New book details a horrific chapter in World War II
history that unfolded off the North Carolina coast
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
years before the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane devastated Ocracoke and
Hatteras islands, a national tragedy had played out in the waters off
the Outer Banks, and to this day, many Americans have little knowledge
of the horrific slaughter that took place.
Kevin Duffus, author of the recently released book, “War Zone: World
War II off the North Carolina Coast,” said that many who have attended
his lectures and book signings about the U-boat attacks off the U.S.
coast are astounded at the extent of the death toll, and how people
lost their lives in such hellish circumstances --- blown to pieces,
tossed alive into flaming seas, shot to death in mid-escape, deserted
by would-be rescue ships, consumed by layers of discharged oil.
“I can tell you, one universal comment I hear from people is ‘I had no
idea it was this bad,’” Duffus said in a telephone interview from his
Raleigh office. “The other is, ‘I had no idea at all.’”
The ugly facts are that in the last 16 days of March 1942, 11 German
U-boats preyed on unprotected merchant ships transiting the Atlantic
shipping lanes, with the intention of cutting off war supplies to
Europe. And in just over two weeks, those enemy submarines sank or
damaged 31 ships, killing a total of 683 men, women and children.
The waters off the Outer Banks, with a narrow, crooked passageway 10
miles off treacherous Diamond Shoals and 23 miles from the deep water
of the Continental Shelf, were the U-boats’ prime hunting grounds.
Duffus compared it to “an arcade shooting gallery at the county fair,”
with allied merchant ships as the ducks.
By July 1942, U-boats had killed 5,000 people, many of them civilians,
and sank 397 vessels off the U.S. coast. Of them, 1,700 souls and 78
boats were lost off North Carolina.
history has been largely overlooked or neglected,” Duffus said. Even
acclaimed documentary producer Ken Burns, he said, barely mentioned in
his TV series “THE WAR” the appallingly successful seven-month Nazi campaign that took place off of our beaches.
First covered in his 2001 documentary of the same name, Duffus said he
wrote the book to tell the more complete and in-depth story --- much of
which had been left on the cutting-room floor --- of what he
characterized as an “under-appreciated” time in history, especially
from the perspective of those who had a front row seat to the
Through interviews with eyewitnesses woven together with historical
accounts, Duffus tells how Outer Bankers on Ocracoke and Hatteras
islands were shocked awake in the middle of the night after the City of
Atlanta, a freighter traveling from New York City to Savannah, was
torpedoed. The Jan. 19 attack, just seven miles off Avon, was followed
by a ghastly explosion that shook houses and rattled windows.
The explosions along the Outer Banks coast came more and more
frequently in the coming months, and with them came washed-up empty
lifeboats and ship wreckage, the possessions of crews and passengers,
dead bodies. And rumors.
For months, Duffus wrote, the Nazis prowled the Atlantic coast, picking
off unarmed merchant vessels, helped by the bright lights along the
coastline that conveniently backlit their prey. Eventually, the coast
was ordered dimmed, although not before hundreds of lives had been
taken in the night.
According to Duffus’ account, there is evidence that failure to dim the
lights during an Easter weekend dance at the Casino in Nags Head may
have contributed to the sinking of an oil tanker and the death of 10
Fear permeated the Outer Banks, compelling residents to lock their
doors for the first time to keep out Germans who might come ashore from
wrecks, or who would want to spy --- which Duffus says may have
actually happened, to a minor extent at least.
and more military personnel were stationed on the islands, the harbors
were mined --- although the armaments proved more troublesome to Allied
ships than Germans --- and a top secret U-boat detection system was
built in Ocracoke.
During his research, Duffus discovered that the U-85, sunk off Nags
Head on April 14, had also been the submarine that was supposedly sunk
in January by a Navy pilot off Newfoundland who famously declared, “Saw
sub, sank same.” Records recovered from Germans killed in the U-85,
preserved at the National Archives, prove that their sub had escaped
the summer, ships began traveling in convoys, which combined with air
patrols, drastically decreased U-boat attacks. But when the Allied and
British warplanes were able to go for the German “hornet’s nest” in
France, before the “hornets” could head to the U.S., the attacks
In retrospect, it’s difficult to understand how the U-boats were able
to persist for seven months in such a deadly mission off the U.S. coast
with such chilling success --- and that most of the attacks were kept
out of the press. But Duffus said that it’s easier to see if it’s put
“If it were the only combat or military engagement in the war,
then, yeah, it would be pretty inexcusable,” Duffus said. “But the fact
is we were fighting a huge war in the Pacific, and in Europe.”
Resilient and adaptable Outer Bankers used their fishing vessels to
help the military keep an eye on the coast. Sometimes, as was the
tradition, they salvaged the wrecks. With the war literally at their
front door, the islanders did what they had to do to survive. But even
after the explosions quieted and the war ended, Duffus wrote, they were
not the same.
“Things never got back to normal because we lost our innocence then,”
Calvin O’Neal was quoted in the book. “Because before (the war) we were
not part of the rest of the world, isolated as we were. It did change
things. Your outlook on life was different.”
But the Outer Banks wasn’t given much of a breather after Torpedo
Junction quieted. On Sept. 14, 1944, a category 4 hurricane tore
through the islands, with wind gusts up to 140 mph, severely damaging
96 of Avon’s 115 dwellings and destroying eight buildings on Ocracoke
Island. Two Coast Guard cutters were sunk in Oregon Inlet, taking with
them 47 men. In Florida, with no help from a U-boat, the storm sunk a
destroyer, killing 248 men.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
“War Zone: World War II off the North Carolina Coast,” by Kevin Duffus
is available in Outer Banks bookstores and other shops. The author can
be contacted at [email protected] or check his Web site at www.thelostlight.com.
For a related article on World War II off the Outer Banks, go to http://islandfreepress.org/Archives/2007.09.28-BattleForTorpedoJunction.html. The article appeared in The Island Free Press in 2007.