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Chasing History Under Water: Conversation with Joseph Hoyt

By Michael Dolan
11/30/2016 • World War II Magazine

JOSEPH HOYT’S boyhood dives on ship- wrecks in Lake Erie with his dad led him to degrees in maritime history and marine archaeology and then to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages wreck sites such as the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, whose turret Hoyt helped recover, and vessels sunk along the East Coast from 1941 to 1942. Last August, Hoyt, 33, was part of a team that located the U-576, lost with all hands 72 years ago off North Carolina.

 What are your project’s goals?

 Except for Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, most Americans see World War II as a foreign war. But of North Carolina there are U-boats, Allied warships, merchant vessels—every player in the Battle of the Atlantic—at depths accessible to anybody who takes a basic scuba class. Our job is to analyze this history and say, “Look, this is a World War II battlefield that’s right at our doorstep.”

Why so many wartime wrecks there?

 Currents bottleneck the sea lanes around Cape Hatteras, putting them on the continental shelf near deep water where subs could hide. As a result, on the shelf, within 35 or 40 miles of shore, are about 52 Battle of the Atlantic shipwrecks, of which perhaps six haven’t been located.

What’s NOAA’s role?

 NOAA, which has managed the Monitor site since the 1970s, learned of U-boat wrecks in the region. The U-85 and the U-352 are in 100 to 120 feet of water, very accessible. The U-701 lies of Cape Hatteras; a few people had known of that sub since 1989. After a hurricane in 2003 uncovered more of the U-701, parts of it—an antenna, gun harnesses, hatch covers—started vanishing. There was an outcry. We began working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and East Carolina University, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, to get a baseline on these wrecks.

Did Allied vessels go down?

 A few. In early 1942, the defensive emphasis was on the West Coast. In the east, to combat U-boats, we had converted trawlers and yachts with a depth charge rack and deck gun slapped on. The HMS Bedfordshire and other British vessels came over. The Bedfordshire, an antisub trawler, was operating out of Morehead City, North Carolina, when it was sunk near Cape Lookout with all hands. In assessing the site, where there are still human remains, we worked with the British Embassy. Another trawler, the HMS Senateur Duhamel, lies near Cape Lookout. It collided with an American warship. We’ve surveyed that site as well.

Were any American warships sunk?

 Yes. Te armed yacht USS Cythera is out there somewhere. So is the USS Atik. In 1942, near Hatteras, the U.S. Navy laid mines. Unfortunately, the mines mainly damaged friendly vessels, so the YP-389, a navy yard patrol boat, was out there to warn ships about the mines when the U-701 spotted it. Not wanting to waste a torpedo—the YP-389 was a 100-foot trawler—the U-boat surfaced and fired on the smaller boat with its 88mm deck gun and 20mm antiaircraft gun. The three-inch gun on the YP had a broken firing pin, and its crewmen couldn’t use depth charges. They returned fire with machine guns. Their tracer rounds let the sub’s gunners zero in on the YP, which sank. Six American sailors died; the rest were rescued. The 701 was sunk a few weeks later by planes using depth charges.

In the 1970s, a Monitor search noted sites, including “a modern trawler” near where the 701 and YP-389 sank. We located that site in 2009 and, sure enough, the wreck had a three-inch deck gun.

What data guide the searches?

 If military assets are involved, there are after-action reports. That can be tricky. You may have five ships describing an event, but each is reporting from a different position 30 or 40 miles away. When the Germans torpedoed a vessel, they would note it on a 35-mile grid square, but they might not have known just where they were, and targets could drift; when the U-701 torpedoed the tanker William Rockefeller, the ship floated for more than 10 hours before sinking.

What led NOAA to look for the U-576?

The U-701 got us interested in the U-576 and the freighter Bluefields. Their location was unknown but they sank at the same time and same locale during one of the best examples of an East Coast convoy battle. If we could find them, we thought, we would have a great way to illustrate this area as a battlefield.

On July 15, 1942, a 19-ship convoy, KS-520, was en route from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West, Florida; “KS” referred to Key West, South. Five U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels were providing escort, along with continual air coverage. As the convoy was rounding Cape Hatteras at midafternoon, U-576 spotted it. The sub, a Type VIIC, had had little success, and a day or two before had been hit from the air. The crew told their base in France that the boat was returning home with a damaged ballast system. That was the last anyone heard from the U-576.

But the U-boat came across this convoy and I guess could not resist. The captain fired four torpedoes. One hit the largest convoy vessel, the J.A. Mowinckel. Two struck the Chilore. Those ships ran into mines. The Chilore later capsized and sank of Virginia Beach en route to a salvage yard. It’s still there. The Mowinckel was refitted and returned to service. The fourth torpedo hit the Bluefields, a Nicaraguan-fagged freighter whose crew had time to abandon ship before it sank.

Launching the torpedoes may have lightened the U-576 more than its ballast system could handle; the sub popped to the surface in the middle of the convoy. An armed merchant vessel began firing. Two navy Kingfishers flying overhead dropped depth charges. The sub sank. All this took place in 15 to 20 minutes.

How did you start your search?

 After-action reports from the vessels covered several hundred square miles, but John Bright, an ECU grad student working on the project, had a way to narrow the scope that led us to focus on the shelf. The University of Texas Applied Research Laboratories provided an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, with wide-area low-resolution sonar. We also had high-res sonar, provided by SRI International, which covers more ground. We figured we’d find the Bluefields and then the U-576.

When did you go out?

 In 2011, using low-res sonar, we covered about 135 square miles of seabed. We spotted 57 anomalies that could have been anything from wrecks to refrigerators to schools of fish. Next trip, we brought a vehicle with much higher resolution and started cherry-picking targets.

Were there any risks?

 An AUV is very expensive. You don’t want to run it into anything, so you program it to “fly” at a certain depth of the bottom. Sonar data showed a bump we thought could be the Bluefields. We made that the center of our search. A NOAA survey vessel was in the vicinity. The crew made a pass with low-res sonar and sent the data. I saw the suspected Bluefields and, close by, a new bump, which got us excited. We programmed the AUV to cover that spot. The vehicle has no tether; it steers itself with an articulated propeller. It’s preprogrammed, so operators can’t tell it to change course, but it’s dead steady. You download beautiful imagery once you haul the vehicle back aboard.

That’s some pretty high tech.

 This AUV can stay out six or eight hours—some have solar chargers and can remain at sea for days—but it ran its pat tern in less than an hour and surfaced.

While you were on pins and needles.

 After we recovered the vehicle and the data, all 12 of us were huddled around the computer as the operator, John Kloske, outputted the image. It looked like a modern fishing boat. My heart sank. Then John rotated the image about 30 degrees, and boom, Type VIIC U-boat! Everybody just erupted.

What’s next?

 We hope to get back this summer using a remotely operated vehicle or manned submersible. We’re hoping to use laser line scanning, which gets incredible detail—you can see every rivet—on the whole battlefield. The 576 looks remark ably intact, more so than any other U-boat that I’m aware of.

Many nations regard sunken vessels like these, which contain human remains, as war graves.

 The U-576 and the other U-boats of our coast belong to Germany, which regards them as war graves, as we do. We are working toward listing them on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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