The Atlas is a 430 foot long tanker and is resting in 120 feet of water with the highest decks at 90 feet. It is about 12 miles from the Knuckle Buoy and about 5 miles east of the shoals of Cape Lookout. The stern section is open, revealing the engine. The high section is made up of the holding tanks and the crossbeams are easily seen.
During the summer, the water temperature ranges from the upper 70's to the low 80's. Visibility averages 60 feet but can get up over a 100 feet. The Atlantic Sand Tiger shark can be seen here year round and teeth are abundant on this wreck. They can be seen on the stern, on the decks of the high section and the inside of the high section. Large schools of amberjack and spadefish can be seen swimming around the wreck also. Sea bass and tropical fish, such as the Queen Angel and French Angel can also be seen regularly.
The Atlas was loaded with a cargo of gasoline and headed for Sewaren, NJ. Captain Hamilton Gray was in command of the Atlas. On the morning of April 9, 1942, the sky was clear, a light breeze was blowing, and there was a gentle swell as the Atlas rounded Cape Lookout. A lookout reported hearing the sound of a diesel engine off of the starboard bow. Even though nothing was sighted, Captain Gray ordered the Atlas to come about so that the stern was to the sound.
The order came too late. The U-552, commanded by Korvettekapitan Erich Topp, had already fired a torpedo. As the ship was turning, the torpedo struck it amidships on the starboard side. The impact caused the gasoline to fill the ship and spill out into the ocean. The fumes started to overtake the crew and Captain Gray gave the order to abandon ship. Captain Gray and 33 of his men lowered three lifeboats and started moving away from the ship. A second torpedo was fired at the Atlas and the result of the impact was that the ship and surrounding gasoline-covered water was set on fire. The lifeboat with Captain Gray was completely surrounded by fire and he gave the order for everyone to jump into the water so the fire would pass over them. Once the fire had burned itself out, the men resurfaced to find their lifeboat on fire. They quickly put out the fire and climbed back into the lifeboat. Two of the crewmen died in the water and several of them sustained burns. The other two lifeboats were clear when the fire broke out. The three lifeboats got together and headed toward the lighthouse at Cape Lookout. After being spotted by a Navy plane, the Coast Guard picked up Captain Gray and the 31 crewmen and took them to Morehead City. Five of the crewmen were treated for burns.