(originally published in Avenue magazine, June 2005)
By Joel Mangum
Cape Lookout – Many people may not realize how close the fight of WWII came to our land. The second sub to be sunk in U.S. waters and the first to be sunk by the US Coast Guard occurred just 30 miles offshore from Topsail Beach, south of Cape Lookout. Another landmark event occurred when 33 German POWs were taken from that same sunken sub and became the first foreign troops to be interned on U.S. soil since the War of 1812.
In early 1942, German U-boats were patrolling the eastern U.S. coast from Maine to Florida, and wreaking havoc on American supply ships. During January and February of that year, more than 60 allied ships were sunk by U-boats, some in broad daylight and using only the deck guns of the submarine. Some German sailors dubbed their missions “American Hunting Season” because of the easy pickings.
What’s even more shocking is the U-boats were sometimes within 10 miles of shore, able to see cities and ships silhouetted in shore lights. U-boats were close enough to listen to jazz radio stations being broadcast from the U.S. mainland. During daylight the sub would sit on the ocean bottom, conserving fuel and batteries and resting the crew. At night, the U-boat would surface and look for targets.
Captain Helmut Rathke of U-352 was assigned to patrol the shipping routes of North Carolina from Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout and was under orders to sink any supply ships they sighted. After two weeks of no definite targets, Rathke and his crew were desperate to sink a ship and spotted what they thought was a small freighter at 4:25 p.m. on May 9, 1942. They fired a torpedo they initially thought to be a direct hit, but moments later realized the target was not a freighter, but actually the fully armed USCG warship Icarus. The U-352’s torpedo was off the mark and exploded prematurely 200 yards off the port quarter. The crew of Icarus immediately went into battle mode and dropped five depth charges where they thought the U-boat to be. Depth charges are canisters of explosives dropped from ships that detonate when reaching a certain point under water.
Because the U-352 was operating in only 100 feet of water, they could not crash-dive far enough to evade their attackers. After three more depth charges were dropped by Icarus, the U-352 broke apart and surfaced at a latitude of 34.12 degrees north and longitude of 76.35 degrees west, with 33 men spilling out of the conning tower. Fifteen other Germans went down with the ship.
According to U.S. Navy Department records, 45 minutes went by before the German survivors were rescued. One Icarus crewman even told the Germans bobbing in the water, “Gentlemen, I wish you a good evening-down with the sharks!”
Because there were no regulations or precedents on picking up prisoners of war, Icarus radioed headquarters three times before getting a response. After motoring away from the men in the water, the Icarus crew was ordered to turn back, pick up the survivors and land them at Charleston, S.C. for interrogation. Prisoners were brought on board and searched, then given sandwiches and coffee. Most prisoners were in good spirits because for them it meant the war was over. Many commented on the good treatment by their American captors.
According to interrogation reports of the U.S. Navy, Captain Rathke had coached his crew well in the importance of not giving valuable information, even warning his men in the water before being rescued the punishments for revealing intelligence. U.S. and British investigators learned much about where the best bars and brothels were in Germany from the prisoners, but found out little about war operations and the U-boat fleets. The prisoners remained in Charleston for several days and then transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C. They did not return to Germany until 1947.
Captain Rathke made some of his opinions on the war known to interrogators such as disliking the Japanese but having to accept them as allies against Russia. He also dined with Hitler and would note how attentively the ruler would listen to conversations and his “amazing knowledge of detail.” Rathke also gave the view that England could not be invaded and refused to believe that German soldiers had committed atrocities upon Poland and Poles.
U-352 remains a dive site today. The commander of the Icarus, Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester was awarded the Navy Cross and promoted. Gerd Reussel, a young German sailor who died of his wounds aboard the Icarus, was buried with full military honors in the National Cemetery at Beaufort, S.C. and his grave remains there today. News of other U-boats sank made news normally but for unknown reasons, no word of the U-352 was reported until months following the event. So goes another chapter of the rich history of the coastal waters of Southeastern North Carolina.