As weather and time permits, this year's expedition team will be documenting and surveying several merchant vessels that were lost during the Battle of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. These brief descriptions, written by John Wagner (NOAA), offer just a glimpse into the fateful demise of these merchant ships.
City of Atlanta
At approximately 0309 Eastern War Time (EWT) on January 19, 1942, the merchant vessel City of Atlanta was struck on the port side by one torpedo fired from U-123, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Hardegen. Hardegen and the crew of U-123 arrived in the waters of North Carolina several hours earlier and had already discovered that merchant vessels and tankers were following predictable routes along lighted buoys offshore. This discovery allowed the crew of U-123 to track City of Atlanta for almost three hours before easing their submarine to within 250 meters of the merchant ship and firing one torpedo set to a running depth of two meters to prevent it from striking the shallow ocean bottom. Hardegen watched as the torpedo jumped out of the water twice and skimmed along the surface until it struck its target and exploded with such force that debris from the torpedo and City of Atlanta rained down on the submarine's deck. As Hardegen took his submarine on a "victory lap," City of Atlanta capsized to port and sank quickly with its bow protruding out of the water. Spotting additional steamer lights on the horizon, Hardegen sped off to intercept them leaving City of Atlanta burning and three survivors, of the original crew of 46 (or 47 depending on the report), clinging to wreckage for six hours until they were finally rescued.
Several hours after sinking City of Atlanta, Hardegen managed to position his U-boat in the path of another freighter. Although the submarine had one diesel engine broken down because of a ruptured cooling water tube, the crew of U-123 ran the remaining engine at full speed and intercepted the 3,779 gross ton Ciltvaira carrying a cargo of paper. Hardegen ordered one torpedo fired, which quickly traveled the 450 meters to Ciltvaira and broke the freighter's back. After abandoning the ship and discovering that it would not sink immediately, several members of the crew boarded Ciltvaira to recover personal valuables. They also ran up an SOS and Latvian flags before the freighter disappeared beneath the surface. Although two members of the crew perished in the attack, the remaining 30 were overjoyed that the ship's pet cat, Briska, and pet dog, Pluskis, were rescued from the sinking ship.
On March 26, 1942, Kapitänleutnant Walter Flachsenberg brought U-71 close to Diamond Shoals during daylight hours and slammed three torpedoes into the side of the American tanker, Dixie Arrow, laded with 86,136 barrels of crude oil. As the torpedoes exploded, they sent oil spraying over the ship, which quickly ignited. A coast guard plane arrived at the scene of the attack soon after and reported that all but one lifeboat was on fire and that men were swimming in burning water. Fortunately, 22 of the 33 men originally onboard Dixie Arrow were pulled from the inferno alive. In less than two hours from the time of the attack, the severely damaged tanker had slipped beneath the waves just miles from shore.
On January 23, 1942, Korvettenkapitän Richard Zapp ended his Paukenschlag patrol in dramatic fashion. Taking his submarine U-66 on patrol a few miles southeast of the Diamond Shoals Light Buoy, Zapp managed to place himself in the path of two northbound merchant vessels. One of these was the 8,017 gross ton Venore, and the other was the 8,139 gross ton Empire Gem. As Venore approached the Diamond Shoals Light Buoy, Empire Gem, could be seen astern gaining on Venore. When both vessels were within a mile or two of each other, Zapp seized the opportunity to catch two ships traveling close together and attacked Empire Gem. As Empire Gem began to burn and carry most of its crew to the bottom, Zapp motored straight past it and destroyed Venore before heading back across the Atlantic to a friendly port.
On March 18, 1942, the crew of U-124 spotted a tanker 22 miles southwest of the Diamond Shoals Light Buoy. This vessel was the 9,647 gross ton E.M. Clark carrying 118,000 barrels of heating oil destined for New York. Utilizing squally conditions, Kapitänleutnant Johann Mohr brought U-124 close to E.M. Clark and fired one torpedo into the tanker's port side. The exploding torpedo buckled the deck of the tanker and brought down its foremast and radio equipment. While the crew of E.M. Clark attempted to rig an emergency radio, another of Mohr's torpedoes ripped through the stricken vessel sinking it in ten minutes and ensuring its cargo would never reach New York. Although the ship sank quickly, 40 of the 41 members of the crew managed to escape in two lifeboats. The unfortunate crew member who lost his life was asleep in the ship's hospital at the time of the attack and is believed to have been killed by the torpedo blast.
On the morning of April 9, 1942, the 3,515 gross ton freighter Malchace was sunk while carrying a cargo of soda ash from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Hopewell, Virginia. The vessel was struck by two torpedoes, which caused it to sink in under an hour. The 28 survivors of the original crew of 29 were landed at Norfolk by the Mexican steamer, Faja de Oro, several hours after the attack.
On June 24, 1942, the 7,479 gross ton American cargo vessel, Manuela, was torpedoed while carrying a cargo of sugar. Although the vessel remained afloat for some time, it eventually sank while being towed to Morehead City for salvage.
On March 16, at about 1400 EWT, Kapitänleutnant Johannes Liebe in U-332 torpedoed the 11,728 gross-ton Australia laden with 110,000 barrels of fuel oil destined for New York. The torpedo struck the vessel's starboard side and exploded in the machinery room rupturing fuel lines and shattering auxiliary pipes. Approximately an hour and a half after the attack, the 36 survivors of the original crew of 40 were picked up from three lifeboats and brought to shore. When last seen by the crew, Australia's stern was resting on the bottom and its bow was still afloat leaving them hopeful that the cargo of fuel oil could be salvaged. Unfortunately, approximately four days later the vessel completely sank rendering the cargo a total loss.
On March 17, 1942, Kapitänleutnant Johann Mohr swung U-124 around after attacking the tanker Acme and lined up a shot on the Greek vessel, Kassandra Louloudis, heading south behind Acme. At 1915 EWT, Mohr sent another torpedo streaking through the waters of the Diamond Shoals. This torpedo ran its course and connected with the Greek ship sending it to the bottom with three masts and two stacks showing. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Dione, who had just finished recovering the survivors of Acme, brought their small cutter toward where Kassandra Louloudis had just been sunk and in a stroke of good fortune found the entire crew of the Greek vessel alive. After recovering the 20 survivors of Acme and the 35 crew members of Kassandra Louloudis, the crowded Coast Guard cutter made its way towards Norfolk to put them ashore.
On July 19, 1942, two tugs were dispatched to tow the merchant vessels Chilore and J.A. Mowinckel out of the Cape Hatteras minefield. The two merchant vessels had run into and detonated mines in the defensive minefield on July 15 while attempting to reach port after being torpedoed by U-576. After striking the mines, both vessels were abandoned and left afloat within the minefield. Over the next couple of days, several channels were swept so that the tugs could reach the damaged merchant vessels and tow them to port. One of these tugs, Keshena, moved out of the safe channel through the minefield, struck a mine at 1630 EWT on July 19, and sank almost instantly. Although 14 males and 1 female were rescued, two members of Keshena's crew were killed in the unfortunate accident. Eventually the remaining tug removed Chilore and Mowinckel from the minefield successfully. Chilore, however, would eventually sink in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay while being towed to Norfolk for repairs.