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The islanders couldn’t ignore the signs: oil slicks in the waves, ship debris littering the beach, explosions at night that shook their homes and shattered windowpanes. It was early 1942, and the world was riveted by wars in the Pacific and in Europe. But residents of North Carolina’s string of barrier islands, the Outer Banks, knew that battles with Germany were being fought off their own sandy yards, even if they weren’t making national headlines. 

“Operation Drumbeat,” the Germans’ codename for their U-boat offensive mainly targeting America’s East Coast, is the title of a newly opened exhibit at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. With around 80 artifacts currently on display, many salvaged from nearby wrecks, it illuminates the threat Nazi submarines posed off America’s eastern shore 80 years ago.  

U-boat attacks on unprotected shipping lanes were so common off the Outer Banks, in particular, that the area was dubbed “Torpedo Junction.” By the war’s end, 86 ships, including four U-boats, had been sunk or damaged off the island chain, according to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. (Some estimates range even higher.) Top officials were aware of the coastal chaos but kept the news quiet for fear of mass panic.

“Many people don’t know how close we came to losing this war” with the Kriegsmarine, said Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums system that encompasses the Cape Hatteras museum.

Items from the exhibition include a bevy of personal, military, and nautical objects — including a rare Enigma machine, discovered in its original wooden box — salvaged from U-85, the first U-boat to be sunk by the U.S. Navy off North America’s coast, as well as supplies from and pieces of wrecked Allied vessels. Recreational divers are today forbidden from removing items from sunken military vessels, as such sites are considered war graves, making items from downed U-boats exceptionally rare. But in some cases, said Lynn Anderson, who recently retired from her role as collections manager at the North Carolina Maritime Museums, early salvage efforts (like the ones that yielded the exhibit’s artifacts) saved remnants of the Battle of the Atlantic from corrosion and ultimately led to their historic preservation.

The tide turned in America’s favor toward the later part of 1942, thanks in part to air support, anti-submarine vessels, and a beefed-up convoy system. Today, many rediscovered wrecks from the era serve as popular diving spots, and as a reminder that Germany’s war came dangerously close to American shores — even if it never played out on U.S. soil.

Can’t catch the exhibit in person? Check out the photos below. 

This M4 Enigma cipher machine, discovered aboard U-85 inside its original case and with a radio headset, was used to encode German military messages. (Its rotors and other parts are currently removed for conservation.) “As German subs were operating off America’s coast, we didn’t know what they were saying in their communications,” said David Bennett, curator of maritime history at the North Carolina Maritime Museums system. The British had cracked Enigma 3, but, as Bennett pointed out, “Right at the beginning of 1942, the German navy switched over from Enigma M3, which had three rotors, to Enigma M4, which had four rotors. The code became so much more complicated to break …. The Allies could no longer read the German naval codes, and it’d be some time before they’d crack the Enigma again.”
This metal ID tag once belonged to a German submariner named Joachim Schulze. The entire crew of U-85 perished on April 14, 1942, after the destroyer USS Roper made radar contact with the sub and successfully targeted the pressure hull with its deck guns. Most of the U-boat’s crew survived the impact but died in the water after the Roper deployed 11 depth charges; their bodies were recovered and buried at Virginia’s Hampton National Cemetery.
U-85 embarked on a shakedown cruise along the Norwegian coastline before completing its first tour of duty in the North Atlantic and later heading to North America. Coastal guides of Norway and Ireland — which U-85 passed while journeying home to base — helped crewmembers navigate unfamiliar shores.
U-boats were equipped with crude breathing apparatus consisting of oxygen bottles connected to a hose and mouthpiece. Bare-bones contraptions like these, along with life preservers, gave crewmembers at least a chance of surviving a sinking craft. “You’d stick the mouthpiece into your mouth and turn the oxygen on; then you’d open up a hatch, let the compartment flood, and swim out of that flooded compartment,” Bennett said. “But there’d be no guarantee that you’d survive the experience, depending on what depth you’re ascending from.”  
U-boat crews had weeks, if not months, of time at their disposal while on patrol. These tiny plastic tokens came from a German game called Taktik, a military strategy game akin to Battleship — just one way among many German submariners whiled away their boredom at sea. “The little pieces are different shapes and colors,” Bennett said. “Some of them are in the shape of bombs and that kind of thing.” 
Interspersed with the downtime was lots of work, Bennett observes. Toolboxes, tools, and other repair objects, like the ones shown here, were essential for both emergencies and the sub’s day-to-day maintenance.
This silver lighter is engraved with decorative flourishes and the name “Ursel.” “It’s very personal — something your parents or your wife might give you,” retired collections manager Lynn Anderson notes.
Submariners might have not gotten much chance to bathe, but they did maintain basic hygiene, judging from combs and toothpaste bottles found aboard U-85. “Small personal effects like these, which U-85’s crew used on a daily basis, bring a bit of humanity into the exhibit,” Bennett said. “These were real people who took care of themselves.” 

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Open through 2024. 59200 Museum Drive. Hatteras, North Carolina. 252-986-0720. Free. 

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