A team of researchers led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’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.
Kapitanleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinecke (L)
“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.”
Underwater robots have captured video and still images of the finds. The entire crew of the U-576 perished after receiving fire from an American merchant ship and military aircraft flying overhead. The dead German sailors remain entombed in the wreck. Captain Lieutenant Hans-Dieter Heinecke died along with the rest of his crew. It was the third voyage of the doomed underwater craft. The shipping lanes off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, were so heavily targeted that they became known as Torpedo Junction. Over 1,600 seamen lost their lives there in the conflict. German losses were very high in the submariner corps. According to Ed Offley, in which book "The Burning Shore," approximately 75 percent of German submariners involved in the Battle of the Atlantic perished during the early years of the war off the American coast.
U-576 under way.
In August, when a NOAA expedition captured the images of the wreck, Hoyt told The Washington Post, “It’s sort of unreal. A maritime archaeologist and the chief investigator on the project, Hoyt was among the first to seek the wreck. “I knew the story, but the moment that we get in there and it comes out of the gloom at you - it was humbling,” he told the newspaper. “One of the things we’re looking for is what happened to the crew. Did they try to get out the escape hatches? Did the ship flood catastrophically? Were they on the seabed for some period of time, disabled with air still in the sub? There’s 45 guys inside of that thing. And no matter the exact circumstances of their demise, it had to just be horrifying.”
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 freighter Bluefields and severely damaged two other ships: the Chilore and the J.A. Mowinckel. In response, U.S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft, which provided the convoy’s air cover, bombed U-576 while the merchant ship Unicoi fired on it with its deck gun. Bluefields and U-576 were lost within minutes and now rest on the seabed less than 240 yards apart. Both of the damaged ships later ran into an American defensive minefield, where the Chilore was sunk and J.A. Mowinckel further damaged, but later repaired.
“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.”
U-576 deck gun
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. NOAA researchers are expected to return to the wrecks to discover more details about the fate of the ships and the men onboard.
“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.