This is one of the most persistent urban legends of the Lower Cape Fear: that a sailor from a sunken World War II German U-boat (or the corpse of a German sailor, found floating in the water) had a recent ticket to Southport’s Amuzu Theatre in his pocket. Sometimes, a version claims it was a ticket to the old Bailey Theater in downtown Wilmington.
“I’ve heard people swear they saw it,” said Wilbur D. Jones Jr., the retired Navy captain and historian who wrote “A Sentimental Journey” about Wilmington in World War II. Still, Jones thinks such stories are far-fetched, even though they can never definitively be proved false.
Some saboteurs did come ashore in Southeastern North Carolina. The late Hannah Block, a Carolina Beach lifeguard during the war — who also was sworn in as a New Hanover County deputy sheriff — reported seeing two spies or saboteurs arrested shortly after they rowed ashore in a rubber raft.
Lt. Carlton Sprague, an anti-aircraft officer stationed at Fort Fisher, told Jones that his security detail took into custody four Germans in naval uniforms, who came ashore at Federal Point in a mini-submarine. The four, who spoke English, said they had been detailed to block or otherwise sabotage the shipping channel in the Cape Fear River. Sprague claimed the four apparently had no intention of following orders and surrendered almost as soon as they came ashore.
Decades earlier, World War I German submarine U-117 was brought to Wilmington on May 19, 1919, under command of an American crew. At the end of the war, the U.S. acquired U-117 and several former German submarines to serve as exhibits during a Victory Bond campaign. The submarine, which had amassed quite a record for laying mines in U.S. waters and sinking vessels of all sizes during the war, eventually was towed to sea by the U.S. Navy and destroyed during bombing practice. The Type VII U-boats deployed off the Atlantic Coast in World War II were considerably larger.
Still, the notion of U-boat crews routinely landing and moving undetected among the civilian population seems highly implausible at this point.
The stories, however, do point to the emotions felt by many Americans during the first six months of World War II, during what author James T. Cheatham called “the Atlantic Turkey Shoot.”
From January to July 1942, some 347 civilian vessels were sunk or severely damaged by German submarine attacks off the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The threat was severe, since oil pipelines generally did not extend east of the Mississippi before the war — meaning that most of the Eastern Seaboard’s supply of gasoline and petroleum products was shipped by vulnerable oil tankers.
The Germans’ offensive was made easier because U.S. officials were slow to enforce blackouts along the East Coast. (U-boats were reputed to use the brightly lit Lumina pavilion at Wrightsville Beach as a navigation landmark.) Also, Adm. Ernest J. King, the U.S. chief of naval operations, was slow to introduce a convoy system.
In North Carolina waters, U-boat attacks were concentrated along the Outer Banks, particularly around Cape Hatteras, which became known as “Torpedo Junction.” Attacks also took place off Southeastern North Carolina, though — most memorably, the sinking of the tanker James D. Gill on March 12, 1942, in sight of Southport.
Flames from sinking ships, out at sea, could often be seen from Wrightsville Beach. Wreckage and globs of oil from sunken vessels frequently washed ashore both at Wrightsville and Carolina Beach.
For a brief period, the U-boats seemed invincible. No wonder people thought the German crew members could come ashore and wander around with impunity — even take in a movie.
U-boat losses fell sharply after July 1942, when blackouts were finally imposed and “dim-outs” were ordered for cars and small boats in coastal areas. In July 1942, U.S. 74 and 76 were temporarily closed near the coast, out of concern that submarines were “assisted by lights from motor vehicles,” according to the Associated Press. Such restrictions were not relaxed until well into 1943.
Two good books about the U-boat war off the East Coast are “Torpedo Junction” by Homer Hickam (author of the memoir “Rocket Boys,” which was made into the movie “October Sky”) and “Operation Drumbeat” by Michael Gannon.
Date posted: October 13, 2010
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