When war reached the coast
“Ocean Ablaze: War Reaches the Outer Banks”
By Carlton Harrell (AuthorHouse, $16.95)
While looking through his deceased mother’s papers in the early 1990s, Carlton Harrell found several letters from the War Department. In one of them, dated April 1942, Capt. Adolph Rosengarten Jr. of the 11th Infantry asked his mother Nellie Harrell, “Will you aid in the defense of your country as a civilian observer?”
She and many other citizens along the North Carolina coast accepted the call and served in the Coast Defense Warning Service, reporting activity to help fight the German U-boats that were ravaging shipping off the East Coast. The letters also jogged Carlton Harrell’s memory of growing up on the Outer Banks in Currituck County during the war.
In 1942, Harrell was 12, and in his new book “Ocean Ablaze: War Reaches the Outer Banks,” he recalls seeing “a large pillar of flame” over Currituck Beach. His grandfather Taylor Harrell ran a store and was the postmaster in Mamie, a few miles west of the town of Duck. When Harrell told his grandfather about the flames, he replied, “Yes, the Germans are sinking our ships right and left out there.”
“When I opened them up,” Harrell said of the letters, “I said, I can remember seeing the fire over the tree lines.” He wanted to know why the German U-boat campaign was so successful, to chronicle its effects on North Carolina as well as the state’s response. When he retired from newspaper work in 1996, he began doing research for the book.
Harrell is the former editor of The Durham-Sun and associate editor of The Herald-Sun. He also served in the Army Reserve and the North Carolina Army National Guard. When he discusses the history of Operation Drumroll, the name of the U-boat campaign, he exhibits an encyclopedic knowledge of shipping routes, military hardware and history.
Beginning in 1942 and continuing until about mid-1943, the U-boat campaign sank more than 800 ships carrying oil, munitions, food and other goods crucial to the war effort, Harrell states in his book. He estimates that about 100 ships were sunk off the N.C. coast. Operation Drumroll became less of a menace to the coast about mid-1943, when American and Allied ships, armaments and tactics were at last able to take out more U-boats.
Using personal interviews, newspapers and magazines, historical papers and other primary sources, Harrell tells the story of how the United States, with a coast virtually undefended, improved its tactics – including early radar, use of convoys to accompany cargo ships, and better aircraft – to end the U-boat threat.
By necessity, citizen volunteers contributed to the early defense of the coast. Private pilots “began clamoring to volunteer their services to spot German U-boats off the American coast,” Harrell writes. The Navy eventually accepted their offer, allowing the pilots to fly patrols “while few military aircraft were available.” Yachtsmen and other boat owners formed what was called the “Hooligan Navy” to spot and report U-boat positions.
“She never mentioned a word of this to me,” Harrell said of his mother’s civilian observer service. She and other civilians were given instructions and a phone number to report landing parties, plane crashes, surface or underwater craft, or evidence of smuggling of spies ashore. Harrell remembers seeing some of the evidence of the war when he went to the beach. A good three to four inches of oil sludge stayed on the beaches for years, wiping out local fishing for some time, he said.
To protect ships at night, coastal communities had to observe blackout conditions. Homes and businesses placed blackout curtains over their windows to prevent creating a silhouette of any cargo ships, which the U-boats would use to help target their torpedoes at the vessels.
Harrell, being a newspaperman, also takes note of another kind of blackout. About six weeks into the war, the government censored news of the devastation. In the book he quotes extensively from Margaret Harper, wartime publisher of the South Port Pilot. “‘There was a blackout for news of anything that happened along the coast,’” she said. “‘If a ship was sunk right in broad open daylight in front of you, you couldn’t say anything about it.’”
Despite the news blackout, information did pass by word of mouth from people who saw the sinkings and the debris from the war, Harrell said.
Harrell has exhaustive and dramatic accounts of some of the major sinkings off the North Carolina Coast. The tanker “Allan Jackson” was the first ship to be torpedoed off of North Carolina beaches. When the torpedoes broke apart the ship, the oil it was carrying “roared 100 feet into the air in a flaming torch, spreading burning oil up to a half mile from the vessel,” and burning many crew members forced to jump overboard for safety. Torpedoes also struck and broke in half the oil tanker “Dixie Arrow,” killing all deck officers and several crew members. (The cover of the book is a photo from the “Dixie Arrow” sinking.)
By mid-1943, German U-boats turned their efforts toward Europe, and better ships and planes finally curbed the U-boat scourge. Harrell wants readers to know the price North Carolina paid during the opening year of the war. Many North Carolinians do not know the devastation of the U-boat war. “Until I got into it, I didn’t know the detail,” Harrell said. “None of us, even those of us who had the eyewitness experience on water, knew the details, or how extensive [the damage was],” he said.