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2009 Battle of Atlantic Expedition

Exploring WWII in the Graveyard of the Atlantic

National Marine Sanctuaries Photo Gallery
Mission info 2007 Nancy Foster Cruise
 

Leg 1: Searching for Links to the Past

Off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., two major ocean currents converge. In the same area where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Currents meet today, Axis and Allied vessels collided in what came to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. Some of those ill-fated vessels met an untimely demise and still remain there today as they rest on the sandy bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In August 2009, the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, along with multiple partners, will be conducting an expedition onboard NOAA Research Vessel Nancy Foster in the interest of locating three of these ill-fated vessels-the U-576, YP-389, and the Bluefields.

The material remains from these vessels are believed to be in close proximity to vessels they sank, or were sunk by. Therefore, on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina, there remains a snapshot of the fierce struggle that was the Battle of the Atlantic. It is the goal of this expedition to locate and identify these three significant ships in order to learn more about our American history and the WWII events that occurred right off the coast of North Carolina.

The final days of these three vessels are revealed below. If the shipwrecks are indeed located, it may be the first time they have been 'seen' since the fateful day each one slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

U-576

On July 13th and 14th, 1942 the U-576 was subjected to heavy attacks from Allied aircraft. The U-576, like all the Type II German U-boats, was a strong and durable vessel, but those attacks left the U-576 with a flooded ballast tank and a nearly depleted fuel supply. However, on July 15th, the Captain of the U-576 could not resist the temptation of a convoy he spotted coming his way. The convoy consisted of 19 merchant vessels, two four-stack destroyers, a coast guard cutter, and a British corvette. Additionally, the convoy was escorted by several aircraft, as well as a blimp. Despite reporting heavy damage, and being faced with a particularly well supported convoy, the U-576 attacked. U-576 fired four torpedoes, sinking the Nicaraguan freighter, Bluefields. The convoy retaliated immediately. The American merchant vessel Unicoi rammed the U-576 and two Navy Kingfisher aircraft dropped depth charges. As a result, the U-576 upended with props spinning out of the water and sank immediately with all hands.

Bluefields

Bluefields
Bluefields (Photo: The Mariner's Museum)
The Bluefields, a Nicaraguan flagged freighter with cargo of kapok, burlap, and scrap paper was part of a large convoy on its way to Key West. The convoy sailed out of New York harbor and arrived safely in Hampton Roads in May of 1942. However, they knew the next leg of their long voyage would be much more dangerous. There were stealth predators patrolling the waters from Cape Hatteras to Key West, and the convoy had no choice but to take their chances with the German U-boats. Off the coast of North Carolina, the convoy's worst fears were realized as one of the small freighters was hit by a U-boat torpedo. Then another one was hit. The Bluefields was the third victim of the U-576, receiving a torpedo directly amidships. The blow proved to be fatal for the Nicaraguan freighter, as she quickly sunk to a watery grave where she still remains today.

Based on the available accounts of the sinking of the Bluefields and the U-576, it is possible that their remains lie within a short distance of one another. If this is the case, it would represent the only known remains of both an Allied and Axis vessel lost in the same vicinity during the same engagement off the coast of the United States, representing a discreet 'battlefield' site.

YP-389

Bluefields
YP-389 (Photo: The Mariner's Museum)
On 19 June 1941, the U-701 was patrolling the waters off of North Carolina when it encountered the YP-389. The patrol vessel was small, but posed a big threat to the stealth U-boat. While the U-701 did not want to waste a valuable torpedo on the YP-389, it could not chance having its position disclosed, so the U-701 attacked with its deck gun. There was a fierce exchange of surface gunfire between the two vessels, which lasted for a grueling hour and a half. The YP-389 had been fired upon relentlessly and one of the rounds blew up the engine room. In the end, the U-701 was victorious. The crew of the YP-389 jumped overboard, while they watched their vessel sink to the bottom of the Atlantic.

About two weeks later, the U-701 was sunk by Army aircraft in the same vicinity as the YP-389. Together these vessels represent the only material remains of both Axis and Allied vessels that were involved in an engagement with one another of the coast of North Carolina.

Technology

The expedition will occur about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 250-600 feet of water. Not only is the area deep, but it is prone to fierce currents and variable visibility, making it difficult and dangerous for divers to explore. Therefore, technology, such as multi-beam sonar and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will be used to gather data. With these technologies, we have the capabilities to witness the material remains from actual WWII events on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Be sure to check out the technology section to learn more.

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