A photomosaic of the underwater wreck of U-85. (Brett Seymour, National Park Service)
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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.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Open through 2024. 59200 Museum Drive. Hatteras, North Carolina. 252-986-0720. Graveyardoftheatlantic.com. Free.
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