Tuesday, October 21, 2014

NOAA team discovers two vessels from WWII convoy battle off North Carolina

The German U-576 departing Saint-Nazaire, France, circa 1940-1942. The submarine was sunk in 1942 by aircraft fire after attacking and sinking the Nicaraguan freighter Bluefields and two other ships off North Carolina. (Credit: With permission from Ed Caram)
U-576 departing Saint-Nazaire, France, circa 1940-1942. The submarine was sunk in 1942 by aircraft fire after attacking and sinking the Nicaraguan freighter Bluefieldsand two other ships off North Carolina. (Credit: With permission from Ed Caram)
October 21, 2014 - A team of researchers led by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have discovered two significant vessels from World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic. The German U-boat 576 and the freighter Bluefields were found approximately 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Lost for more than 70 years, the discovery of the two vessels, in an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, is a rare window into a historic military battle and the underwater battlefield landscape of WWII.

“This is not just the discovery of a single shipwreck,” said Joe Hoyt, a NOAA sanctuary scientist and chief scientist for the expedition. “We have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic. These two ships rest only a few hundred yards apart and together help us interpret and share their forgotten stories.”

On July 15, 1942, Convoy KS-520, a group of 19 merchant ships escorted by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, was en route to Key West, Florida, from Norfolk, Virginia, to deliver cargo to aid the war effort when it was attacked off Cape Hatteras. The U-576 sank the Nicaraguan flagged freighterBluefields and severely damaged two other ships. In response, U.S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft, which provided the convoy’s air cover, bombed U-576 while the merchant ship Unicoi attacked it with its deck gun. Bluefields and U-576 were lost within minutes and now rest on the seabed less than 240 yards apart.
“Most people associate the Battle of the Atlantic with the cold, icy waters of the North Atlantic,” said David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. “But few people realize how close the war actually came to America’s shores. As we learn more about the underwater battlefield, Bluefields and U-576 will provide additional insight into a relatively little-known chapter in American history.”
The discovery of U-576 and Bluefields is a result of a 2008 partnership between NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to survey and document vessels lost during WWII off the North Carolina coast. Earlier this year, in coordination with Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer conducted an initial survey based on archival research. In August, archaeologists aboard NOAA research vessel SRVX Sand Tiger located and confirmed the ships’ identities.

“This discovery highlights the importance of federal agencies working together to identify and protect these unique submerged archaeological resources that are of local and international importance,” said William Hoffman, a BOEM archaeologist.

The newly identified wrecks are protected under international law. Although Bluefields did not suffer any casualties during the sinking, the wreck site is a war grave for the crew of U-576.

“In legal succession to the former German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany, as a rule, sees itself as the owner of formally Reich-owned military assets, such as ship or aircraft wreckages,” said the German Foreign Office in a statement. “The Federal Republic of Germany is not interested in a recovery of the remnants of the U-576 and will not participate in any such project. It is international custom to view the wreckage of land, sea, and air vehicles assumed or presumed to hold the remains of fallen soldiers as war graves. As such, they are under special protection and should, if possible, remain at their site and location to allow the dead to rest in peace.”
United States policy on sunken state vessels, such as these, reaffirms sovereign government ownership of the wrecks, including German ownership of U-576. As stated in the 2001 Presidential Statement on United States Policy for the Protection of Sunken State Craft the wrecks are not considered abandoned nor does passage of time change their ownership.

Those who would engage in unauthorized activities directed at sunken State craft are advised that disturbance or recovery of such craft should not occur without the express permission of the sovereign government retaining ownership. The United States will use its authority to protect and preserve sunken State craft of the United States and other nations. For more information about the U.S. Policy on Sunken Warships see Federal Register Volume 69, Number 24 (Thursday, February 5, 2004)][Pages 5647-5648].
Other partners who participated in this effort include: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research; the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program and Submerged Resource Center; East Carolina University, the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute; and SRI International.
As part of the NOAA Battle of the Atlantic Research Project, extensive discussions took place with others including consultation with both Great Britain and Germany as well as the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard. State of the art marine technology provided high-resolution sonar imagery to corroborate historic and archival accounts of the final location and characteristics of each vessel.

Historical Background

On July 14, 1942, the convoy KS-520, with 19 merchant ships and five escorts, set sail from Lynnhaven Roads, Va. The convoy code ‘KS’ that identified the group, indicated that they were moving south along the eastern seaboard with Key West, Fl., as their final destination. Once the convoy passed the minefield protecting the Chesapeake Bay, the ships assembled, set a course for 78 degrees, and headed south at a slow but steady speed of 8.5 knots.
As the convoy left Virginia waters, five vessels formed Escort Group Easy to protect the convoy. The escort included two U.S. Navy ships, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters and a naval vessel that was formerly a British ship. The convoy was to sail for seven days and arrive in Key West on July 21. However, with a looming threat of German U-boats known to be operating in the area, the KS-520 would surely not go without incident, and Escort Group Easy kept a vigilant watch.

u-576 crew on deck
Kapitänleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinicke (Photo: Ed Caram)

Meanwhile, a German U-boat, U-576, had been operating off Cape Hatteras, N.C. During its operation, it sustained damage to the main ballast tank, and on July 13, it was reported to the command in France that the damage was severe and irreparable. The next day, as the convoy set out, the U-boat commander, Kapitanleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinicke, made the decision to head back home to Germany. However, prior to leaving U.S. waters, Heinicke and his crew would encounter convoy KS-520.
Having completed his first two patrols without a single kill, and making only marginal gains during his third and fourth patrols, when Kplt. Heinicke saw the KS-520 just off Cape Hatteras, he probably saw it as the perfect opportunity to increase his success as a U-boat captain. In spite of his damaged ship, Heinicke decided to attack at all costs. However, at 4:00 pm just before he could fire his torpedoes, one of the Coast Guard cutters picked up a sonar contact. The Coast Guard crew dropped three depth charges, followed by five more 10 minutes later. Then at about 4:15 pm, the U-576fired four torpedoes into the convoy. Two torpedoes rocked the Chilore, one hit theJ.A. Mowinckel, and the fourth struck the Bluefields amidships on its port side, sinking her in minutes.

The Chilore was a steam merchant ship damaged by a torpedo in the KS-520 battle. Photo: Norfolk Public Library
The Chilore was a steam merchant ship damaged by a torpedo in the KS-520 battle. (Photo: Norfolk Public Library)

The U-576, already damaged, surfaced in the middle of the convoy and immediately the Armed Guard crew on the merchant ship, Unicoi, opened fire and scored a hit. Almost concurrently, two U. S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft straddled the U-576 with depth charges and sent it to the bottom of the sea with all 45 crew members.  Over the next hour, Escort Group Easy, in concert with patrol aircraft, continued to conduct antisubmarine operations to ensure the U-boat had in fact been sunk.

J.A. Mowinckel, a motor tanker in the convoy, was damaged by a torpedo from the U-576. Photo: Uboat.net
J.A. Mowinckel, a motor tanker in the convoy, was damaged by a torpedo from the U-576. (Photo: Uboat.net)

Meanwhile, the damaged Mowinckel and Chilore maneuvered inshore to await tow operations. Unfortunately, this took them into the Hatteras minefield. Regrettably, during a salvage attempt, the tugboat Keshena struck a mine and sank, while Chilore later sank under tow in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the deaths of the 45 submarine crew members, the skirmish resulted in four Allied casualties.

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