July 30, 2008


Diving on sunken German subs off the Outer Banks for history’s sake

By JORDAN TOMBERLIN





Most people remember Pearl Harbor as the closest World War II ever came to America. But in 1942, the blue waters of the Atlantic, just off the coast of North Carolina, became a crucial and largely unrecognized theater of the Second World War. 

During the early months of 1942, mere miles off the coast of the Outer Banks, the Germans and the Allies engaged in a continuous and widely forgotten maritime battle, known as the Battle of the Atlantic and also as The Battle of Torpedo Junction.

Now, 66 years later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has launched a multi-year archeological project aimed at researching and documenting the wrecks from the Battle of the Atlantic.
 
The project began this July, with a research expedition to survey, photograph, and map the wrecks of three German U-Boats sunk off the coast of the Outer Banks.  And early Friday morning, July 25, a team of divers and historians with NOAA’s Marine Sanctuaries and Maritime Heritage Program geared up for their final day of exploration.

“Ultimately, we want to get these wrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places and to give them the significance they deserve,” says Tane Casserley, NOAA’s national maritime heritage coordinator and principal co-investigator of the expedition.

The goal of the project is education and preservation. “We’re not trying to keep recreational divers from visiting these sites. We want people to see them.”

But what they do want to stop is the scavenging and souvenir-hunting that has gone on at these wrecks.  
“It’s illegal; they’re the property of the German government, protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act,” explains Tim Runyan, a professor at East Carolina University, and a historian with NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program.

The wrecks are also maritime war-graves, which, like any other grave, should be respected and left undisturbed. 

After a safety briefing from the captain, Chad Meckley, and a dive briefing from Casserley, NOAA’s new 41-foot catamaran was untied, and the expedition was underway.

The first stop that day was the U-701, the most successful U-Boat to operate off the North Carolina coast, and the most intact of the three U-Boats that were surveyed.

After two hours, the team arrived at the site of the wreck, some 40 miles out to sea, and the divers prepared for the 115-foot descent to the wreck, carrying large underwater cameras and 120-pound air tanks.

With a surface current of about 2.5 knots and a scant 20 minutes of time on the site, the divers knew before they ever hit the water that this dive wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

In an effort to offset the 2.5 knot current,  Meckley moved 500 yards up-current from the wreck, and when everyone was ready, cut the engine, yelling, “Dive, Dive, Dive.”

The divers disappeared, and Casserley dutifully climbed to the bridge to look for signs of the divers.

Not long after spotting the divers’ air bubbles right under the boat, Casserley spotted a bright, inflated bag many, many yards from the bubbles—the divers’ sign that they had missed the site and were preparing to ascend.  Fifteen minutes later, the group surfaced.

The current on the bottom was so strong that diver Joe Hoyt, historian for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said he couldn’t even dig his fins in the sand.

“It was like white water rapids in the middle of the ocean,” he said. 


Getting the final shots of U-701 was out of the question. The screaming current rendered diving difficult and dangerous, and visibility was non-existent. 

“I kept thinking we were getting really deep, and then out of nowhere, I hit the bottom.” Hoyt said. “It [the wreck] could have been 5 feet in front of my face and I wouldn’t have seen it.”

The divers unloaded all their gear and settled in for the hour-long ride to their next stop, the U-85, just 14 miles off the coast, where they hoped conditions would be better.

 The first submarine kill in U.S. waters, the U-85 is one of the least intact wrecks, having been heavily looted since it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

As the boat approached the site, recreational divers on the Go-Between, a dive boat out of Nags Head, were just coming out of the water. 

The Go-Between idled next to the catamaran, and the divers exchanged a friendly discussion of conditions at the site, reinforcing Casserley’s claim that they have no intention of prohibiting recreational diving at the sites.

The Go-Between assured the research divers that the current was low and visibility was good, wished them luck, and sped away.

The NOAA divers descended, and 35 minutes later, resurfaced, having successfully completed their last dive of the 19-day research mission.  After a few celebratory hand-shakes and high-fives, the boat headed back to shore.

In addition to the U-701 and the U-85, the divers explored the wreck of the U-352 off Morehead City.

Next summer, the team will begin the second phase of the project, which will focus on surveying the numerous Allied shipwrecks in the area. The data from the expeditions will be posted on the National Marine Sanctuaries’ Battle of the Atlantic Web site, and hopefully, within the next couple of years, a full publication will released.






For more information:


More information on the expedition is available at:
http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/missions/battleoftheatlantic/welcome.html
 
More information on World War II off the Outer Banks is available on The Island Free Press Island History Category Page.




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