Centennial of the WWI U-Boat Campaign off North Carolina Symposium

This Summer, on August 10, 2018, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has the privilege of hosting the Centennial of the WWI U-Boat Campaign off North Carolina Symposium. This event features divers, underwater archaeologists, scientists, and historians sharing fascinating presentations on the LV-71, The Merak, The Mirlo, and the U-Boats that patrolled the East Coast of North America.  This event will be broadcast on the C-SPAN Network.

The Campaign:

In the summer of 1918, five large German submarines (U-boats) crossed the Atlantic and operated against the lightly protected shipping off the North American coast.  Several of the U-boats would get as far south as the North Carolina coast, where they sank three ships just a few miles from the Outer Banks.

The sinking of Diamond Shoals Light Vessel and the Merak

The largest of these German submarines was the U-140, an “U-cruiser” designed to overwhelm merchant ships, even if fitted with defensive armament, with its superior guns.  U 140 sailed from Kiel on July 2,1918, under the command of Korvettenkapitän Waldemar Kophamel, an experienced submarine officer who had been awarded the Pour le Mérite (“Blue Max”), Prussia’s highest military honor.

By August 4, U-140 was off the Virginia coast, where she sank the large armed tanker O.B. Jennings after a 22-minute artillery exchange. The next day, 110 miles east of Cape Hatteras, the U-cruiser stopped and scuttled the schooner Stanley M. Seaman.

U-140 then turned toward the Outer Banks, where she sighted two vessels on the early afternoon of August 6. She fired a single shell towards each to compel them to stop.  When the American steamer Merak, en-route from Norfolk to Chile with a cargo of coal, did not stop, the U-boat fired on her. The Merak eventually went aground, and the crew abandoned ship.

The second ship was the Light Vessel LV-71 Diamond Shoal.  The Light ship crew began sending radio warnings, so U-140 opened fire on it to stop the transmissions. The barrage prompted the crew to abandon ship, as well.  (Hatteras residents, not too far away, could hear the naval gunfire.)  The U-boat then proceeded to finish off Merak with scuttling charges before sinking the light vessel by gunnery. There were no casualties.

U-140 remained off the Outer Banks for another day, before patrolling further north. She arrived back in Germany on September 20, 1918, having accounted for over 30,00 tons of shipping.

The sinking of Mirlo and the rescue of its crew

Nine days after U-140 had left Kiel, U-117 embarked from the same port on its mission to lay a supply of 34 mines along the U.S. coast.  The first of these mines were deployed off Barnegat, New Jersey on August 13, and as the U-boat continued southward, it laid additional mines off the Delaware and Virginia coasts.

U-117’s commander planned to lay the last nine of her mines north of Cape Hatteras near the Wimble Shoal Buoy. While doing so on the afternoon of August 16, the British tanker Mirlo, en route from New Orleans for the Thames via Norfolk, came into view. U-117 suspended minelaying and proceeded to attack the merchant vessel, firing a single torpedo at an estimated range of 400 meters. It struck home, igniting the Mirlo’s cargo of gasoline. The tanker exploded 10 minutes later.

The tanker’s crew abandoned ship. Nine crewmembers were killed when a lifeboat capsized. A boat from the Coast Guard’s Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station brought in the remaining 42 crewmembers in one of the most heralded rescues in U.S. maritime history. Launching despite heavy seas, the station’s Surfboat No. 1046 navigated its way around walls of flame so intense that they blistered the boat’s paint to reach the Mirlo’s remaining lifeboats, tow them out of danger, and then bring the survivors ashore. The surfboat’s six-member crew was later awarded gold medals by the United States and British Government and the Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor for their efforts.

U-117 laid the last of her mines and then began the voyage back to Germany, arriving home on September 22, 1918 after having destroyed 27,000 tons of shipping. In addition, the battleship

USS Minnesota struck one of the mines that U 117 had laid on August 29 off the Delaware coast; the warship was out of action for five months. The Cape Hatteras minefield proved to be ineffective.

At the end of World War I, surviving U-boats were surrendered to the Allies. U-117 and U-140 were among the six German submarines allocated to the United States. In June and July 1921, respectively, both were sunk as targets during military exercises off the Virginia coast.

This event will take place on August 10th, 2018. 

The agenda is listed below:

10:00 – 10:50 a.m.

Michael Lowrey

Title: “The First Wave: U-Boats in Foreign Waters 1914-1918”

Michael Lowrey, from the uboat.net website, will describe Germany’s decision to develop true ocean-going submarines during the Great War and the use of these vessels through mid-1918. He will highlight U-53’s trip to Newport, RI in 1916 and the transatlantic voyages of the merchant U-boats Deutschland and Bremen. With the coming of war, the existing merchant submarines were converted into U-cruisers and specially designed large, long-range U-boats entered service. Lowrey will describe the use of these boats through mid-1918, when they first made their appearance in American waters.

11:00 – 11:50 a.m.

Paul Hodos

Title: “U-Cruisers on the Coast: Germany Attacks US Waters in 1918”

Paul Hodos, author of a book on German U-boats off the US coast in 1918 titled The Kaiser’s Lost Kreuzer, will guide audience members through the background of the unique German campaign off our shores to explain why the Germans came here to assault the US homeland. He will then delve into the tactics, strategy, and exciting combat actions of the Great War in the American theatre while also covering what kinds of defenses the US had on the east coast to blunt the efforts of the menacing Germans. Mr. Hodos will close with the importance of the battle for the next generation of German submarines and US defenders who fought so close to the coast in World War II.

1:00 – 1:50 p.m.

Dave Sommers

Title: “LV-71 Diamond Shoals

The Diamond Shoals extend seaward from Cape Hatteras for many miles and since the 1500’s this shifting sand bar has been the cause of many shipwrecks.  Many methods were tried in the effort to warn mariners away from this terrible danger.  The Diamond Shoals Lightship (LV-71) was one of the most successful.  For over two decades she performed her duties, anchored at the end of this dangerous shoal, where her remains still lay today.   Captain Dave Sommers will discuss this history, the sinking, and take you on a virtual dive to the

LV-71, 200 feet deep off the Diamond Shoals.


2:00 – 2:50 p.m.

Kevin Duffus

Title: “Into the Burning Sea—The 1918 Mirlo Rescue”

Kevin Duffus, author of six books on North Carolina’s maritime history spanning 500 years, takes his audience on board the British tanker Mirlo loaded with nearly 300,000 gallons of aviation fuel when it was torpedoed five miles east of Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station on August 16, 1918. Using previously unpublished eyewitness testimony, Duffus recreates the desperate struggle of 51 panicked sailors as they tried to escape their exploding and burning ship. From his acclaimed literary non-fiction account, Duffus will describe the ordeal endured by six courageous Coast Guardsmen as they were tossed by waves of fire in a small motor lifeboat. The “Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico” imperiled their own lives and entered a deadly inferno and toxic fumes while navigating a confusing maze of swirling black smoke to rescue strangers in distress. August 16, 1918, was day when American lifesaving history was made.

3:00 – 3:50 p.m.

Janie R. Knutson

Title: “The U-Boat Menace: Interactions Off North Carolina During the First World War”

After the United States entered into the Great War, three submarines ventured as far as the North Carolina coastline during a destructive three-month period. The summer of 1918 became a tense time for the merchant ships traveling the region and many ships fell victim to the actions of U-151, U-140, and U-117. Concurrently, the U boats alternately terrorized or benefited the local coastal population. These dynamic interactions between wartime enemies elucidates the difference in attitudes and military tactics employed by German submariners during the First World War.

4:00 – 4:50 p.m.

Dr. Gary E. Weir, Chief Historian, NGA.

Title: “Ho, For a Raid on Uncle Sam!” (From Lowell Thomas, Raiders of the Deep)

Using Lowell Thomas’ story of the exciting and dangerous U-boat adventures of the Imperial German “Raiders of the Deep” as a starting point, Dr. Weir will explore the operations of German U-boats off the American coast in the later years of the Great War. While Thomas’ emphasis on excitement and adventure certainly won over scores of readers, reality and history bear witness to the emergence of a serious and unique weapons system during the 1914 – 1918 conflict. The U-140, the boat that torpedoed the LV-71, also inspired designs for future American submarines. However, we shall also discover, that the adventure and challenge of undersea warfare embraced by Thomas’ readers never waned. It still draws people away from the shore to operate in the ocean’s depths.

For more information, please contact us by phone (252)-986-0720, or email Josh Nonnenmocher at josh.nonnenmocher@ncdcr.gov