Expedition to visit WWII U-boat, freighter wreckage off Cape Hatteras

The freighter SS Bluefields was sunk by German submarine U-576 off Cape Hatteras in July 1942.
The freighter SS Bluefields was sunk by German submarine U-576 off Cape Hatteras in July 1942.

The day that World War II reached North Carolina is captured in two rusting hulks 35 miles off Cape Hatteras: A German U-boat and its victim, a passing freighter, together on the bottom since 1942.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the two ships in 2014, just 240 yards apart in 700 feet of water. Both were placed on the National Register of Historic Places last year.

Now NOAA and its partners are preparing to revisit the site, gathering data that will let them virtually recreate an underwater battlefield that’s been intact for 74 years.

It will be an expedition back in time, to the war’s “Battle of the Atlantic” that pitted German U-boats against Allied merchant ships and the Canadian, British and American forces that defended them.

Experts say North Carolina waters offer the best representation of a World War II battlefield on the East Coast.

“This discovery is the only known location in U.S. waters that contains archaeologically preserved remains of a convoy battle where both sides were so close together,” chief scientist Joe Hoyt, who is archaeologist for the Civil War ironclad Monitor’s National Marine Sanctuary, said in a statement. “By studying this site for the first time, we hope to learn more about the battle as well as the natural habitats surrounding the shipwrecks.”

Here’s what historians already know about July 15, 1942. A German submarine, U-576, sank the Nicaraguan-flagged freighter SS Bluefields. U.S. Navy planes bombed the sub and the merchant ship Unicoi, part of a convoy, strafed it with a deck gun. The U-boat went down within minutes.

NOAA will work with Project Baseline, a nonprofit conservation group that will supply a research vessel and two manned submersibles for the expedition, which will run through Sept. 6.

2G Robotics and SRI International will provide underwater robots and remote-sensing technology to create detailed acoustical models of the wrecks and seafloor. UNC’s Coastal Studies Institute will do three-dimensional models of the wrecks.

The expedition is part of NOAA’s work to document centuries of shipwrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. NOAA may expand the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary’s boundaries to include the Bluefields, whose crew evacuated, and the war grave of the Germans who died in U-576.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender