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Exploring World War II's Battle of the Atlantic: PART 2

by Megan Howes

November 2016

joe hoyt in the submersible taking photos of u-576
Joe Hoyt, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary maritime archaeologist, taking pictures of U-576 from inside the submersible. Photo: Robert Carmichael/Project Baseline

This summer, archaeologists from Monitor National Marine Sanctuary explored the remains of a World War II convoy battlefield. Read on for the second part in a series about the expedition.

In August and September, archaeologists revisited the maritime legacy of North Carolina's Outer Banks in a successful effort to explore the remains of a World War II convoy battlefield consisting of two vessels, U-576 (a German submarine) and Bluefields (a Nicaraguan merchant ship that was part of an Allied convoy). A multi-agency interdisciplinary team of researchers embarked upon a productive and rewarding 15-day expedition to visit the wrecks, which sit 40 miles offshore under 700 feet of water, and were successful in their mission to virtually recreate the underwater battlefield. Using manned submersibles the researchers were able to access the sites of both shipwrecks, and caught the first sight of the vessels since the day they sank 74 years ago.

diagram and sonar image of u-576
Diagram (top) and sonar image (below) of U-576. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The team gained incredibly detailed data by conducting laser line-scanning surveys of both ships, followed by successful photogrammetric modeling to generate three-dimensional images. Upon returning, the team had a complete photographic survey of each target and 3D models showing site integrity, which will benefit Monitor National Marine Sanctuary's efforts to better protect, and share with the public, these historical and cultural resources.

The expedition is additionally significant because the team's methodology proved successful, definitively showing that these types of data can reliably be collected from small manned submersibles at that depth. This represents a meaningful step forward in the capacity for underwater archaeological research and resource management at Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

photo of bluefields near the time of the attack and a image of the wreck of the bluefields
Merchant vessel Bluefields as it was configured near the time of the attack (top) and its wreck today (bottom). The right-hand side of the ship is visible in the wreck image, showing the ladder leading from the main deck to the aft superstructure and the stern crane lying collapsed on the deck (diagonal structure visible on the top right). Top photo courtesy of the National Archives; bottom photo: John McCord/UNC Coastal Studies Institute/NOAA/Project Baseline.

The two wrecks characterize another installment in humanity's long history of seafaring and warfare. Following the entry of the United States into World War II, German U-boats attacked merchant ships off the United States' East Coast. Essentially unchecked, these U-boats sank hundreds of vessels in the early months of 1942 until Allied naval forces pulled together in resistance. Collectively known as the Battle of the Atlantic, naval engagements with German U-boats off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina represent just how close the war came to the United States mainland. The loss of U-576 and crew after its ill-fated attack on an Allied convoy is of particular interest because it is emblematic of the decline in U-boat effectiveness along the Eastern Seaboard.

The waters in and around Monitor National Marine Sanctuary are representative of the Battle of the Atlantic, a significant conflict that shaped the trajectory of World War II and our nation's history. In particular, this area serves as a monument to the unheralded sacrifices of members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, who have been poorly recognized for the critical role they played in the war effort. These merchant ships paid a heavy toll in United States waters, but their losses were often not announced in an effort to maintain morale on the home front.

Louis Segal in his navy uniform ca. 1949 and on the baselie explorer during the expedition
(Left) Louis Segal in the U.S. Navy, ca. 1949. Image courtesy of Louis Segal. (Right) World War II veteran and merchant mariner Lou Segal observed operations aboard Baseline Explorer. Image courtesy of John McCord, UNC Coastal Studies Institute.

The team was joined by Louis Segal, a World War II veteran who generously lent a personal layer to the research. Segal entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1942, and served on two merchant vessels, SS Tivives and the Liberty Ship John Hathorn. He went on to serve 12 years in the Navy, achieving the rank Lieutenant Senior Grade. With the crew aboard the Baseline Explorer, Segal watched live video feeds from manned submersibles, and saw footage taken of U-576 and the merchant freighter it sank, SS Bluefields. With an impressive memory, he recalled dates and names from an era long past. Segal remembers when German submarines were a formidable threat, and he recalls being afraid as he saw ships sink in battle. But, he explained, "you get used to the fear, and I never thought my ship would go down."

In addition to characterizing historical resources, the expedition also investigated the area's ecological value by documenting the benthic reef habitat surrounding the wreck sites. Marine archaeologists studied the past while biologists documented the present, with both looking for ways to ensure these resources can be well-protected in the future.

Central to the success of marine sanctuaries is partnership and coordination. This expedition is a prime example of how sanctuaries emphasize collaboration toward a common goal, by bridging fields that typically engage in separate research efforts. In partnership with NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and SRI International, the team intends to return to the site next spring using an autonomous underwater vehicle. They will map the benthic habitat and collect bathymetric data by wide area sonar in order to document the entirety of the two vessels and surrounding debris fields. By using sonar, they will have an opportunity to "see through" metal, and determine whether any air pockets remain inside the wreck of U-576, which could indicate how the ship sank and what happened to the crew inside.

Until then, data from this recent expedition will continue to be processed and analyzed, to offer a more thorough understanding of the wrecks themselves and better opportunities to recognize the role that merchant mariners played in the war effort. By highlighting the site's value as a heritage resource we can promote increased access, preservation and interpretation of our nation's rich maritime legacy.