Displaying history rescued from the deep is a tricky business
By CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
in the 1970s, no one thought twice of removing anything off of sunken
World War II U-boats, from brass plaques to crew journals to torpedo
To this day, a treasure trove of historic items
salvaged from U-boats sunk off the Outer Banks is safely stashed away
in the private homes of divers. And without assurances from the German
government and officials with the Graveyard
of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, hundreds of rare and
well-preserved U-boat artifacts will likely remain cloistered from
need the proper place in a museum so that youngsters today know why
we’re speaking English,” Phil McGrath, a veteran diver, said in a
telephone interview from his home in Daytona Beach, Fla. “But what if
you announce what you have, the next thing you know, you have someone
knocking at your door?”
Changes in maritime salvage law in 2004,
McGrath said, has made divers nervous about possession of the items
they’ve gathered over decades, usually at great expense of their own
time and money. Often the diver has meticulously researched
history of the vessel and has restored the artifacts.
wreck diver has no interest in making money,” McGrath said. “They want
to preserve history… so that future generations can benefit from what
Still, U-boat artifacts are rare and sought after.
One U-boat collector’s recent Internet advertisement listed numerous
items – newspapers, watches, sailor’s uniforms, binoculars, officer’s
jackets -- starting at $100 euros up to $3,490 euros each.
McGrath, a 60-year-old New Jersey native, said he first came to North
Carolina in the mid-1970s to dive on the wreck of the U-85
that sank off Nags Head, about 12 miles east-northeast of Oregon
Inlet. A member of the Eastern Diver's Association, then the
diving group on the East Coast, McGrath said that he was intrigued by
the German vessel and the “virgin territory” for divers.
was the beginning of wreck diving,” he recalled. “There were no laws.
There were no restrictions of any type. The only thing is you had to
honor it as a war grave.”
The U-85, sunk in April 1942, was the
first German submarine in World War II attacked on the surface by a U.S
Navy warship. After an initial inspection by the Navy, the vessel was
ignored for decades except by a few Outer Banks fishermen.
the time McGrath had heard about the U-85, a couple of entrepreneurial
dive boat owners had begun leading dive trips to the vessel, which does
not contain any human remains. It soon became one of the most popular
wreck dives on the East Coast.
In his book Germany’s U-85: A
Shadow In The Sea, published in 2003, Nags Head diver Jim Bunch
recounts his first trip to the vessel.
“The wreck was much more
intact in the ‘70s than it is today,” Bunch wrote. “…The deck faring
was still attached to the pressure hull with many storage compartments
evident. Rounds for the 88mm gun were scattered all over the deck and
the two storage containers on top of the pressure hull with torpedoes
inside were easy to identify. The periscope and hatch covers were also
still in place.”
Since that trip, Bunch has been out to the
wreck hundreds of time, making him a veritable U-85 expert. He and his
dive buddies, Roger and Rich Hunting and Billy Daniels, have donated
several artifacts from the wreck to the Graveyard of the Atlantic
Museum in Hatteras village, most notably a rare Enigma machine, used by the
Germans as a decoder.
2002, Bunch wrote, the forward torpedo room, previously filled with
sand, was dredged out, revealing for the first time what was stored in
the room when the U-boat went down.
“Sea boots, raingear, Drager
lungs, goggles, life vests and the debris from 12 bunks and three
wooden tables were found in the sediment pile,” Bunch wrote. “The
remains of 36 lockers that held the enlisted men’s personal belongings
still lined the walls on both sides. On the metal floor, dishes, cups,
silverware and personal effects were haphazardly scattered about.”
Enigma machine and other U-85 artifacts were donated to the museum in
2002 officially as gifts from the German government, but Bunch provided
no specifics on the whereabouts of the other items or who salvaged them.
The U-85 today is essentially an empty shell, as is the U-352 off
Morehead City, also a favorite recreational wreck dive.
a recent telephone interview, Bunch said that a post World War II
treaty declared that military shipwrecks will always belong to the
country of origin, “but over the years the dog-gone things have been
salvaged and blown-up and nobody gave a hoot.”
dive trips to the U-85, he said, have included personnel with local
police departments, the Coast Guard, the SBI, and the FBI.
had any concern about breaking any military law or treaty,” Bunch said.
“There was really no dialogue about that at all in those days.
In 2004, President George H.W. Bush signed the Sunken Military Craft Act,
which was intended to clear up ambiguities in maritime salvage law and
encourage other nations to have a mutually respectful understanding of
sovereign rights. The law clearly states that sunken military aircraft
and ships are owned by the nation where they came from, and that any
war graves or artifacts they contain are to be protected. It does not
forbid recreational diving.
After the law passed, Bunch said
that divers stopped salvaging but continued to enjoy diving on the
U-boats. Yet a renegade diver or divers did manage to pillage
parts of the U-701, located in deep water off Cape Hatteras. Until
then, the location of the vessel, which is believed to entomb 10
sailors, was mostly unknown and the divers were in the process of
trying to establish it as a diving preserve. But in late 2004, the
radio antenna, a sky periscope, a deck gun and 88 shells were removed
from the vessel.
After being notified about the U-701, the
German government promised to investigate and possibly take legal
action. It is not known if anything was learned about the culprit,
although local divers, speaking off the record, said they had a pretty
good idea about his identity and motives.
According to Kevin
Duffus, author of “War Zone: World War II off the North Carolina
Coast,” the ocean off the Outer Banks was the prime hunting grounds for
U-boats, comparing the narrow shipping lane off treacherous Diamond
Shoals to “an arcade shooting gallery” for the enemy submarines. By
July 1942, Duffus wrote, U-boats had killed 5,000 people and sank 397
vessels off the U.S coast. Of them, 1,700 people and 78 boats were lost
off North Carolina.
A U-boat exhibit is one of the highlights
planned at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which is working on an
exhibit plan that is expected to be completed in about 18 months.
part of the Battle of the Atlantic that raged off the coast in the
early years of World War II, the U-boat campaign off the Outer Banks,
famously pegged “Torpedo Junction,” was a dramatic -- and traumatic --
chapter of the war that hit closet to home. Older residents
recall the horror of hearing vessels exploded by depth charges and
torpedoes, seeing the ocean aflame in burning oil and the bodies on the
beaches the next morning.
Joseph Schwarzer, the director of N.C.
Maritime Museums, said that the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum would
welcome any U-boat artifacts retrieved from wrecks off the Outer Banks
before 2002, but he declined to grant any special honor for donors
beyond the appreciation given to any other donor.
there is an enormous amount of material out there that would reflect
life on the U-boats off the coast of North Carolina,” he said.
said that the Sunken Craft law is not retroactive, and that previous
maritime laws incorporated the Potsdam Treaty that technically said
Germany and Japan owned nothing. Before that, he said, longstanding
admiralty laws had essentially allowed a “finders-keepers” approach to
Nonetheless, Schwarzer said he is sensitive to
Germany’s concern about its war graves and military vessels, and its
abhorrence for any perceived glorification of Nazi-era activity. He
said he intends to travel this month to the German embassy in
Washington to ask for their blessing.
“I think there is every
reason to be optimistic about this and I think it would be wrong not to
consult with the German government,” he said.
Bunch, who has
been diving since 1955 and is a member of the Graveyard museum board,
said that divers bristle at being regarded as little more than pirates
who’ve plundered the U-boats. Instead, when they salvaged items, they
saw it more that they were saving them from the ravages of saltwater
and time. A number of divers have spent thousands of dollars retrieving
U-boat artifacts and have never sought to profit from it.
“Divers, if they donate, they should be recognized,” Bunch said.
there has to be a way to encourage divers to have the invaluable
artifacts displayed at the museum, while putting the practice of
salvaging historic wrecks in the past, said David Alberg,
superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary,
a partner with the Graveyard museum.
intent here is not to punish or defame someone,” he said. “Let’s try to
find a way to thank the divers for their efforts, but at the same time
discourage (future illegal behavior.)
“Nobody wants a witch hunt. We want to see these artifacts coming into
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)