Enemy Submarines Brought World War II
Home to Both U.S. Coasts
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Following that terrible day, September 11, 2001, many pundits observed that it was the first time the U.S. mainland had been attacked by an enemy since the War of 1812. In the course of that long ago conflict, the enemy succeeded in briefly occupying Washington, D.C., long enough to fire the Executive Mansion and other federal buildings, sending President Madison and his wife Dolly fleeing into the Maryland countryside in a horse-drawn wagon containing the U.S. Constitution and the famous Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of George Washington.
Some today may know that in 1916, the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa and his force of Villistas raided the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. Americans will always remember the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Down the road a short distance from where I now live much of each year, at Kure Beach, North Carolina, a simple black and white sign marks the site of an old bromine plant, constructed in 1934 by Ethyl-Dow Corporation for the extraction of bromine from seawater. Bromine was used in the manufacture of no-knock gasoline, including aviation fuel. Nothing marks the spot now except the sign, and yet, the site is noteworthy.
On the night of July 24-25, 1943, a German U-Boat surfaced somewhere out beyond the reefs and shoals and attempted to bombard the plant. Three to five rounds were fired from the sub’s deck gun. All missed their mark, rocketing over Pleasure Island and falling harmlessly to the west into the Cape Fear River. No damage was done, and no casualties resulted from this failed attempt against America’s wartime production. Given the worldwide suffering and carnage during the long awfulness of World War II, the event is a mere blip on the pages of local history.
The incident is, nevertheless, significant, indicating just how near the violence of World War II came to America’s shores. It was not uncommon for residents of coastal North Carolina to hear the thump of exploding depth-charges and torpedoes at night as Navy and Coast Guard warships dueled out to sea with enemy U-Boats. To the north, on the Outer Banks, it was not unusual for debris from these confrontations to wash ashore. It is estimated that 150,000,000 gallons of oil spilled onto the beaches, blackening the sands and rendering the water unsafe for swimming.
U-boat is short for the German word unterseeboot, or submarine. The typical U-boat carried deck guns and 15 torpedoes. A U-boat could remain submerged for 60 miles before surfacing for fresh air. Submarine warfare was not exactly new to American waters.
During World War I, three U-boats sank ten ships off North Carolina. During the Civil War, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the new U.S. warship Housatonic in Charleston Harbor before going to the bottom itself.
During the years 1942 and 1943, 65 U-boats operated along the east coast, sinking or damaging 397 U.S. and British ships and causing 5000 casualties. The Gulf of Mexico was visited by 20 U-boats, sinking another 56 ships. The region soon became known as Torpedo Junction. Tourists and residents along the Carolina coast were admonished to turn off their lights after dark and cover their auto headlights with black tape, so as to prevent Nazi craft from locating mainland targets.
Throughout most of our history, America’s position between two vast oceans protected us from invasion, creating a false sense of invulnerability. The War of 1812 and the 2001 attack on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon stand as exceptions to the rule. The threats to mainland America during World War II may have been slight, but they did chip away at our sense of comfortable isolation. At one point, a Japanese submarine surfaced on the West Coast and lobbed shells at the mainland.
The Japanese also released balloon-bombs, hoping to cause some destruction along the Pacific coast and weaken American moral. One of these probably triggered a forest fire, and another may have caused the deaths of a woman and child. The Japanese actually shelled Fort Stevens, Oregon, but only damaged a baseball field and some power lines. At one point, the Japanese submarine 1-26 fired upon the Estevan Point Lighthouse in British Columbia but missed. On September 9, 1942, a Japanese submarine launched a float plane that dropped two incendiary bombs along the coast of Oregon in an attempt to ignite a forest fire.
Along with the very real danger created by Nazi submarines was the fear of spies and saboteurs infiltrating U.S. society. On May 26, 1942, four German saboteurs landed on Long Island, New York, with boxes of explosives and plans to disrupt U.S. industry and manufacturing. On June 17, 1942, four were landed at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Their targets included railroads, canals, and aluminum and magnesium plants. The members of both units were arrested by the F.B.I. Six were sent to the electric chair, one was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor, and the other sentenced to 30 years. In 1948, the two surviving prisoners were deported back to Germany. Two spies were sent ashore in Maine in 1944, but were immediately captured.
Submarine warfare, together with the few infiltrators, spurred rumors along the coast. One provided the plot for the children’s book Taffy of Torpedo Junction, by Nell Wise Wechter, the story of a thirteen year old Cape Hatteras girl, her pony and her dog tracking down a gang of Nazi spies. Whether stories of German infiltrators were exaggerated or not, the commander of the U-boat on July 1943, knew the structure at Kure Beach was a plant that provided a necessary ingredient for aviation fuel, and he was willing to risk his ship and the lives of his crew in an attempt to destroy it.
With increased patrols by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard planes, ships and blimps and with the formation of convoys to transport war materials safely across the Atlantic, U-boat activities became less common in North American waters. U.S. forces sank four U-boats along the Carolina coast alone.
Today, an estimated 60 wrecks from the World War II era dot the ocean bottom along the Carolina coast, mute reminders of a time when war came home to everyday Americans. As for the old Bromine plant, another sign has now appeared on the patch of vacant land, informing us that a large condo will soon be constructed on the site.
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