Most people think World War II was fought on battlefields across Europe and on islands in the Pacific. They'd be surprised to know that one of the most violent naval battles was fought off the shores of the Outer Banks. During the Battle of the Atlantic from January through July 1942, German U-boats sank over 400 ships off the North Carolina coast.
The Battle of the Atlantic was all about commerce. The Germans patrolled the Eastern Seaboard, particularly the New York and Florida coasts and Cape Hatteras, to stop merchant vessels bound for England with desperately needed food and military supplies.
Losses were high for both sides. Four U-boats never returned to Germany, and the allies suffered 1,657 casualties; 1,200 were merchant mariners. The fighting was so intense that the Outer Banks was called Torpedo Junction. Few people knew about the Battle of the Atlantic because President Roosevelt didn't want citizens to panic. But Outer Banks residents who were alive during World War II remember it very well.
Stanley Beacham was a child living on Currituck Sound in 1942. When a U-boat torpedoed a ship off Caffey's Inlet while he was sitting on his front porch, he told Coastal Review, "it felt like the earth was shaking."
Frieda Gray French was just six years old at that time. Her father, Homer S. Gray, was chief of the Coast Guard base and had the unenviable task of taking charge of bodies that washed up on the shore." She told Carolina Country, "He helped bury them and made sure they received full military honors."
Blackouts were strictly enforced even though the area was sparsely populated. As Cliff Perry told Coastal Review, the military patrolled neighborhoods to ensure no light was visible from houses. "If they could see light from your windows, they'd come to your house and tell you." So, homeowners became used to turning off lights and adjusting their blackout curtains.
Kitty Hawk School was the K-12 school that served the entire area, and residents who attended school at the time recall what it was like to ride the bus. All school buses were required to pass through a security gate. One guard came on the bus and checked faces and a second guard looked under the seats. The kids knew it would happen, but it was still unnerving.
Being in an (unofficial) war zone also brought unexpected rewards. After a battle, residents could walk along the beach after the Coast Guard cleared away debris and bodies. Occasionally they'd find delicacies that washed up on the beach, such as crates of oranges or lemons. This was like finding buried treasure because fresh produce was scarce and expensive. Stanley Beacham and his brothers found a stalk of bananas, and their mother hung them in the pantry until they ripened. As he joked to Coastal Review, "The first banana I ever tasted washed up on the beach."
Brothers James and Carroll Gray were 10 and 11 in 1942. They found thousands of little round containers they thought were snuff cans. They told Carolina Country, "It was the first time we'd seen instant coffee." They also found five-gallon cans of oil and sold them to local stores for 50 cents each.
World War II relics still occasionally wash up along the coast. In November 2021, Tom and Lauren Pirozzi were strolling along the beach in Corolla and found a military helmet liner in a pile of seaweed. Helmet liners were used to cushion steel helmets, but sailors often wore them alone when they weren't in a combat zone. The Pirozzis told the Virginian-Pilot they were considering donating the helmet to a local museum, such as the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island or the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
The U-boat attacks decreased after the federal government established an Army radar installation and observation tower in Kitty Hawk at what many locals still call Army Camp Hill. At the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, you can see items recovered from shipwrecks that occurred off the Outer Banks, including a German Enigma machine from U-85, the first enemy submarine sunk in US waters by a US Navy warship during World War II. Read more about Shipwrecks along the OBX here.
German Enigma machine recovered by divers from the U-85 submarine sunk off the Outer Banks coast. (Photo Credit: The Virginian-Pilot)