Into the Deep

U-boats off the Carolina Coast were part of Germany's attack against American shipping in World War II.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2012, Volume 33, Number 4

In the spring of 1942, Seaman Rhodes Chamberlin was aboard the U.S.S. Roper the night it sunk the U-85, fifteen miles off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Under the leadership of  Lieutenant Commander Hamilton Howe, Chamberlin was ordered to rescue the German submarine’s crew that had flung themselves into the water and were yelling for help, but before he had time to lower the raft, the Roper had another sonar contact and released eleven depth charges, killing everyone in the water. Twenty-nine bodies were recovered and buried at Hampton National Cemetery. The U-85 was the first German U-boat the U.S. sank in World War II, and it marked the beginning of the end of Germany’s unopposed assault on ships along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

With the American entry into World War II, Germany began Operation Drumbeat, what was supposed to be a fast and debilitating attack by U-boats on the shipping lanes of the Eastern Seaboard. During the six months of the offensive, Germany lost seven U-boats, but they sunk 397 Allied ships, mostly tankers. Eighty-two alone were off the coast of North Carolina. There are stories of Outer Banks locals watching the battles and flames from their beach houses, of fisherman unexpectedly coming upon U-boats during their expeditions, and of oil slicks and bodies washing ashore almost daily. The U.S. Navy was unprepared for the onslaught. “There was what was called a Hooligan Navy,” says diver and author Jim W. Bunch. “The U.S. gave two depth charges and a machine gun to any guy with a sailboat. One guy actually sent a message after the fact that said, ‘Spotted sub, dropped depth charge, have sunk self.’” Bunch has been diving on the sunken U-85since it was rediscovered in the 1970s (by his count more than a thousand dives), and gives talks about the submarine and its history through the North Carolina Humanities Council.

The U-85 was one of about twelve hundred submarines built by the German navy during World War II, and one of its Type VII models that could travel long distances. Its captain was a dashing young man named Eberhard Greger, who had graduated from the Marineschule Murwik in Flensburg and had been an officer on the destroyer Wolfgang Zenker, and then on two U-boats under the command of Fritz Julius Lemp, best known for mistakenly sinking the British passenger liner Athenia. The U-85 was always Greger’s boat, from the moment she was first launched in June 1941. A boar with a rose in its mouth graced the conning tower—eber meaning boar in German, and a rose for Greger’s hometown of Lieberose. It was painted by Lothar-Guenther Buchheim, who would later write the story for the film Das Boot.

Forty-four men served on the boat under Greger’s command—all perished on that night, April 14, 1942—but their personal photographs and diaries were recovered from the water, and through decades of research, made their way into Bunch’s book about the U-85A Shadow in the Sea.  Their young faces peer out from the candids and formal portraits they carried. Machinist Erich Degenkolb’s diary gives a succinct account of life on the sub, from the sinking of a tanker in the North Atlantic to Degenkolb’s on-again-off-again seasickness to listening to “beautiful music” provided by the four officers with the duty of playing the boat’s record collection for the crew. 

Another theme running through the diary is a log of when they were underwater: “April 11) 1240 50 meters depth.  Off Washington – We cruise submerged.” For our modern sensibilities, the act of a submarine traveling underwater doesn’t seem noteworthy, but these U-boats only dived to avoid detection, not to travel for distance or attack. “They’re not boats like today,” explains Bunch. “These boats operated on diesel engines on the surface and battery power underwater. They could stay down six or eight hours until their batteries ran out, traveling at four or five miles an hour. Most of the torpedo attacks were made at night, and were surface attacks.” On the surface they could travel up to twenty miles per hour. “They could overtake tankers but couldn’t outrun destroyers.”

And that’s what happened to the U-85 when it met up with the Roper, one of seven American destroyers sent on antisubmarine patrol, equipped with the latest radar to detect and hunt down the boats that were plaguing the American coast. “The submarine war is in a way like big game hunting, but within seconds the hunter becomes the hunted and has to run for his life,” wrote U-boat commander Jurgen Oesten. The battle with the Roper lasted only a few minutes—the U-85 didn’t even get a chance to use its guns against the destroyer. The sinking of the U-85 was soon followed by the downing of its sister ships, the nearby U-352 and U-701, before Germany pulled the few remaining U-boats from the North Carolina waters in July 1942. Now all three submarines lie at the bottom of the Atlantic, magnets for marine life and divers with an interest in history.

One of those tourist divers was Rhodes Chamberlin, who traveled from Texas to Nags Head in 2001, in order to see for himself the evidence of an event that had “stirred” his memories. Only recently certified, he dived with the assistance of two instructors, along with Bunch, who helped rescue him after he was overcome with emotion during the dive. Chamberlin recalled, “Reaching the U-85’s remains I was at last able to see and put my arm into the hole which 58 years before I had seen blown in the U-85’s hull that I still remember so vividly.”