In the late stages of World War II, the North Carolina coast was swarming with German U-Boats, submarines that lingered off America's Coast, and targeted innocent merchant ships that attempted to get in and out of the Outer Banks.
The submarines were part of Adolf Hitler's plan of attack on the American East Coast, known as Operation Paukenschlag, or "Drumroll." The strategy, originated by Rear-Admiral Karl Donitz, was similar to the Union Army's own Civil War plan to stop merchant ships from landing on East Coast ports, essentially blocking the coastal commerce and the arrival of supplies. Initially, only five U-Boats were sent to the coast, but their presence was detrimental to the East Coast and the plan was, at first, tremendously successful.
The U-Boats were both ruthless and meticulous. Despite the best efforts of merchant ships to avoid the onslaught of attack by zigzagging towards shore to avoid the torpedoes, the U-Boats brought down 397 merchant ships from January to June of 1942. The area off Cape Hatteras was a popular spot for the U-Boat commanders, as it was a central point for merchant ships, and the area soon became known as Torpedo Junction.
Many innocent sips were targeted, such as the Buarque, a Brazilian ship that carried both cargo and passengers and was en route to New York. Because of its Brazilian flags and its status as a neutral country, the ship's crew was under the assumption that they would not be a target for the German U-Boats, but they were wrong.
A German U-Boat, the U-432, started circling the passenger ship before it seemingly disappeared, but despite the initial appearance that the Buarque was safe from attack, the U-432 ultimately launched its torpedoes, sending the Buarque to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Kill Devil Hills. Miraculously, and thanks to the efforts of the Coast Guard, 84 of the 85 people on board were rescued. Out of the wreckage, only one person had died.
Avoiding the U-Boats was an impossible feat, as discovered by the captain and crew of the City of Atlanta, a cargo ship that was headed for Savannah from New York carrying a variety of goods including food, leather, wool, brass, soap and three cases of whiskey. Three days before they left, it was reported that the tanker Norness, one of the first casualties of the U-Boat attacks, was torpedoed and destroyed just south of Mantauk, New York. As a result, the captain directed the crew of the City of Atlanta to hug the shoreline and dim the navigation lights to avoid the U-Boats' attention.
Unfortunately, the strategy did not work and on January 19, 1942, at 2:12 a.m., the City of Atlanta was struck on the portside by a torpedo. Five survivors were picked up by the freighter Seatrain Texas hours after the City of the Atlanta went into the ocean, but the remaining 42 crew members had died.
The same boat that destroyed the City of Atlanta, the U-123, quickly found another easy target just two days later, the Ciltvaira, which was slowly moving down the coast. The Ciltvaira was also a cargo ship and was carrying a load of paper from Norfolk, to Savannah, Georgia, when it was struck by a torpedo on the portside at 5:00 a.m. Badly wounded but still afloat, several ships including the Brazilian freighter Bury and the tanker Socony Vacuum attempted to tow the Ciltvaira, but were unable to do so, and instead, picked up the surviving crew members. The Ciltvaira sank off the coast of the Outer Banks, in between the villages of Salvo and Avon.
After months of similar and widely publicized stories of innocent ships being attacked, at last the dire situation of the U-Boat attacks was addressed. The United States Navy, with British assistance, began a campaign to rid the North Carolina coast of the German submarines. Long-range aircraft patrols were implemented, a coastal convoy system was initiated and more anti-submarine vessels were deployed.
A few of the U-Boats were sunk, including the U-352 off the coast of Cape Lookout, and by late 1942, Admiral Donitz withdrew his submarines from the East Coast. Even though a few merchant ships were occasionally targeted and destroyed throughout the rest of the war, the reign of Torpedo Junction was essentially over.