Monday, December 06, 2004


U-boat (U-701) preservation faces challenges


News Observer

An Army bomber sank a German sub just off the Outer Banks in 1942. Now that the wreck's location has become widely known, a scramble is on to protect it from looters.

Fish and a diver, right, swim around the encrusted conning
tower of the wreck of the German submarine U-701 off the
North Carolina coast. Divers have stripped artifacts from
the sub, which the German government considers a war
grave for at least five crewmen.
Photo by Paul Hurdy for the News & Observer

By Jerry Allegood, Staff Writer

HATTERAS -- Sixty-two years ago a German submarine prowled the Hatteras waters. Its mission: Sink anything afloat.

U-701, commanded by a 29-year-old orphan from Hamburg named Horst Degen, was carrying out the Nazi plan to sever besieged Britain from its lifeblood of American war materiel. But on July 7, 1942, an Army bomber caught the U-boat cruising on the surface and sent it to the bottom, 22 miles east of Ocracoke Inlet.

At least five crew members made the U-701 their crypt. Now, with the wreck laid bare by shifting sands, the ship is a target again.

Souvenir hunters have stripped artifacts from the U-701 and have tried to enter the sub, which the German government considers a war grave. Sport divers and the U.S. government are trying to protect the site.

Joseph Schwarzer, executive director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at Hatteras, said the U-701 should be afforded the respect the United States expects for its own hallowed ground. "How would we feel if someone tried to dig up Normandy?" he said, referring to D-Day memorials in France.

In World War II's early years, German submarines operating in "wolf packs" terrorized America's Atlantic coast, often sinking freighters within sight of shore. The U-boats -- unterseeboots, in German -- were responsible for sending 360 merchant ships to the bottom in what came to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic. One Navy account estimated that in just the section of ocean off the coast of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, U-boats caused the deaths of more than 800 seamen.

America retaliated by deploying sub-chasing ships and mounting continual air patrols.

U.S. forces sank at least four U-boats off the North Carolina coast. American depth charges sank the U-576 about 20 miles east of Ocracoke, but its wreckage has not been located.

The Coast Guard cutter USS Icarus sank the U-352 near Cape Lookout, and the destroyer USS Roper sent U-85 to the bottom near Nags Head.

Divers have stripped both the U-352 and the U-85. But only recently has the location of the U-701 become widely known, and that has spurred efforts to keep it from suffering the same fate.

Sunk off Ocracoke
After its commissioning in July 1941, the U-701 made three war cruises. It ranged from German U-boat bases in Kiel, Germany, and St.-Nazaire, France, through the North Sea, once operating so near Iceland that crew members later told interrogators they could see snow-covered cliffs.

On the third cruise, Degen and his crew, part of a wolf pack of 11 subs, headed for America.

Armed with 14 torpedoes and a deck gun, the U-701 was assigned the mission of placing mines at Hampton Roads, Va., then hunting off North Carolina. By one account, it sank nine ships and damaged five others on that cruise.
On the afternoon of July 7, 1942, patrolling Army pilot Lt. Harry Kane -- who later lived in Kinston -- spotted the boat as it cruised on the surface off Cape Hatteras.

"Airplane, there," shouted first naval lieutenant Konrad Junker, according to an account that Degen gave Navy interrogators.

As the U-boat dived, Kane swooped down and dropped depth charges that heavily damaged the stern, killing some of the crew.

"You saw it too late," Degen told Junker.

"Yes," Junker replied.

Of the 43 crew members, 33 escaped the sinking. A Navy report in 1942, based on interviews with survivors, described a harrowing ordeal in which the men struggled to stay afloat over two days.

Degen said the survivors faced exhaustion, hunger and thirst in the sea. At one point, a lemon and coconut floated by. "Each man received a swallow of coconut milk, a piece of the meat and everyone had the opportunity to suck the lemon," Degen told Navy interrogators.

Before dawn, two more men drowned. "The stronger saw their comrades drown one by one," the report said. "Some went mad before dying."

The captain and six others were rescued after a Navy blimp found the men and dropped a life raft with food. The men, flayed by the harsh sun, were picked up by a seaplane and kept as prisoners of war.

"Thus we escaped the 'reaper' to whom we had already given our hand," the captain said in the report.

The rest of the crew was dead.

Finding U-701
In the years after the war, Degen, who became an engineer in civilian life, corresponded with divers and U-boat enthusiasts. But the location of the U-701 remained a mystery for nearly five decades.

Uwe Lovas, an amateur diver and wreck buff from Fredericksburg, Va., hunted for the U-701 for years. He found it in 1989. He recalled that his brother, Ron, went down first and wasn't sure what the tubelike object was.

Lovas, 44, said he was so excited he began hyperventilating and jumped in the water without his mask. When he calmed down, he saw the distinctive outline of the ship in 120 feet of water. Damage to the stern and the open hatches where the crew escaped matched accounts of its sinking.

"It was surreal," he said.
He kept the location secret, partly out of deference to Degen, whom he befriended after he notified the captain of his find.

Lovas said the U-701 was in "basically pristine condition" when he and his brother first dived on it 15 years ago. He said he gave Degen, the captain, some small objects from the ship but otherwise left it intact.

Because the submarine is near the Gulf Stream in strong currents, he said, it is often covered and uncovered with sand.

Other divers found the wreckage earlier this year, apparently after Hurricane Isabel in September 2003 shifted sands that had helped hide it.

Tampering begins
Salvage hunters have already been at work, according to Craig Cook, a Virginia physician and promoter of the preservation effort. He said divers reported in the summer of 2004 that a periscope was missing, some deck fittings had been removed and someone had tried to enter the sub through the conning tower.

A spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington, who, by custom, declined to be identified, said his government is trying to determine what can be done to protect the U-701. The German government has investigated what the spokesman called an "alleged intrusion" of the site.

Steve Pike, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the German government has expressed concern but has not filed a complaint or protest. He said federal officials were considering options for protecting the wreck, but he could not discuss possible actions.

Jack Green, a spokesman for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, said federal legislation passed in October aims to stop such tampering with military shipwrecks and aircraft. He said the new law brings together policies already in effect and provides additional protection.

The new law allows archaeological research permits and provides enforcement measures. Under the law, the government can fine a violator $100,000 a day.

The law covers U.S. ships and aircraft, but regulations against disturbing wrecks could cover foreign vessels if a government requested action. They would apply to U-701 if Germany requests protection.

Green said that it's impractical for federal agencies to "hover over" any wrecks far out at sea, but that the government can take action when incidents come to light.

Schwarzer, the museum director, said the law's stiffened penalties may deter looting. "It has gone from a soft 'wish you wouldn't do that' to 'If you do that, we can make your life miserable,' " he said.

Lovas said he was shocked to hear that the location of U-701 had been widely distributed and was disappointed to see evidence of tampering when he dived on the wreck last summer.

"It was something we had left untouched all these years," he said.

The tide turns
"Degen believes that U-boat successes in American waters cannot continue at the original tempo," a Navy officer wrote in an intelligence report on U-701. Degen was correct: The summer of 1942 was the peak of Germany's success with its submarine campaign.

By 1943, the American war machine's production was outstripping Germany's ability to sink ships. And advances in intelligence and technology allowed convoys to avoid submarines and enabled sub hunters to find them. Of the 39,000 German submariners in World War II, 28,000 died.

In May 1943, German navy commander Admiral Karl Donitz, whose youngest son died on U-954, withdrew his submarines from the Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic was won. The evidence lies on the ocean floor, 22 miles east of Ocracoke Inlet.

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