coastal residents. From the surf floated oil, debris, and bodies.
Concealed by censorship, it was a crisis that embarrassed Washington, panicked Britain, frightened coastal communities and nearly changed tile course of history. Three hundred ninety-seven ships -- tankers, freighters and transports --- were sunk or damaged in just half a year. Nearly 5,000 people burned to death, were crushed, drowned, or simply vanished into the vast, endless sea. The largest concentration of losses took place in the waters off North Carolina's Outer Banks, all area notorious for centuries as a graveyard of ships.
These are the memories of 1942-- a time of infamy, of irony, and of innocence lost, a time when the Outer Banks became a War Zone.
"There was deep concern. You would peek through the windows and see the explosions at night@ --Stocky Midgett, Hatteras village
"It would shake the houses and sometimes the exploxions cracked the cistern and damaged the sheet rock and plaster in some of the houses " --Blanche Joliff, Ocracoke
"I think the people on the Outer Banks saw more of the war in this country than anybody else." --Arnold Tolson, Manteo
"You'd hear an explosion go up, and somebody would say 'there goes another one'" -Mattson Meekins, Avon
Illuminated by brightly lit beach towns, ships became easy prey for U-boats, while government propaganda kept U.S. citizens in the dark. Merchant seamen who risked their lives to deliver vital, war effort cargoes sailed in constant peril at the mercy of a naive public and an ambivalent government.
"It was if there was no war going on at all. The Germans surfaced off of the coast and they marveled that they could sit there in their submarine and watch cars drive up and down the road, see streetlights, smell the pine forests in the breeze coming off the land. It was incredible." --Joseph Sehwarzer, executive director, Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
"I tell you it was the damndest thing you ever saw. Automobiles were going by. The hotels wouldn't put their lights out. They just didn=t take it seriously. I tell you it was terrible." --Francis Bowker, merchant seaman, Sea Level, N.C.
"So much of it was concealed from the public. Not many people knew that we were having all of this carnage, damage, ships sinking and people being killed simply because it was not publicized" --Russell Twiford, Manteo
America hastily mounted a defense to the U-boat assault. Boys from the fields of the nation's heartland were dispatched into deadly waters. Against well-trained, battle-tested Germans, they bravely took up the fight with small arms, in small boats and on small horses.
six rifles and one pistol. We couldn=t do much, but they had us out there. We had to go." --Mack Wornack, Ocracoke
"All we had on board, I think, was
"When we'd get a call. the cook would make up a batch of groceries, grab the groceries, and away we=d go --putt, putt, putt, putt..." --Theodore Mutro, Ocracoke
"Everybody=s emotions was high You know when you ride over to the beach, hear an explosion that night and ride over to beach and see men washing up, everybody=s emotions was high, very high.@ --Arnold Tolson
"I heard one young man say how terrible it was to be out there and watch those men jump off the burning tanker: " --Blanche Joliff
"They was sittin= ducks, was what they was. Just waiting to be shot. And that's a terrible death, burnin' to death. You just feel useless, which you are, there's nothing you can do ..... All we could do is just go around and around, hoping to pick up somebody that was alive. It was a terrible feeling" --Mack Wornack
Forty years after the radio was pioneered by inventor Reginald Fessenden on the Outer Banks, it became the islanders= bridge, their link to the world that lay over the horizon. The radio played music, and it delivered news of troubled times far away. 1941 had been a quiet year on the Outer Banks. There were no shipwrecks and few storms. Coast Guard surfmen at stations from cape Lookout to Currituck caught up on their repairs, training and sleep. Up and down the the beach miles of telegraph lines that linked the lifeboat outposts hung in relative silence. At once, it all changed.
On Dec. 7. 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and on the radio, Outer Banks families heard president Franklin Roosevelt call it "a date which will live in infamy."
"It was all over the radio," remembers Gibb Gray of Avon. "In fact, when we turned it on. it interrupted NBC Symphony, it interrupted that whole thing. All military personnel were ordered to their bases everywhere."
In those first few months of the war, old-timers on the Outer Banks knew what the radio commentators weren't reporting -- what happened in the last war. They remembered the August, 1918, sinking of Diamond Shoals Lightship 71 and when the Chicamacomico Coast Guard station crew rescued the victims of the British tanker Mirlo. German U-boats would soon appear off the Outer Banks. As it turned out, the old-timers remembered, but the U.S. Navy did not.
In Nazi-occupied France, Admiral Karl Donitz, commander-in-chief of the U'-boatwaffe, heard the news he had hoped for. Donitz steadfastly believed Germany could win the war entirely by the might of his U-boat fleet. Now he could finally wage unrestricted warfare on ships congregating along America's East coast. Donitz quickly organized an operation he dubbed "Paukenschlag," or Drumbeat, intended to have the same startling impact as a sharp beat on a kettledrum.
University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, author of "Operation Drumbeat," is the pre-eminent historian on Germany's attacks in the Western Atlantic.
"At the beginning of the war," he says, "Admiral Donitz estimated that he would have to sink 700,000 gross registered tons of shipping per month in order to starve the British into submission. The tonnage war was conducted whenever you had a chain of ships bringing food, raw materials, fuel oil and gasoline. That chain could be broken at any point, and in the first six months of 1942, the point where it was broken was along the American coast.@
Donitz' new Type IX U-boats carried just enough fuel to reach America, hunt tonnage for about a week, and return to port six weeks later. The Type 1X and its smaller predecessor, the Type VII, were, in their day, the most seaworthy ships ever built. Not submarines, as commonly believed, but submersible boats, they dived only to attack and evade the enemy or the worst ocean storms. Maximum range underwater was just 64 miles. Every inch of the 251-foot long Type IX boat was devoted to its mission. Food and the crew's personal effects were stowed only after every practical space had been filled with torpedoes, artillery shells and spare parts.
Donitz chose five aggressive young commanders lo assure Paukenschlag's success. They included Reinhard Hardegen of the U- 123 and Richard Zapp of the U-66. A few days before Christmas, 1941, the Paukenschlag boats quietly slipped their dock lines in France. In three weeks, they would arrive in American waters. But before they engaged the enemy, they had to battle the North Atlantic in winter.
"They were driven men," Michael Gannon says. "They had been given a mission by a man they admired greatly -- the Commander-in-Chief of U-boats, Admiral Karl Donitz. And Donitz had developed these men into teams of ship killers, and they went at it with a passion. And I had the occasion lo meet the three officers other than the chief engineer on board U-123. to talk to them, to take the measure of them, and I find that they were very professional men who pursued their goals with keen enthusiasm and with enormous skill. I think Reinhard Hardegen was particularly driven by his desire to sink ships."
Twelve hundred miles from their base, Hardegen briefed his officers. He expected his U-boat to repeat the well-known successes of U boats 23 years earlier, especially U-117 off North Carolina. But the watches on deck had to be vigilant, for the Americans would surely remember their shipping losses in 1918. Presumably worse for the success of Paukenschlag, British cryptanalysts in London knew where the U-boats were and anticipated where the they were headed. Yet this intelligence, passed on to U.S. Naval commanders, was hugely dismissed as insignificant. Five hundred helpless merchant sailors died in the next month as a result.
"It's an odd thing to say that the United Stales Navy was very well prepared in the abstract for a German invasion,'' says Gannon, "but when the attack actually came, the Navy failed execute. On the 15th of January when Reinhard Hardegen had arrived off New York harbor, there were 21 ready-status destroyers, fueled and armed am ready to go at him and the other five boats in the Paukenschlag, the Drumbeat fleet. And yet not a single one of these destroyers went to sea to meet the German invader.
THE U-BOATS STRIKE
By mid-January, amidst heavy snow squalls, U-123 and U-66 entered U.S. waters. The drumbeat commenced. Seventy-five miles east of Cape Hatteras, with no moon to betray their presence, U-66 waited patiently. Soon, a darkened shape appeared moving left to right across the U-boat's bow. At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 18, two torpedoes tore into the hull of the Allan Jackson, a tanker laden with 72,000 barrels of oil bound for New York. Twenty-two men perished. Eight oil-soaked survivors escaped in a lifeboat only to be pulled toward the grinding ship's propeller.
After claiming five vessels in six days to the north, Hardegen was eager to reach the busy shipping lanes off the Outer Banks, and U-123 groped its way southward. Groped, because they had no charts.
"The German submarine force was not prepared to equip five boats that sailed under Operation Drumbeat with all the maps that would be required to make effective attacks," Gannon says. "The U-boat officers had no sectional nautical maps, had no sailing directions, had no harbor maps. But actually, Hardegen was able to make his way around rather successfully using the large map that was used for the Atlantic Ocean generally. He saw that he had several Capes that he would be able to identify, inlets as he moved south to Cape Hatteras. The Outer Banks would be easily recognizable. When it became difficult finding his way along the coastline, he followed the automobile on shore and just kept abreast of them. At one time he nearly ran aground doing that, but by and large he was just able to move with the traffic as he came in."On Jan. 18, 23 miles east of Kitty Hawk, the U-123 crew saw an orange glow to the southeast followed by two muffled explosions. Il was U-66 sinking the Allan Jackson. With just three remaining torpedoes aboard, U-123 still had its most destructive night lay ahead. At 2 o'clock on Monday morning, Hardegen chased down the passenger-freighter, City of Atlanta, only seven miles east of Avon.
"We went to bed about 10 o'clock," remembers Gibb Gray, "and about 2 o'clock a violent explosion shook our house all over. And we all got up to the windows, and there was a red, bright red glow."
Of the 47 men on City of Atlanta, only three survived. U-123 found itself in a shooting gallery at Cape Hatteras. Shore lights made the sighting of targets appallingly simple, an experience the crew of the U-boat never forgot
"Von Shroeter, who was a member of Hardegen's crew on the 123, was asked if he remembered Hatteras," savs Joe Schwarzer. "And he said, 'Remember Hatteras? Of course I remember Hatteras. It was remarkable. We would surface at night, we would see the lights on the beach, the targets Would be silhouetted perfectly. The tankers would go by, we'd look at it. We'd say that one's too small. We really want a bigger target.' I think most of the sub commanders could not believe their luck. That they were in an area where not only were the targets post-lively ubiquitous, but there was little danger of being attacked."
Hardegen turned his attention next lo the 8,000-ton SS Malay, a tanker that typically carried 70,000 barrels of crude oil. But unknown to the Germans, Malay was steaming in ballast with no oil in her hold to assist in her demise. The flat seas off Diamond Shoals that night offered Hardegen a rare opportunity to sink a ship with his 10.5-centimeter deck gun. Only Malay wouldn't sink. The next day, news of the shelling spread rapidly up the Banks from an eyewitness out of Hatteras Inlet station.
"He told us in the store they had to go out the next morning to it, it was the Malay," Gibb Gray says. "A submarine had shelled it with deck guns, and he said that looking in the side of the ship, there was such a big hole that the bedding, the mattresses was hanging out side. But they saved her, took her into Norfolk."
Just minutes after shelling Malay, U-123 torpedoed the Latvian freighter, Ciltvaira, which for a while also seemed to resist the pull of the ocean floor. It was towed briefly by the Navy tug, Scieta, but then abandoned to the sea. No less abandoned after U- 123's reign of terror were the merchant sailors clinging to wreckage in the frigid winter waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The American Navy was nowhere to be found. But in Washington, a statement was released that U-boats had been engaged and destroyed.
From a newsreel at the time: "U-boats attack ! German U-boat claims of Allied shipping losses are vast exaggerations, Hitler=s U-boats strike desperately, sinking six ships in one ,week. Hardest hit was the steamship City of Atlanta. The United States Navy announces that some U-boats were sunk and emphasizes the importance of secrecy about counterblows."
Tile Navy emphasized secrecy because there were no counterblows, no U-boat sinkings. Months would pass before a U.S. destroyer sank the first U-boat off Nags Head. Hearing the evening's broadcasts from American radio stations, the irony of the ruse was not lost on the crew of U-123. Theirs was among the U-boats reported to have been sunk.
THE EMPIRE GEM
On Jan. 5, 1942. a boat landed at the north end of Ocracoke Island with two fresh-faced Coast Guard boys from New York and Tennessee. Fate and an International Harvester truck delivered Ted Mutro and Mack Womack to the village. They could hardly believe their good fortune, having been led to believe they'd be spending the war at a beach resort. But at the end of their 13-mile drive to the village, their excitement quickly turned to gloom.
Ted Mutro thought Ocracoke was "the last stop in civilization."
AIn the village, curiosity got the best of me," remembers Mutro. "I asked him (the driver), I says. 'Where's the heart of town at'?' I was right behind the Community Store there. I says, 'Where's the heart of town at?= He says, AYou're right on the main drag now. Do you want to get out and look around?= I says 'No, I've seen everything.' I went in the new station, went up in the tower. 'Damn,' I said, 'this is an island?' And the chief said to me, 'Where'd you think you were at, New York City'?' He said, 'You think this is bad, you ought to go to Portsmouth. We have 12 men over there, no electricity, no nothing. Got 12 men over there, they come up once a week, get their groceries, kerosene and everything on Portsmouth Island there.'"
Womack and Mutro thought the only things they'd be fighting in the war on Ocracoke were mosquitoes and boredom. Three Weeks into their assignment they found out otherwise. Just after dark on Jan. 23, the Empire Gem nervously approached the Diamond Shoals light buoy. It was a dangerous time to be there. The British tanker, the largest in the world at the time. Was loaded with over I0,000 tons of refined gasoline, one quarter of Great Britain=s daily consumption. But standing between the Empire Gem and English petrol pumps was the U-66. At 7:40 p.m., two torpedoes slammed into the starboard holds and ignited a hellish inferno. A frantic SOS was tapped out by radio operator and was received at the Coast Guard station at Ocracoke. Mmro and Wornack got their first trip into the war.
"We started out there," remembers Mulro. "The wind started kicking up and everything. We found it, all right, oil and everything burning out. You couldn't get along side or nothing like that because the water was burning."
"Then all we could do is just go around and around, hoping to pick up somebody that was alive," Womack says. "It's a terrible feeling. Especially when you see them jump overboard with flames on to 'em and know that they was gone into the fire just as quick as they hit. It really had a bad smell to it. It was all oil burning."
Fifty-five men died on the burning Empire Gem. Only Captain Broad and his radio operator were rescued by a lifeboat from Hatteras inlet station. Womack and Mutro might have thought Ocracoke as the last in civilization, but compared to being a merchant seaman, the isolation, boredom, and mosquitoes on the island suddenly didn't seem all that bad. In fact, their opinion would change so dramatically that more than 50 years later they would still be living on the island. (Mack Womack passed away last February.)
THE TOLL CLIMBS
Operation Paukenschlag officially concluded ill the end of January when the first five U-boats, out of torpedoes and Iow on fuel, returned to their ports in France. Admiral Donitz' surprise attack (even if not in unison) exceeded his expectations. Forty Allied ships were sunk in American and Canadian waters in January. Five hundred seamen and civilians died tile largest concentrated loss of merchant mariners' lives in that service's history. One fifth of the dead were off City of Atlanta and Empire Gem. The coming months would only get worse. The psychological impact of January's attack was devastating to merchant sailors who had to pass through the U-boat gauntlet as ships burned, their friends drowned, and America looked the other way.
"You'd see cars going along the road and you'd see houses lit up, and as I say, down in Florida those hotels were lit up beautifully for submarines just to sit there and knock 'em off," says Bowker. "What were we going to do? They had to run these ships, and we were getting paid to do it, and if we ran off we were deserters just the same as it we were in the Navy. So we had to go."
Michael Gannon adds: "Merchant mariners were put down by the people in the military and people in the government at large. But who was facing the major danger and losing liver by the thousands during the first six months of 1942 in the Atlantic? It was the merchant mariners. And they were not given their due as men of courage, as men of patriotism."
Again, Navy propaganda, not action, served to buck up the civilian sailors.
Again, from a government newsreel: "The U-boat was beaten in the last war. It can be beaten again. But every Nazi sub surfaced for the night kill postpones our victory over Hitler. American action now will keep the Atlantic convoys sailing. American merchant seaman know the U-boat's sting, but they sign to sail again. Army and Navy air patrols guard the convoys. The Navy hunts the U-boats. Teamwork America. teamwork now, and in the Fuhrer's face !"
Many merchant seaman didn't sign to sail again. Some joined the Army, thinking they had a better chance in foreign foxholes than within sight of American beaches. At least GI's and their families back home were eligible for veteran benefits. The men in the Merchant Marine only got a pat on the back. It look more than 35 years for their wartime sacrifice to be acknowledged when Congress awarded them combatant status and veteran benefits. Even then, the gesture was contested by the Defense Department.
Following Paukenschlag, an emboldened Donitz dispatched a steady stream of U-boats to America, including the smaller Type Vll=s. February brought fewer sinkings, but March passed into history as the most deadly off the Outer Banks. Meanwhile, the residents of the Outer Banks had no choice but to watch as war was waged on their doorstep.
"I don't remember being frightened or feeling any fear of anything it just, it was just something that was going on offshore," remembers Ormond Fuller of Buxton. "That summer we had to almost give up going swimming in the ocean, it was just full of oil. You'd get it all over you. I think most families around had this bucket or can with this brash on it that you kept at the front door that you just cleaned your feet, the oil off everytime you came in if you'd been to the beach. Oil was everywhere."
"We sorta got used to it, you know, hearing it," says Gibb Gray. "It would mostly be in the distance, a distance away the explosions were. We wasn't too scared!."
Adds Manson Meekins: "It was a lackluster type of feeling. People knew what was going on, and they were making statements of sympathy while the merchant seamen but they was being torpedoed and drowned and burned in the oil. But no one seemed to be afraid or worried. It was just something that was happening. They'd go about their business as if nothing was going on."
If it was business as usual the usual business oil tile Outer Banks was keeping a watchful eye on strangers.
"People were frightened to death," says Blanche Joliff. "And if they saw anything strange...people would think they were Germans. There weren't nothing that escaped them around here. They noticed. They still do -- they notice everything. They know everything going on."
Mack Womack remembered: "We thought they might try to land somebody here, and we had a few scares that had been reported to 'em that they were going to be landing somewhere oil tile beach; and they put more people on the beach. We wasn't walking then. We just found the highest dune and got on top of it and dug us out a little place to lay where we could look both ways tip and down the beach. Stay there all night, but nothing happened that we know of..@
Rumors spread like brush fires. It was said that captured U-boat sailors had American movie theater tickets in their pockets. People whispered about local sympathizers who might have provided U-boats with food or the time a U-boat took provisions off the Diamond Shoal, lightship. None of the rumors were true.
An obvious reason spies or sympathizers had no contact with U-boats was that the Germans simply didn't need any help. !n early '42 the U-boats had only to sit and wait for their prey like a hunter in a blind. One hundred thirty ships passed the east coast every day -- as many as 50 were off the North Carolina capes. Still contrary to conventional wisdom, the stories persisted "They claimed they were stopping what you call pogey boats" says Ted Mutro. "The government look them over during the war, the menhaden boats. They claimed the submarines got the fuel off one of them out here, the diesel fuel he was burning. The submarine was burning diesel fuel.@ Historian Gannon refutes these stories.
"There is no substance to the stories that U-boats stopped fishing vessels at sea to obtain their diesel oil. A fishing vessel would not have nearly enough diesel oil in the first place to take care of the needs of a U-boat. I interviewed the chief of U-boat communications, and I asked him about each one of those cases and he said, 'No, we never stopped other vessels to get oil from them. No, we never sent men ashore to get fresh vegetables or to go to the movies.' He said, 'I was in charge of all the communications, I would have known.= There is almost always someone who comes up to me, and sometimes in a whisper tells me, 'You know, U-boat men came ashore here and I can show you the place where the grocery store stood that they used.' In Palm Beach I was even shown the restaurant where they went into to eat. And I told that individual, I=m sorry, that story could not possibly be true -- such a man going against that order would be shot upon his return to the French bases.' But then I said, 'Think of what these men would have looked like going into this elegant restaurant.' They would have been in their coveralls covered with grease, their hair arid beards matted with grease, smelling of all the foul odors that permeated the interior of a U-boat hold. If a group like that had walked into a restaurant someone would have grabbed for a phone and call for the police.@
Yet, with so many ships going down blame had to fall somewhere. Rather than questioning the Navy's coastal defense strategy, the media was used to point a finger at talkative civilians and men of the merchant marine.
"When we had all of these huge shipping losses there was a certain amount of hysteria,'' says Gannon, "some of it created by the United States government. Anyone who was alive at that time and going to the local post office remembers posters reading, 'Loose Lips Sink Ships.' But that was never the case. The Germans never needed to know what a sailing date was. There were so many ships out there going north and south in coastwise traffic there was no need to know when a sailing date was or what was a projected arrival date in port. So this was a relatively useless campaign carried on by the propaganda organs of the United States government."In 1942, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse stood abandoned, having been given up to the encroaching sea and darkened for the previous six years. A steel tower had been erected, and it was from here that the light from the Cape flashed. It mattered little to Reinhard Hardegen -- both marked his objective for U-123's second American war cruise, and in March he set a course straight for the "turkey shoot" off Cape Hatteras. Out on the ocean the airwaves were jammed with distress calls from burning and sinking ships. Lifeboats and wreckage, ferrying forlorn victims, bobbed about, swept far out to sea by Gulf Stream currents.
Small lifesaving stations were overwhelmed with the wet, wounded and hungry. On Ocracoke, barracks for survivors were hastily erected to house those lucky enough to be found. Many lifeboats washed up on the beach, empty and filled with bullet holes which produced angry rumors that the Germans were shooting survivors -- another rumor that Gannon refutes as an "urban legend.@
"There was a camaraderie among men who went to sea and no seaman, even in conditions of war. would shoot an innocent, helpless person in the water. A second reason for this was a directive that went out from Admiral Donitz to all his U-boat fleets -- they were not to harm survivors in the water or in lifeboats. First, because it would be inhumane, and second because then the U-boa! crews would think that tile same might happen to them someday and that would cause a loss of morale."THE DIXIE ARROW
The March roll call of torpedoed ships continued. Ario, Australia, Acme, Kassandra Louloudi, E.M Clark, Papoose, W.E. Hutton, Esso Nashville, Atlantic Sun, Naeco, Atik, Equipoise.
Visions of a Knight's Cross for sinking more than 100,000 tons drove men like Johann Mohr to unprecedented risks. Off the North Carolina capes in mid-March, Mohr sank or damaged nine ships in seven days. No longer did the insolent U-boats retreat to the ocean floor at the first blush of daylight. No longer could merchant sailors breathe a sigh of relief at dawn. When the sun rose on the 8,000-ton oil tanker Dixie Arrow on March 26, the ship had just survived a dangerous night crossing the bloody waters of Raleigh Bay. Bul death was still lurking close by.
At 9 am., two torpedoes from U-71 slammed into the ship causing a monstrous conflagration of burning oil. The fire whipped up a raging wind and cast skyward a towering cloud of black smoke seen up and down the Outer Banks.
"I was on my way to school," Gibb Gray remembers, "and the whole ground shook, a violent explosion. When we looked down toward the lighthouse, it was south of the lighthouse but a little bit to the east where the smoke was coming from. That was the Dixie Arrow. And we skipped school then."
"We didn't go to school. We went right over to the beach and started running down and was watching the life boats."
On the ship, quick thinking helmsman Oscar Chappel saved many of the crew who had escaped toward the bow, by turning the crippled tanker into the wind. The reversing flames raced aft, consuming Chappell on the bridge. When seaman Frederick Spiese jumped overboard, be revealed to his best! friend Alex that he didn't know how to swim. Spiese then proceeded lo vanish into the sea 'of burning oil. When the survivors were plucked from the water by the USS Tarbell, 11 of the 33 crew members had not survived. But Freddy Spiese did. On the morning of March 26, Spiese learned how to swim.
WAR TIME ROMANCE
Wartime romance on the islands was inevitable. The local boys had gone to fight the war on other coasts. Island girls were all alone. But the Outer Banks were crowded with men from across America. Ocracoke native Blanche Howard Joliff worked at the island post office when the island population tripled with almost a thousand new faces stationed at the base the Navy built on the island.
"We worked hard we really did. there was a lot of mail coming. We had a lot of people here during the war. A lot of people. People rented them rooms. There wasn't many places for them to stay otherwise, the Pamlico Inn and the Cedar Grove Inn down on tile soundside and the Wahab Hotel Inn...Most of them didn't like it here. They didn't want to be stationed here because there was nothing on the outside of the base to entertain them except the movie theater and there was a dance hall."
All irascible New Yorker on Ocracoke, Ted Mutro fought mosquitoes, boredom and Germans but he wound up surrendering to love. It all started when Mutro passed the Spanish Casino returning from his nightly patrol to the beach and encountered a girl named Ollie.
"And I heard the music in there and I stopped and I says 'I want that jukebox shut off at 11 when I come by.' Go out there, punch the clock, come by. I told them before I left I want that jukebox shut off 11. Well I come by (at) 11, (and) I hear 'Just Remember Pearl Harbor" ... on the jukebox. I come in there and pulled my pistol out. They all looked. I said, 'I told you, the next shot's going in that jukebox.' 'Oh my God, don't do that, you'd ruin our only recreation we got.' 'I told you I wanted it shut off at 11.' Then she... said, 'What about his place don't you like?' I said, 'The whole damn place. It's the last stop in civilization.' 'Well you don't like it,' she said, 'why don't you get out of here.' 1 said, 'Look, I didn't come here because I wanted to come here. I come here because the government sent me here to look after you people.' Boy, face got red. Boy, she blessed me out."
"Well, she starts showing me around. I start getting it -I mean liking it, you know. She'd take me over to her mother's. We'd have steamed oysters. I never ate seafood in my life until I come here. They'd get a bushel of oysters. We'd steam 'em there in the yard there and stuff like that. She took me around and showed me different places there. Kind of took up my spare time."
Ocracoke has always had a strong fishing tradition, and before he knew it, Ted Mutro was hooked. One day with a tie around his neck and shoes in hand, Mutroand his fiance went searching for the good Preacher Dixon.
Mutro continues the story: "We knocked on the door. She said, 'He's to the Boy Scout meeting.' I said, 'Ah, we'd come back some other time.' They stopped me up. 'Nah, lIm not walking around here no more!' They didn't have no hard surface road. The women didn't want to walk around it no more. So we went in waiting for him. He come in. He said, 'Well, I see you finally got him Ollie. Let's get it over with before he changes his mind.'"
Later, Mack Womack married Marie Spencer.
In the coming months as new recruits arrived on the island, Mutro and Womack would warn them -- "don't eat the oysters and keep those shoes on. Once you get Ocracoke sand between your toes, you never get it out."
When U- 123 surfaced alter twenty-eight days at sea within sight of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, Hardegen and his watch officers at once sensed a change from their last visit to the Outer Banks.
"By the time Hardegen returned to U.S. shores at Cape Hatteras on March 30, 1942, says Michael Gannon "he was surprised at how many ships, most of them small, were cruising around the Outer Banks. There were British motor torpedo boats manned by Canadian crews. There were U.S. cutters. There were overhead planes with lights flying about. And he knew that at long last the American coast was alert but still had not doused its lights."
After months of meetings. memos, and 122 vessels lost or damaged, tile U.S. Navy implemented a series of defensive measures. They first moved to dim the lights.
Hatteras and Ocracoke residents well understood the effect of distant lights reflecting off the often present sea haze and dutifully hung thick drapes on their windows. Cars, trucks and buses were required to have black tape covering headlights, leaving a narrow opening to light the way. Beach driving at night was restricted. Outer Bankers took their war responsibilities to heart, even peeking around window shades when far off rumblings meant another ship had been attacked well out sea.
Without enough heavily armed destroyers and escort craft for organized convoys, the Navy devised a relay system. Ships stopped overnight at harbors and mined anchorages, including Cape Lookout, in a procedure called Bucket Brigades. Aftet sunrise, patrol craft would shepherd ships on the dash to the mined anchorage within Hatteras bight. And so on, up the coast.
"One hundred twenty miles is roughly the distance that a freighter or tanker would travel during daylight hours," says Joe Schwarzer. "It was a way of having a group of ships in relatively protected circumstances making their way up the coast and thus avoiding attacks by U-boats at night."
THE ARMED GUARD
Merchant ships faster than the U-boats' maximum of 18 knots had heavy guns mounted fore and aft. The Navy formed a unit known as the Armed Guard and stationed these men on the larger, faster tankers. A recruiter convinced Wallace Beckham of Avon to join the Armed Guard because he would be served lavish meals by uniformed waiters. Only after he signed the papers did his friends offer their opinion.
"They said, 'Oh my God, that's a suicide outfit!'" Beckham says. "I didn't know what to think then, just being a young boy. I was assigned to a merchant tanker. And I made six trips by Cape Hatteras on this merchant tanker in WW II. It was a fast tanker. It would do 21 knots, and, of course, we always traveled by ourselves because we were fast. They didn't lie to me when they told me I would eat good, and I'd have a man wait on my table."
In addition to the Armed Guard and Bucket Brigades, the Hooligan Navy was born of the government's desperation in the spring of '42.
"The American Navy," says Schwarzer, "took a tip from the British at Dunkirk and started to requisition private pleasure craft, yachts, motor launches, whatever could be used, and these were adapted lo carrying depth charges."
In all, nearly 2,000 vessels were signed into service. Orders called for at least four, 300-pound depth charges, one 50-caliber machine gun, and a radio transmitter to be on board. There was no specified limit of good fortune that would be required.
"We were on a wooden sailboat," remembered Mack Womack. "The one I was on was 70 feel long, I remember that. And it was equipped with six or eight depth charges on the stern .... We didn't have a gunner's mate, so the first class bos'n's mate was in charge of the ship. He had to set whatever he thought the depth of it was. I mean, but we was lucky. We didn't find one. It'd probably would have done more damage to us than it would the submarine."
In every war, there are paradoxes of human folly and frailty in the face of overwhelming odds. Off the Outer Banks in 1942, none were greater than America's Hooligan Navy.
A less dangerous method of tracking the movements of U-boats was installed about a mile to the northeast of Ocracoke Village. The top secret "Loop Shack," as named by the locals, employed new underwater magnetic indicator loops, sound modulated radio sentinel buoys, listening equipment controlled from shore and radio direction finding technology. Along with other stations along the coast, including Poyners Hill near Corolla, RDF receivers could intercept and triangulate the location of the U-boats when they transmitted their daily reports back to France.
Ultimately, an organized convoy strategy was extended along the entire eastern seaboard and succeeded in disrupting tile domination of U-boats.
"The convoy system that the U.S. Navy organized in May of 1942 dramatically changed the condition of the U-boat war," Gannon says. "This was something Admiral King very belatedly and reluctantly come to an understanding of the importance of convoy. Prior to his establishment of convoy, he argued that an inadequately defended convoy is worse than no convoy at all. And this was against all of the experience that the British had acquired in two years of opposing the U-boats. Finally, Admiral King was forced to consider the convoy. And when he finally established convoys in May there was a noticeable, immediate drop in sinkings. And Admiral King started saying instead. 'Convoy is the only way to defeat the U-boat.' Too bad he came to that conclusion too late, after the loss of much steel and flesh,"
THE BATTLE ENDS
The battle of torpedo Junction, as it came to be known, was soon over, By July, four U-boats had been sunk in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. As more of his U-boats failed to report from their American patrols, Admiral Donitz moved his forces back to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters. He hardly felt defeated.
Says Michael Gannon: "During the first six months of 1942, 5,000 merchant mariners and some other merchant passengers were lost at sea along the American seaboard, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Five thousand. Twice the number who were lost at Pearl Harbor. A total in six months of 397 vessels sunk in what has to be counted as one of the great maritime disasters of all time. And as the long-lime professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Gerhard Weinberg, has said. 'That maritime disaster has to go down as the greatest single defeat ever suffered by American Naval power.'"
Upon Adolph Hitler's suicide in late April of 1945, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz was promoted above Goring and Himmler to become the next Fuhrer. One Week later, Donitz initiated Germany's unconditional surrender. Serving on Donitz' staff at the time of the surrender was Reinhard Hardegen.
With Germany's surrender, the servicemen and the civilians on the Outer Banks could finally let down their guard.
Arnold Tolson was on Ocracoke, the skipper of the 63-067 air and sea rescue craft, when the end of die war came, and there was "one hell of a big party." Blanche Joliff and her mother were standing on their Ocracoke porch when they heard. Calvin O'Neal says a group of islanders got in a jeep and rode up and down the island "just whooping and hollering and having a great time. It was wonderful, the war was over."
The fears and worries of war were soon obscured from memory. Island life, although a different one. slowly returned to normal. The next summer. "The Lost Colony" outdoor drama reopened for the first time in five years. Beach hotels and cottages refilled. On Ocracoke, the once bustling Navy base was empty. Barracks and buildings were torn down, dismantled for materials or moved lo other spots in the village. Beyond the oil stained beaches, the ocean bottom was littered with unexploded depth charges, contact mines and the debris of more than 60 ships.
The Outer Banks was no longer apart from tile rest of the world, in a couple or' years, an asphalt highway would wind its way south, a ribbon of promise, a lifeline, a long awaited signature of change. The islands would never be thc same.
"Things never got back to normal," says Ocracoke's Calvin O'Neal. "because we lost our innocence. Before that, we just were not part of the rest of the world, isolated as we were. But it did change things. Your outlook on life was different. You had experienced something close hand that normally would change your attitude, your life, your everything."