U-85

A recent article in the Richmond Times Dispatch brought back to me, memories of events in 1942, this country's first organized effort at what is now called Homeland Security. I remember the period well, even though I was only 10 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We all thought the situation was bad, but information released in 1963 indicate it was worse than we had thought.

We read about the internment of people with Japanese ancestry on the west coast, we knew there was real concern about large gatherings of people because the Rose Bowl was moved from Pasedena, Cal. to Durham on New Year's Day of 1942, but we didn't know how bad it was along the coast of the U.S. and North Carolina in particular. What I find almost amusing when I talk with youngsters today is that they react with disbelief, when I tell them there was genuine doubt on the part of many if not most Americans in the initial months of the war, whether we would be victorious or not.

Old timers still talk about standing on the beach at Virginia Beach and watching smoke rise from ships which had been torpedoed by German submarines. That's about as close as the enemy could get to the U.S. Stories still prevail about German submariners shopping for groceries and attending movies in coastal towns of N.C. Whether true or not, stories were circulated that movie ticket stubs were found in the pockets of U-boat crewman captured by the U.S. military.

In April of 1942, the German submarine U- 85, sailing from a port in France, found its way to the east coast of the U.S. It approached the continent by way of Newfoundland and then slowly started moving down the U.S. east coast. At one time, the sub was roughly 600 miles from Washington, D.C. It is known that one German sub entered New York harbor and saboteurs were landed in both the New York City and Jacksonville Fla. areas. Another unverified story had the German submarine crew members listening to the all night music radio show of the "Midnight Mayor" from 50,000 watt radio station WBT in Charlotte.

U-85 heading south passed Hampton Roads and was off the coast of North Carolina near Oregon Inet when it was spied by the USS Roper, a 1918 destroyer which had been recommissioned from mothballs for submarine patrol duty. The two ships played cat and mouse for a while but finally the Roper clearly identified the ship they were chasing as a German submarine. The Roper made a couple of amazingly accurate hits on the U-85 and the ship started to sink. The U-85 carried a crew of approximately 40 and they all began to abandon ship. The Roper saw from their radar that the U-85 had settled on the bottom but they feared the ship might be playing possum. They were also fearful of an attack by a possible second U boat since U-boats frequently operated in pairs. The Roper had watched one torpedo from the submarine come perilously close to the ship during the chase.

The Captain of the Roper ordered depth charges to be dropped on the sunken sub and the result was that the crew from the U-85 who were in the water were all killed. The following morning, the Roper retrieved 29 bodies and took them back to Lynhaven Roads, near Virginia Beach where they were transferred to a tugboat. The bodies were then placed in caskets and buried in the U.S. Cemetery in Hampton with full military honors. within 48 hours of the sinking.

All this was supposedly done in complete secrecy but the word got out among the locals and many turned out to watch prisoners from the stockade at nearby Fort Monroe dig the graves in the cemetery. The Navy was not anxious to discuss the coastal defense situation and for good reason. I forgot to mention that this was the first German submarine the U.S. had destroyed and 198 merchant ships had been sunk off the U.S. coast. It may have been tempting to boast of the kill but undoubtedly to do so would have placed scrutiny on the larger question of coastline security. The Navy was not anxious to discuss publicly the question of coast line security.


The Navy didn't release information regarding the sinking of the U-85 until 1963. Since then, divers have found what the Navy was looking for in 1942 and that is an enigma code machine. No telling what that would have done to shorten the war had it been found in 1942. . The submarine rests today in approximately 100 feet of water off the N.C. coast and future dives are scheduled to see what other treasures are contained in the hull of the ship. The enigma machine is currently on display in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, N.C.

Scholars continue to debate whether the depth charges should have been dropped by the Roper when the Captain knew that doing so would undoubtedly result in the deaths of the submarine crew members in the water. One writer even suggested that the Captain was guilty of murder and some Roper crew members have had second thoughts about what they did. That's the way it always is when hostilities cease, but I doubt very seriously if anyone aboard the Roper would have voted not to drop the depth charges at the time. The heat of battle often prevails when it collides with civil nicety. Seems appropriate for us to consider today in our War Against Terror.
 

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" From the coming of the first student to its open doors...the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been a magic gulf stream flowing in an ever widening current through the lives of people in the cities, the counties and the state of North Carolina and beyond... tempering the customs, traditions and habits of the people it serves and lifting them to higher levels of living wherever it has gone."

...Albert Coates, Founder and first Director of the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina.

Source: Albert Coates, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: A Magic Gulf Stream in the Life of North Carolina, 1978, p.34.