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NOAA ship to chart the shipwreck battlefield of WWII

A German U-boat that sank Allied vessels off Cape Hatteras during World War II, and one of its victims, are the focus of an underwater archaeological search this week.

Depending on weather, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ship Sand Tiger will begin the hunt today or Tuesday for U-576 and the Bluefields, both sunk on July 15, 1942. They are believed to lie about 40 miles off Hatteras Inlet.

The work is part of a multi-year search for vessels sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic, the worst of which lasted from January through August 1942. The Germans called these eight months Operation Drumbeat.

"There is this area that's centered off Cape Hatteras that is sort of the crossroads of all the activity," said maritime archaeologist Joe Hoyt of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. "On the bottom there are the remains of both sides of the battle."

A robot submarine equipped with sonar will investigate about 50 potential wreck sites identified during earlier research expeditions. About half of the search site is on the continental shelf; the rest is in water as deep as 3,000 feet.

"We're trying to comprehensively catalog, describe, identify and locate all of these World War II wrecks that are off North Carolina," Hoyt said. About 50 are believed to be on the continental shelf. NOAA has documented about 35.

"Part of our search is to locate new sites that we know are out there somewhere," he said.

Assisting are several partners, including the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which wants to locate historic sites in case of future offshore drilling or wind-energy projects.

"A lot of people have no idea that this history took place right off our shores," said Lauren M. Heesemann, research coordinator for the sanctuary.

Coastal residents of 1942 certainly knew it was happening. Explosions and flames were visible from the shores of Hatteras, Ocracoke and Virginia Beach. The bodies of dead sailors from England and Germany are buried in Ocracoke, Cape Hatteras, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, with 29 U-boat men buried in Hampton National Cemetery. Many of the shipwrecks are also considered war graves.

Bluefields was part of Convoy KS-520, a group of 19 merchant ships and five naval escorts bound from Hampton Roads to Key West. As the convoy passed Cape Hatteras, U-576 attacked, despite having lost fuel and a ballast tank during an Allied air attack the previous day. Bluefields sank within 10 minutes, but the 24-man crew was rescued.

Also torpedoed by U-576 were the J.A. Mowinckel, which was carrying the convoy's commodore, and the Chilore. Both ships headed for Hatteras Inlet, but both were damaged when they sailed into an Allied minefield intended to keep out U-boats. A tug sent to tow them hit a mine, too, and sank.

The NOAA research ship will be based in Beaufort, N.C. Hoyt said the goal is to use technology and mapping to help people visualize individual shipwrecks as part of a widespread battlefield, and to help divers who might want to visit the sites, much as other tourists visit Gettysburg.

"World War II is such a significant part of our history," he said. "It shaped the modern world. But most of the battles were fought in faraway places. This is where World War II came closest to the continental U.S. There are all these things that are still there, on the seabed, as monuments to this history. I think that we've kind of forgotten that they're there. Out of sight, out of mind."

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©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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