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

Ben Steelman
WWI U-boat

World War I German submarine U-117 was brought to Wilmington on May 19, 1919, under command of an American crew. (Courtesy New Hanover County Public Library's digital archives)

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.

Related links:

What is the Ethyl-Dow plant?

What is the history of Liberty ships being built in Wilmington during World War II?

What was the “Mothball Fleet”?

Are there plans to build a World War II homefront museum in Wilmington?

What’s the story behind a World War II prisoner of war camp in Wilmington?

Why do they have a battleship parked across from downtown?

User-contributed question by:
Walter Bowden

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4 Responses to “ Did German U-boat sailors see a movie in Southport during World War II?”

  1. On October 14, 2010 at 6:52 am Joe McEntee wrote:

    The ship you talked about sunk by U-boats off the Cape Fear coast was not the James D. Gill but the John D. Gill, a Standard Oil tanker

  2. On October 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm Cory Reiss wrote:


    I was just looking at your U-boat item and thought about a Supreme Court case that actually is a predecessor to recent debates about whether we can treat American citizens as unlawful combatants and other issues related to Gitmo and the laws of war. Anyway, the facts from the case are pasted below because in my view, they show it’s entirely possible we had such visitors.

    From Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942):

    “All the petitioners were born in Germany; all have lived in the United States. All returned to Germany between 1933 and 1941. All except petitioner Haupt are admittedly citizens of the German Reich, with which the United States is at war. Haupt came to this country with his parents when he was five years old; it is contended that he became a citizen of the United States by virtue of the naturalization of his parents during his minority and that he has not since lost his citizenship. The Government, however, takes the position that on attaining his majority he elected to maintain German allegiance and citizenship or in any case that he has by his conduct renounced or abandoned his United States citizenship. See Perkins v. Elg, 307 U.S. 325, 334, 59 S.Ct. 884, 889, 83 L.Ed. 1320; United States ex rel. Rojak v. Marshall, D.C., 34 F.2d 219; United States ex rel. Scimeca v. Husband, 2 Cir., 6 F.2d 957, 958; 8 U.S.C. s 801, 8 U.S.C.A. s 801, and compare 8 U.S.C. s 808, 8 U.S.C.A. s 808. For reasons presently to be stated we do not find it necessary to resolve these contentions.

    *21 After the declaration of war between the United States and the German Reich, petitioners received training at a sabotage school near Berlin, Germany, where they were instructed in the use of explosives and in methods of secret writing. Thereafter petitioners, with a German citizen, Dasch, proceeded from Germany to a seaport in Occupied France, where petitioners Burger, Heinck and Quirin, together with Dasch, boarded a German submarine which proceeded across the Atlantic to Amagansett Beach on Long Island, New York. The four were there landed from the submarine in the hours of darkness, on or about June 13, 1942, carrying with them a supply of explosives, fuses and incendiary and timing devices. While landing they wore German Marine Infantry uniforms or parts of uniforms. Immediately after landing they buried their uniforms and the other articles mentioned and proceeded in civilian dress to New York City.

    “The remaining four petitioners at the same French port boarded another German submarine, which carried them across the Atlantic to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. On or about June 17, 1942, they came ashore during the hours of darkness wearing caps of the German Marine Infantry and carrying with them a supply of explosives, fuses, and incendiary and timing devices. They immediately buried their caps and the other articles mentioned and proceeded in civilian dress to Jacksonville, Florida, and thence to various points in the United States. All were taken into custody in New York or Chicago by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All had received instructions in Germany from an **8 officer of the German High Command to destroy war industries and war facilities in the United States, for which they or their relatives in Germany were to receive salary payments from the German Government. They also had been paid by the German Government during their course of training at the sabotage school and had received substantial sums in *22 United States currency, which were in their possession when arrested. The currency had been handed to them by an officer of the German High Command, who had instructed them to wear their German uniforms while landing in the United States.FN1″

  3. On October 25, 2010 at 9:26 am JOHN G; wrote:


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