America has seen little war fought on its shores. For the most part, the major battles have been brought to the enemy leaving little destruction in the U.S. While many times our forces have gone overseas, this does not mean that America was left unscathed in the World Wars. Besides Pearl Harbor, there were U-boat sightings off the Atlantic Coast for much of World War II. In fact, German U-boats were so common in areas of the Atlantic that the area became known as Torpedo Junction (Torpedo Alley).

World War II was not the first time that German U-boats creeped along the Atlantic shores. During World War I, a U-boat came dangerously close to the coast of Cape Cod. Three U-boats sank ten ships off the coast of North Carolina and navigated along the coast asserting German power. The Outer Banks of North Carolina would become a hot spot for German U-boats, leading to the nickname of “Torpedo Junction” in World War II.  The name U-boat comes from the German word “unterseeboot” meaning submarine. Despite being categorized as submarines, u-boats were technically warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could only submerge for limited periods of time which was usually to avoid enemy detection. When they would attack, U-boats were usually above the surface and used deck mounted guns. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Germany came up with a plan they called Operation Paukenschlag. The plan called for a submarine assault on the American seaboard. The operation was the brainchild of German rear-Admiral Karl Donitz. He believed that the Germans could take advantage of an unsuspecting American coastline. The plan focused on the North Carolina coast line near Cape Hatteras due to its large merchant ship sea lanes. Without wasting any time, the Germans took advantage of America’s vulnerability after the attack on Pearl Harbor and sent five submarines to begin the operation in late December 1941.

Why pick the Carolina coastline? The Atlantic Coast was unprepared for a U-boat assault. Merchant ships had no training in defensive maneuvers, and onshore no preventions such as blackout restrictions were put in place. Coastal lights provided easy targeting for the German Navy. U.S. Naval patrols in the Atlantic were few due to the needs in the Pacific. Only one vessel, the Dione, patrolled the area. Designed to catch rum-runners, she would be no match for the might of the U-boat. The German crews had already been at war for two years by 1941, leaving them highly trained compared to the few defenses left on the Atlantic coast. Between January and June of 1942, 397 merchant ships were sunk. It was said that the attacks off the Outer Banks were so frequent that “Flaming tankers burned so brightly…one could read a newspaper by the glow at night, while the grim flotsam of war-oil, wreckage, and corpses- was strewn across local beaches.” Authorities kept reports of the attacks classified in order to not strike fear with the rest of the American public. Even after the war, many people had no idea how close the war had come to them. In a report by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, it was said that “The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort….I am fearful that another month or two of this will so cripple our means of transport that we will be unable to bring sufficient men and planes to bear against the enemy in critical theaters to exercise a determining influence on the war.” The U.S Navy was in a difficult position. It could not afford to take men away from the frontlines in Europe and the Pacific. However, after months of assaults on the merchant lanes off the Atlantic Coast, it was clear that if something wasn’t done, the rest of the war effort would mean nothing.

Marshall’s plea would not go unnoticed. As time passed, little could be done to keep news of the attacks from circulating. One attack that struck the fear of those along the coast line was that of the Canadian Steamship “Lady Hawkins.” Because of the U-boats’ aggressive attacks, the steamship stayed close to the coast throughout its trip from Canada to Bermuda. It was around Cape Hatteras that she would make the turn towards Bermuda.  On January 19, 1942, U-66’s searchlight briefly lit up the Canadian Steamship. Within moments two torpedoes were bringing down the vessel carrying some 300 civilians. Only 130 miles from land, six of her life boats were destroyed and only 76 survivors were able to make it to the remaining life boat. It would be five days before the S.S. Coamo would rescue the survivors.  The same day that news broke of the steamship, a Coast Guard ship arrived in Virginia with the survivors of the American merchant ship ‘Francis E. Powell.”  The Powell had been headed to Providence, Rhode Island from Texas when it had been attacked on January 27. Something needed to be done about the U-boats before mass panic spread across the country. The U.S. Navy (along with British assistance), sent long-range aircraft patrols to the area along with a deployment of anti-submarine vessels. The defenses would quickly come in handy.

On January 28, 1942, Donald Francis Mason, a pilot with Patrol Squadron Eight-Two, and his crew took off for a continuing series of patrols over “Torpedo Junction.” At first the mission took on its quiet scanning of the waters with nothing much to see. But shortly after 1:00pm, Mason spotted a flash of light. The crew saw a periscope appear above the surface of the water. Mason, without thought or hesitation, began his attack on the U-boat. Here is an excerpt from a report filed on the attack:

 Plane turned and attacked at once.  Submarine was apparently completely surprised, as periscope was visible throughout entire attack.  Approach was made from astern submarine on a course about 20 degrees across submarine’s course.  Bombs were released at estimated altitude of 25 feet, indicated air speed 165 knots.  Two bombs were dropped with a spread of about 25 feet.

Plumes of the explosions were seen to spread, one on either side of periscope, estimated distance 10 feet from wake line and nearly abreast the periscope.  The submarine was lifted bodily in the water until most of the conning tower could be seen.  Headway of submarine seemed to be killed at once and she was observed to sink from sight vertically.  Five minutes later, oil began to bubble to the surface and continued for ten minutes.  At this time it was necessary to leave area in order to return to base by dark.  Plane landed at 1628.

Detailed employment of crew during bombing attack was as follows:
(1) Pilot at the controls:
(2) Co-pilot in the cockpit alongside the pilot, armed bombs, stood by manual release.
(3) Plane Captain attempted to take photographs of target with F-48 camera during glide approach and after attack. Pictures of this attack were poor because of greatly reduced lighting conditions.
(4) Radioman in bow at the Navigator’s Desk, acting as lookout with binoculars.[1]

While an official report of the incident was not released publicly until April 1, 1942, A Time’s article in February about the sinking of “Lady Hawkins” alludes to the attack. In the closing of the article, it was quoted that a report radioed by Mason saying “Sighting sub, sank same” [2]

By the summer of 1942, the anti-submarine patrols had done their job. While merchant ships were periodically lost throughout the rest of the war, it never compared with what had occurred in the early days of 1942. By the end, more than eighty ships had been lost with hundreds of innocent lives lost off the coast of North Carolina. In most discussions of WWII, the U-boat attacks of the Atlantic coast are often forgotten. While history is quick to focus on the larger battles that were waged, these few months in early 1942 kept the people along the Atlantic coast, and especially in North Carolina, in constant fear. For them the war was at their doorsteps, giving these citizens a much different way of remembering the war.


[2] In post-war records it was discovered that Mason had not sunk the U-boat on January 28, 1942. He would go on to sink a German U-boat on March 5th, which he would receive a Flying Cross for. Despite the records correction, his quote of Sighting sub, sank same has lived on and is no in the list of famous naval quotes.