This story begins with a dive into history, at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’ll take about 10 minutes for the two-man submersible, named Nomad, to carry pilot Randy Holt and Strassmann 715 feet down to the ocean floor.
Sonar guides them through the darkness below, until they have visual on their target: the German U-boat U-576, which has rested there since July 1942.
The submarine was sunk while hunting cargo ships headed for Europe in the war against Hitler’s Third Reich. This U-boat had vanished, lost to history, until researchers discovered its location two years ago.
Last August human eyes saw U-576 for the first time in 74 years.
The submarine is lying on its starboard side. Its bow is unmistakable. The deck gun can be made out, as can the sub’s conning tower, guarded by a school of grouper. You can even spot the periscope inside.
“The circular pad, which is called the wintergarten, right in the middle of it, is the aft-deck gun,” said Holt.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is photographing and scanning the sub to create a 3-D model.
U-576 sits just 35 miles from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, a relic of a little-known chapter in World War II history, when the war came right into America’s backyard.
“Within three weeks of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Germans were beginning to sink ships off the East Coast,” said NOAA superintendent David Alberg, who studies maritime battles.
In 1942, U-boats dominated the East Coast’s shipping lanes. More than 80 cargo ships were sunk, and 1,600 lives lost, in the waters off North Carolina alone.
Alberg said one could see the battles from shore: “Absolutely. You’d find oil on the beaches. You’d find debris. You’d see the fires at night. And unfortunately, sometimes, they’d even find victims, remains that had washed over from some of these merchant seamen and sailors that were lost.”
Most Americans then never learned the scope of the attacks, but coastal residents knew. The War Advertising Council helped teach them one of the war’s most enduring sayings: “Loose lips sink ships.”
“This notion of ‘Loose lips, sink ships’ — if you talk, somebody could die because of your careless conversations — really began to gel with the American public,” Alberg said.
Ninety-three-year-old Louis Segal remembers loose lips really could sink ships. In 1942 he was an 18-year-old cadet midshipman with the Merchant Marine Academy. U-boats attacked his convoy three times.
Segal was on board the research vessel the Baseline Explorer.
“When you watched that first ship in particular go down, it must have brought the reality of the threat home to you,” Strassmann said.
“Oh yeah,” Segal replied. “I guess when you’re that young, you know you’re gonna live forever.”
“And you have, which is the good news!” Strassmann said.
Underwater archaeologist Joe Hoyt is leading the expedition to study not just U-576 but also its target: the cargo ship MS Bluefields. Both sank on July 15, 1942, in a convoy battle lasting just minutes.
Today predator and prey lie side-by-side on the ocean floor, only 240 yards apart.
“Both of them together — that’s really what’s unique about this particular area, is that we have the remnants of both elements of a convoy battle,” Hoyt said. “And it really encapsulates that idea of a battlefield.”
Every one aboard Bluefields survived. But no one knew for sure what happened to the crew of U-576 — until the expedition team saw that all of the U-boat’s hatches are sealed. Forty-five German sailors are entombed inside.
“There’s one particular picture of these guys in the conning tower,” Hoyt noted, “and they’re looking through binoculars, and one of them’s got, sort of, a goofy pair of glasses on. That guy’s binoculars are in there. This guy’s glasses are probably inside this steel tube that we found.”
Shipwrecks like these represent how close World War II came to mainland America, which is why NOAA is working to make this graveyard part of a national marine sanctuary.
“When I see this area, whether I’m on the surface or we’re down underneath, I see Gettysburg before it was designated as a national park,” Alberg said. “I see Shiloh, I see Antietem. This is our opportunity to say publicly and acknowledge that the people that fought here off the coast of North Carolina and the U.S. East Coast, that effort is appreciated and it will be-remembered.”
“It’s a chance to give these guys a salute?” Strassmann asked.
“Absolutely — a salute that’s well-deserved, and 75 years late.”