Arts & Culture
6:16 pm
Mon May 28, 2012

War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast - Kevin Duffus

War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast - Kevin Duffus

New Bern, NC – In the words of a U-S Coast Guard chief petty officer who was in service in 1942 "I think the people on the Outer Banks saw more of the war in this country than anyone else."

"The City of Atlanta was a freighter that was torpedoed about 7 miles east of Avon Village and it knocked knick-knacks off the shelves of Avon Village and I also interviewed residents of Ocracoke who described the plaster on the walls of their houses being cracked by these violent explosions that would shake the houses or crack the cisterns that they use to collect rainwater for their drinking water. Unfortunately, there were a number of occasions when bodies washed ashore and were found by residents of the coast."

Raleigh author Kevin Duffus concurring with the opinion of former Coast Guardsman Arnold Tolson of Manteo about a seven month period in 1942 when German u-boats sought to disrupt maritime traffic and break American morale by torpedoing merchant and military vessels. Duffus recounts in his book "War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast" that for a period the u-boats operated with impunity there was a two-week period in March of 1942 where at least one vessel was sunk each day but these sinkings largely remained unknown to the American public.

"When the first u-boats arrived and they first began to torpedo merchant vessels, and civilian sailors began to be rescued covered in oil and being brought ashore, the U-S Navy was not prepared to put a lid on the news. In fact, the very first attacks off the N-C coast were covered in the papers within days. In fact it was on Jan. 19 that Reinhard Hardegan and U-123 torpedoed three ships off Hatteras Island just seven miles offshore, and that news made it into papers like the Virginian Pilot and elsewhere, but if you go back and read the front pages of the major papers, which I did, during this period, within two weeks they just completely cut off the news. There was no longer any daily reports about what was going on offshore. The u-boat attacks had not stopped. They began to intensify and more and more ships began to be torpedoed, but the media then was managed completely differently than it is today, and all of the major papers and broadcasters, primarily radio, agreed that this information didn't really need to be told. The government did not want to panic the American public, that the enemy was operating just 7 miles from our beaches."

Unknown or not, the war was taking place just off the U-S East Coast with a heavy concentration of it off North Carolina, whose coastal waters Duffus describes as an area where ship traffic "sort of merged, almost like an on-ramp for a major interstate" and the Germans knew it, partly from their own travels there during peace time. And what those involved in the fight saw was horrific. Duffus tells the story of Mac Womac, who in 1942 was an 18-year-old Coast Guard recruit from Tennessee at his first war-time station on Ocracoke Island. Womac at the time thought he'd arrived at the "last stop in civilization" but soon found himself on the war's front lines, trying to rescue the crew of the torpedoed British tanker Empire Gem, struck near Cape Hatteras.

Reads from page 89 "We could see the orange glow It wasn't all oil burning."

Ships sailing under the flags of many nations came under assault off the U-S East Coast with those ships under U-S flags occasionally containing North Carolinians whose fate sometimes became known to their home towns in fantastic and cruel ways. Such was the case of Jim Baughm Gaskill, a native son of Ocracoke Island, who left the island during the depression to find work as a merchant sailor on the New York-based freighter the SS CaribSea.

" most peculiar thing about this story was that his father owned a hotel called the Pamlico Inn that was on the sound side not far from the Ocracoke Lighthouse, and I think it was within a day-or-so his father walked out on the dock and saw this piece of flotsam, a board, washing up and it was bumping up against the pier belonging to the Pamlico Inn and the father bent over and picked up the board and flipped it over and it was the nameboard of the CaribSea, his son's ship. He knew immediately, the name board of a ship wouldn't wash into Pamlico Sound if something bad had not happened to that vessel, so they knew almost immediately that Jim Bohm Gaskill's ship had been torpedoed."

There were many tragedies like that one. Three-hundred-and-ninety-seven ships were sunk or damaged by German u-boats in a seven-month period while only a handful of u-boats were sunk by Allied forces. Victories were few-and-far-between for those ships patrolling coastal waters looking for u-boats, but one morale boost came in the days after the sinking of the City of New York on March 29, 1942

"That evening off Cape Hatteras, it was early spring but the weather was really winter weather off shore, and the wind increased to 20-25 knots, the waves were said to be at 10-15 feet high, and by 10:00 pm that night Mrs. Mohorovic began to go into labor. Some of the city of New York's crew members were manning the boat they were in and they managed to pull a sail over the middle of the lifeboat where Mrs. Mohorovic lay back on a couple of water casks, and the doctor assisted in the delivery of this baby, underneath the sail and in complete darkness in 15 foot seas. He described it as trying to deliver a baby while riding a roller coaster."

The destroyer the USS Jesse Roper found multiple lifeboats in the days following the City of New York's sinking scattered across the Atlantic Ocean with survivors, including the lifeboat where Desanka Mohorovic gave birth to her second child, a son who she named Jesse Roper Mohorovic.

"I had interviewed a member of the Roper who told me that their morale prior to this point was pretty poor. In fact their sister ship had been torpedoed, the USS Jacob Jones, killing almost all of the sailors on board off the coast of New Jersey about six weeks earlier, so this made a big difference."

The naming of the baby after the destroyer was described by one of the USS Jesse Roper's crew as a "real shot in the arm" and when the story of the baby born in a lifeboat hit the presses the child became known as "the baby Hitler couldn't get." The USS Jesse Roper brought the survivors into Norfolk and soon went back out to sea where it spotted a German u-boat and sank it. Ultimately what turned the tide for the Allies in the waters of the Atlantic wasn't u-boat sinkings but workmanlike convoys of merchant vessels escorted by warships and air cover that limited the effectiveness of the u-boats mission. By July 1942 with the recent sinking of two u-boats and two more damaged the remaining boats were recalled to Germany. The u-boat sinkings caught the public attention one celebrated sinking by a Navy pilot put him on a national tour with other war heroes and he was photographed with major Hollywood stars of the day like Betty Grable. There was no such acclaim for the men of the USS Jesse Roper just another day at sea doing the work that ultimately ended the war off our coast. Kevin Duffus reads from "War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast."

Reads from page 203 "For the USS Jesse Roper steaming as before."

Kevin Duffus resides in Raleigh and is the author of "War Zone: World War II Off the North Carolina Coast." I'm George Olsen.