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He terrorized the N.C. coast in World War II. The last U-boat captain has died at 105.

A German U-boat returns from sea trials in 1943. The last surviving German U-boat captain, who terrorized the Atlantic off North Carolina's Outer Banks early in World War II, has died at age 105.
A German U-boat returns from sea trials in 1943. The last surviving German U-boat captain, who terrorized the Atlantic off North Carolina's Outer Banks early in World War II, has died at age 105. Associated Press

The last surviving German U-boat captain, who terrorized the Atlantic off North Carolina's Outer Banks early in World War II, has died at age 105.

Reinhard Hardegen, who once described his exploits to the Observer decades after the war, died June 9, the Washington Post reported.

Hardegen commanded one of the first U-boats Germany deployed to intercept Allied supply lines shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I cannot describe the feeling with words, but it was unbelievably beautiful and great,” he later wrote of approaching close enough to see Manhattan's glare from his boat, the New York Times reported. “I would have given away a kingdom for this moment if I had one. We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked upon the coast of the U.S.A.”

After his submarine sank two tankers off Long Island, he steered toward the Outer Banks and waited for merchant ships. There he sank three more ships.

Hardegen, in a 1991 Observer interview from Germany, said his U-123 tuned in Charlotte's WBT radio as it sat on the ocean bottom during the day and surfaced at night to hunt passing ships that were silhouetted by the glow from coastal towns.

Hardegen, then 78, said he was astonished that he met almost no opposition from a U.S. military that was unprepared for the U-boat invasion of the East Coast.

"I was very surprised," he said. "There was no defense on the coast of the United States. ... No blackouts, no dimming, nothing."

For seven months, what would come to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic was focused off Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, claiming hundreds of lives and scattering an estimated 50 to 60 sunken ships on the seabed within 100 miles of the N.C. coast. The area became known as "Torpedo Junction."

Residents of Ocracoke Island heard loud explosions at night, saw orange fireballs and smoke from burning ships and found dead sailors on their beaches. The Union Jack still flutters over a cemetery for four British sailors who washed ashore in 1942.

Two of the sunken ships — the German sub U-576 and the Nicaraguan-flagged tanker it sank, the SS Bluefields — were the focus of a 2016 expedition off Cape Hatteras to document the wrecks. The U-boat sank the tanker with torpedoes and damaged two other ships but was brought down when it surfaced by U.S. aircraft and a naval escort.

Members of the expedition by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nonprofit Project Baseline, UNC's Coastal Studies Institute and other partners were the first to see the ships since they went down in 1942. The wrecks, 240 yards apart in 750 feet of water, had previously been viewed only by the sonar that located them in 2014.

The Bluefields crew had survived their ship's sinking, but the wreck of U-576 still holds the remains of 45 crew members.

“It goes from a page in a scientific report down to a very real place at the bottom of the ocean,” David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in Newport News, Va., said after the expedition.

“When you see (the submarine) and see the dive planes tilted up in a sign that the ship was doing everything it could to get to the surface, and all the hatches sealed, you realize that this is a tomb for all those young men we fought. You begin to look at it a little differently.”

Hardegen, who rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, sank between 19 and two dozen merchant ships, the Washington Post reported. He became a hero, awarded Germany's highest military honor by Adolf Hitler, but later disavowed support for the Nazi party. He later came to the U.S. to speak with veterans groups and meet with the families of his war victims.

After the war, Hardegen said, he had done his best to stem the losses and help survivors. Historian Michael Gannon, author of 1990's "Operation Drumbeat," corroborated Hardegen's accounts of once approaching a lifeboat to give survivors food and of ordering a neutral Swiss ship to pick up the survivors of a sunken freighter.

"Everyone stood at the railing, waved and wished us a good homecoming," Hardegen wrote in his captain’s log, the Post reported. "Let’s hope that they tell this at home and effectively dampen the atrocity propaganda about us."

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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