Editor's Note – In the summer of 2012, Ansley Wegner, a historian with our Research Branch, wrote a series of blog posts highlighting various historical destinations around the state. This is the first post in that series.
Memorial Day has always been a curious commemoration to me.
Once a solemn day of remembrance of those who have died in service to the United States, it is now the unofficial start of summer—with many people equating Memorial Day with a trip to the beach. If you are going to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the holiday weekend, you can actually restore some of the original meaning of the observance at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.
There is an extraordinary artifact on display at the Museum called an Enigma machine. This very machine was aboard a German sub that was sunk off the North Carolina coast by the U.S. Navy in 1942. The Germans used this complex coding device for secret communications, particularly in divulging locations of enemy vessels and supply convoys.
There is a fascinating behind the scenes story, too. While most people know that lots of ships have been lost in the treacherous shoals off the Outer Banks, not that many realize that during World Wars I and II, German U-boats (submarines) patrolled the North Carolina coast wreaking havoc on ships that they encountered. The worst time for the attacks was January to July of 1942. At the beginning of the war, Germans had sophisticated submarines and highly trained crews, whereas the United States military had not put much emphasis on undersea warfare.
By January of 1942 there were about 19 German U-boats patrolling the Atlantic coastline—with 2 or 3 at any given time hiding at Diamond Shoals to attack ships as they rounded Cape Hatteras. At the height of what has come to be known as the Battle of Torpedo Junction, the Germans were sinking a ship almost every day—freighters, tankers, passenger ships—the losses were tremendous.
The American military was, of course, hard at work learning how to detect and defeat the U-boats. Their first hit came April 14, 1942, when the destroyer USS Roper sank U-85 off of the Outer Banks between Wimble Shoals and Cape Hatteras.
Navy divers surveyed and attempted to salvage the U-85 for about a week, but efforts were not very successful and, with a war on, the men were needed elsewhere. The submarine was left to the elements. The U-boat wreck was explored by recreational divers for many years.
In July 2001 divers salvaged the submarine’s Enigma machine. Although it is still being conserved, the stable parts are on display.
The Enigma machine, which is on indefinite loan to the Museum from the German government, presents an incredible opportunity to get a peek at a super-secret World War II weapon while visiting the scenic Outer Banks—an ideal blend of Memorial Day observance and the beach.