Creating end to Torpedo Alley

One spring evening in 1942, a man was fishing for saltwater drum and flounder, both bottom feeders, in the surf on the coast of North Carolina. He saw plumes of smoke and burning cargo ships on the horizon.

They had been torpedoed by Nazi submarines.

It was the optimal time of day for such attacks. The sky glow from shore silhouetted the ships so the subs could pick them off. Two hundred thirty-three ships were destroyed in similar fashion between Jan. 12, 1942, when the first submarine attack occurred, and the middle of August when the Germans withdrew their submarines from the coast of North Carolina, acceding to superior forces.

This was the busiest sea-lane on America’s eastern seaboard. Blackout regulations were enforced to reduce window light from homes and businesses, illuminated billboards, and automobile headlights to make it impossible for the Nazis to target silhouetted ships in what became known as “Torpedo Alley.”

America was not prepared for warfare this close to our shores. During the First World War, most German U-boats were used around Britain and the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the size and range of the submarines had increased dramatically.

The British sent 24 small craft to help attack the subs off our coast and the great capacity of American industry quickly produced a large number of frigates and corvettes, also small, fast, maneuverable ships used for sinking submarines. They, in conjunction with land-based aircraft, stopped the bloody German incursion.

The fisherman was once arrested by the shore patrol for walking alone on the beach after dark. He was initially suspected of being a German sympathizer, perhaps trying to signal off-shore submarines with a light. He was subsequently released.

There were instances of Germans managing to get ashore. At another time, in a captured sub, men dressed in American made civilian clothes with American identification papers had been found. Some German sailors’ bodies were washed ashore and were returned to Europe after the war.

Several bodies of British sailors were washed ashore at Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They were buried there in small cemeteries leased to England for as long as the bodies rest there, so that the men are buried in English soil. Commemorative services have been held at both places on May 11 for the last 75 years.

Patricia Rogers of Howland is the daughter of the fisherman mentioned above. She provided me with her memories of this time when she was a preteen and she related stories told by her father, grandfather and other relatives.

In 1941, Rogers’ family’s property was taken by eminent domain to build Camp Lejeune, a Marine training base. Many old family farms and poor sharecroppers’ cabins were uprooted for this wartime project.

Her family moved into her grandparent’s house. Then they fixed up the barn and moved into it so they could rent the rooms of the house to workers building the base. She remembers her mother’s making breakfast and packing lunches for those men.

Her grandfather got a job at Camp Davis, adjacent to Lejeune. It housed 550 German prisoners captured in Europe. He supervised the POWs on maintenance duty.

In general, they were cooperative and conscientious regarding the tasks assigned to them, she said. Rogers remembers her grandfather’s saying if he started to do anything that would take some strength they would jump ahead of him and do it for him. After the war, his wife received appreciative letters from some of those men who had liked working with “Mr. Avery.”

Rogers’ Uncle Richard was chosen by the Army to take intensive German language training. Subsequently, he parachuted behind the battle lines in Germany. When he died, he was buried at Lejune.

Early on, in 1942 German mariners joked that their efforts in “Torpedo Alley” were a “great American turkey shoot!” That morbid joke was answered by the American victory and receipt of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8,1945.

Camp Lejune is still active in the training of America’s fighting men and women so that the USA will be better prepared for a conflict if it should happen at some future date.

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