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North Carolina—Where the War Came Home

North Carolina—Where the War Came Home Due to the great number of ships that met their demise in the turbulent waters off North Carolina’s coast, the area is often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1942, the area began to get a second nickname. Just six weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, German U-boats began sinking ships off the North Carolina coast. There were so many ships torpedoed that it wasn’t long before the area near Cape Hatteras was coined ‘Torpedo Junction.’ One of those attacks occurred on July 15, 1942, when Convoy KS-520, with 19 merchant ships and five escorts, was sailing near Cape Hatteras to Key West when the convoy was spotted by a German U-boat, U-576. Before the U-boat could fire its torpedoes, one of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters saw it and began to drop depth charges. U-576 fired four torpedoes into the convoy. Two rocked the Chilore, one hit the J.A. Mowinckel and the fourth struck the SS Bluefields, which sank within minutes. U-576, previously damaged, surfaced in the middle of the convoy and the Unicoi opened fire while two U.S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft dropped depth charges, thus sending U-576 to the bottom of the sea with all 45 crew members

After years of searching for the elusive naval battlefield and the remains of U-576 and SS Bluefields, NOAA maritime archaeologists discovered their final resting place in 2014 while using high resolution surveys. The two ships lie within 240 yards of each other just 35 miles offshore in about 750 feet of water. After their discovery, both were nominated for and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This summer, NOAA assembled a team of partners and visited the remains of both U-576 and Bluefields. Project Baseline, a global conservation non-profit, supplied the research vessel, Baseline Explorer and two manned submersibles. Additional funding was provided through a grant from NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The generous support of partners made it possible for these two shipwrecks to be seen for the first time in 74 years.

Using the submersibles, researchers collected photos, video and other data that will help to visualize and virtually recreate the underwater battlefield. Underwater robots and advanced remote sensing technology, provided by 2G Robotics and SRI International, generated bathymetric data and detailed acoustical models of the wreck and surrounding seafloor. University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute also provided three-dimensional modeling of the wrecks. “This discovery is the only known location in U.S. waters that contains archaeologically preserved remains of a convoy battle where both sides are so close together,” said Joe Hoyt, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Maritime Archaeologist and Chief Scientist for the expedition.

“The significance of these sites cannot be overstated,” said David Alberg, Superintendent of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. “This area off North Carolina is the best representation of a World War II battlefield off the East Coast. Now, working with our partners, we have an opportunity to study it, characterize it, and, like other historic battlefields in this country, hopefully protect it.” Unfortunately, a tropical depression and a tropical storm on its heels ended the expedition early. However, the expedition yielded some amazing video, photos, and laser scans of U-576 and SS Bluefields.

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