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Sunken U-Boats Off North Carolina Coast A Significant Find For Historians


Thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina may be last place you'd imagine to find a sunken World War II German submarine, a U-boat. But that's what a research team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found off Cape Hatteras. Joe Hoyt is a maritime archeologist at NOAA and is the chief scientist for the expedition, and he joins us now from Norfolk, Virginia. Welcome to the program.

JOE HOYT: Thanks, Robert, pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Tell us about the sunken U-boat that you found.

HOYT: So the U-576 was a Type VIIC U-boat that was designed as a near-shore coastal vessel that was kind of retrofitted to be able to do transoceanic voyages. So these guys were crammed into this little metal tin with so much food and extra supplies and they would actually meet up mid-ocean with resupply vessels so that they could sort of leap frog across the ocean to come and sink ships and come back as U-boat commander heroes.

SIEGEL: And they're trying to sink freighters, here? They're trying to sink ships that are bringing supplies from the U.S. over to Europe or coming back from mission supply in Europe?

HOYT: Absolutely, yeah. They're bread and butter was to cut that supply chain and the best way to do that was sink tankers with critical fuel oil, which was kind of the lifeblood of the European war effort.

SIEGEL: And in this struggle between German U-boats and freighters going across the ocean - the Battle of the Atlantic - what was the best defense for U.S. freighters against German U-boats?

HOYT: It ended up being a coordinated system of convoys with escort vessels and aerial coverage. It took us a while but that ended up negating the U-boat threat on the East Coast.

SIEGEL: So what you found, though, was the U-boat and a vessel that it had just sunk before it itself was sunk.

HOYT: Absolutely. This is the remains of a sort of quintessential convoy battle that happened off the East Coast. All this activity took place in a span of about 20 minutes.

SIEGEL: It's something astonishing in this exchange - the U-boat fires a torpedo at the freighter. The freighter's done for. The entire crew, though, manages to survive the sinking of the freighter.

HOYT: Yeah, it's incredible. These guys were able to be focused enough to organize themselves and safely get off a boat that was falling out from underneath them in less than 12 minutes.

SIEGEL: The crew of the German U-boat, on the other hand, I guess went down with her?

HOYT: They did. So we know from historic records that a couple of days prior, the U-576 had sustained an airstrike attack. It had received some damage that was irreparable so it's unclear to us why the 576 chose to engage with a convoy.

SIEGEL: How important a find is this in terms of your study of the Battle of the Atlantic?

HOYT: For us, we think it's very significant. We're looking at as a battlefield site, and our interpretation of it is based on that. And for us to be able to do that, we have to have both sides of the conflict and that's pretty uncommon to have - couple that with the fact of how intact it is, where it is, the timeframe that it went down towards the end of the sort of signal victory for the end of the U-boat threat on the East Coast. So we think that it stands out as a kind of monument to this history in this era that people don't really know about and should.

SIEGEL: Is it worth trying to bring up some of this stuff or do you just leave it on the ocean bottom?

HOYT: I don't think it's worth bringing it up. The one thing is that it's regarded as a war grave by the Germans. There's 45 sailors that are still inside the boat. It serves as a better reminder of this history where they are - as a reminder of this war and how close it came.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Hoyt, thank you very much for talking with us about your find.

HOYT: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

SIEGEL: So Joe Hoyt, who led the NOAA expedition that discovered a German U-boat from the Second World War off the coast of North Carolina. And Mr. Hoyt says his team has looked at 30 such wrecks. There are thought to be at least 20 more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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