Researchers discover two vessels from WWII convoy battle off North Carolina coast

Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 21, 2014

Two significant vessels from World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic have been found by NOAA researchers off the coast of North Carolina, NOAA announced on Tuesday.

The German U-boat 576 and the Nicaraguan flagged freighter Bluefields were found approximately 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina, in an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

“This is not just the discovery of a single shipwreck,” said Joe Hoyt, a NOAA sanctuary scientist and chief scientist for the expedition. “We have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic. These two ships rest only a few hundred yards apart and together help us interpret and share their forgotten stories.”

According to NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the Bluefields was part of a group of 19 merchant ships escorted by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard en route from Norfolk to Key West when they were attacked by the German U-576.

"U-576 getting underway." Courtesy: NOAA

“U-576 getting underway.” Courtesy: NOAA

The U-576 sank the Bluefields and severely damaged two other ships. In response, U.S. Navy aircraft bombed U-576 while the merchant ship Unicoi attacked it with its deck gun.

The U-576 sank and has rested for the past 72 years less than 240 yards from the Bluefields.

The discoveries were made as a result of a partnership between NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to survey and document vessels lost during WWII off the coast of North Carolina.

“This discovery highlights the importance of federal agencies working together to identify and protect these unique submerged archaeological resources that are of local and international importance,” said William Hoffman, a BOEM archaeologist.

In coordination with Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, an initial survey of the area was conducted earlier this year by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

Courtesy: Mariners Museum/NOAA

Courtesy: Mariners Museum/NOAA

based on archival research. In August, archaeologists on the NOAA research vessel SRVX Sand Tiger located and confirmed the ships’ identities.

The wrecks are both protected under international law. The United States policy on sunken vessels states that the original country or origin still retains ownership and that the wrecks are not considered abandoned nor does passage of time change their ownership.

The German government has confirmed that it retains ownership of U-576 and has requested that the United States government preserve and protect the vessel as it would one of its own.

Although the Bluefields did not suffer any casualties, the wreck site of U-576 remains a war grave for its crew.

“In legal succession to the former German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany, as a rule, sees itself as the owner of formally Reich-owned military assets, such as ship or aircraft wreckages,” said the German Foreign Office in a statement. “The Federal Republic of Germany is not interested in a recovery of the remnants of the U-576 and will not participate in any such project. It is international custom to view the wreckage of land, sea, and air vehicles assumed or presumed to hold the remains of fallen soldiers as war graves. As such, they are under special protection and should, if possible, remain at their site and location to allow the dead to rest in peace.”