Researchers working off the coast of North Carolina recently discovered predator and prey lying within a few hundred yards of each other on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The freighter Bluefields and the German submarine U-576, which sank the former on July 15, 1942, and was then sunk by other Allied vessels, were found in 690 feet of water in August following a five-year search led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The vessels were lost during the Battle of the Atlantic, which included the German submarine fleet battling Allied conveys and naval ships.
The loss of the Bluefields and U-576 came during a period of intense warfare between convoys and U-boats in the area off Cape Hatteras during the six-month period following the United States’ entrance into the conflict.
Although German submarines had wreaked havoc on Allied ships along the East Coast prior to US entry into the war in late 1941, the action was particularly heavy during the first half of 1942.
An estimated 90 vessels – including four U-boats – were sunk off North Carolina between January and July 1942. It was “almost a ship every other day going down,” NOAA maritime archaeologist Joe Hoyt, the chief investigator on the project, told the Washington Post.
By July 1942, though, the convoys were heavily guarded by aircraft and warships. Convoy KS-520, which Bluefields was a part of, was escorted by five Navy and Coast Guard vessels as well as Navy aircraft.
U-576 had been on patrol for nearly a month and had suffered serious and irreparable damage to its main ballast tank from an earlier aircraft attack, Hoyt said.
It was en route to its base in St. Nazaire, France, when it spotted the 24-ship convoy moving south from Virginia to Key West, Fla., at 8 knots.
At about 4 p.m., about 30 miles off Cape Hatteras, U-576 attacked.
The sub sank the Bluefields and damaged two other ships, but its attack proved its undoing.
With damaged ballast system, the U-576 popped to the surface after launching its attack as the sudden weight loss connected with the firing of its torpedoes prevented it from staying submerged.
“An armed merchant vessel opened fire with its deck gun, and two Navy escort planes swooped in and dropped more depth charges,” according to the Post. “The U-boat sank with its crew, most of whom were probably in their 20s.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the German government still owns the U-boat and has asked the United States to protect the site. The US has pledged its protection.
U-576 is now “a war grave,” Hoyt said. “We believe there are 45 German sailors inside.”
(Top: Crew members are seen on the U-576 in an undated photo released by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.)