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Did a U-boat threaten the Frying Pan Shoals lightship?

Ben Steelman

The Frying Pan Lightship was used until the tower was built off the Cape Fear coast in 1964. From the Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Q. I heard … that during World War II the light ship at Frying Pan Shoals was in the habit of radioing to the Navy every time they saw a German U-boat in the area. Then, one night, a U-boat came alongside the light ship. The captain told the light ship’s skipper that if he radioed again, the U-boat would sink him. Have you heard anything about this?

A. It’s a great story — and possibly too good to be true.

This is a new one on us, and on Wilbur D. Jones Jr., the historian and retired U.S. Navy captain, whose books “A Sentimental Journey” and “The Journey Continues” chronicle events of World War II in Southeastern North Carolina. Jones hadn’t heard that story before.

There are two problems with this account. First, the lightship, LV-115 (WAL-537), was pulled off Frying Pan Shoals from 1942 to 1945. It spent most of the war as an examination vessel stationed at Cristobal in the Panama Canal Zone and later at Charleston, S.C., where it had been built. Theoretically, such a close encounter could still have happened, sometime after Pearl Harbor in 1941 or very early in 1942.

Second, however, waters around Frying Pan Shoals are rather shallow for submarine operations. It’s doubtful a U-boat captain would have exposed his vessel where he couldn’t execute a quick, deep dive in the event of an attack.

According to Christopher G. Allen-Shinn, a historian with U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, the only documented interaction between a Coast Guard lightship and a German U-boat came during the First World War, when the LV-71 was torpedoed and sunk on Aug. 6, 1918 — and that was off Diamond Shoals, near Cape Hatteras — not off Frying Pan Shoals, and not during World War II.

A lot of folklore surrounds German U-boats along the Lower Cape Fear in World War II. One hears tales of dead German sailors (or live German prisoners) found with tickets to Wilmington’s Bailey Theater (or Southport’s Amuzu theater) in their pockets. The implication was that U-boat crews were landing and departing at will and roaming unseen among the population.

Other stories involve German spies who supposedly landed in rubber rafts at or near Carolina Beach, or the U-boat that allegedly shelled the Ethyl-Dow bromine plant at Kure Beach before sunrise on July 25, 1943.

Such stories were clearly inspired by the terrible toll that U-boats took off the Atlantic coast in late 1941 and early 1942, before coastal blackouts and a convoy system were imposed. Local residents recall seeing the smoke and flames from torpedoed freighters off Wrightsville Beach and gobs of oil from sunken tankers washed ashore at Wrightsville and Carolina Beach.

Lightships, by the way, were anchored off the Frying Pan Shoals from 1854 to 1964 (with interruptions for wartime), when they were replaced by the Frying Pan light tower (now inactive). Lightship No. 115 was decommisioned and later served as  a waterfront floating museum in Southport from 1967 to 1984. At last report, it was a floating bar at Pier 63 in the Chelsea section of New York City.


Did German U-boat sailors see a movie in Southport during World War II?

What are Frying Pan Shoals?

StarNews: Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower – a new breed of bed and breakfast

User-contributed question by:
mike ryan

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