Following the descent line toward the bottom, my first impression of the wreck was utter surprise at its relatively slender diameter. I knew that living quarters on most medium-size attack class warships from the World War II era were far from luxurious. But life on a U-boat with a maximum width of just 20 feet struck me as incomprehensibly claustrophobic – even if no one was shooting or dropping explosives on you.
The U-352 is one of North Carolina’s signature wreck dives. For divers making the journey to Morehead City, it stands near the top of the list. Even with the dive briefing fresh in your mind, seeing the U-352 materialize off the bottom, sitting with a 45-degree list to starboard, is an amazing sight.
Located some 35 miles offshore, the U-352 lies within close proximity of the Gulf Stream, which oftentimes rewards divers with visibility upwards to 100 feet. While still largely intact, most of what you see on the bottom is the remains of the pressure hull, as the majority of the U-352’s outer casing has rusted away.
Since 1999 I had the opportunity to dive a large number of wrecks from the Hatteras inlet south. Most were victims of Germany’s U-bootwaffe who managed to turn this region of the US coast into what history called Torpedo Alley. Yet, even when considering that this was my fourth dive on this particular U-boat, the act of resting my hand on one of these man-made predators still stirred my imagination. As I worked the wreck for a few choice images, the non-photographer in me wandered down a different path.
As most Atlantic wreck divers know, many of North Carolina’s Outer Bank wreck sites were the result of the “Battle of the Atlantic.” During the early stages of World War II, Germany’s marauding U-boats brought their ocean campaign of destruction right on our doorstep, and they proved to be one of the most fearsome and effective weapons in the history of naval warfare. Under the command of Admiral Karl Donitz, Germany’s U-bootwaffe (German for boat fleet) launched their first series of strikes against American shipping in the final days of 1941. Known as Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), the attacking force was comprised of five IX class, long-range U-boats.
Between their arrival in US territorial waters on December 27, 1941, and February 6th, 1942, the drumbeaters sank 25 ships. By the close of that same year, U-boat operations along the US continental shelf had swelled into a seemingly unstoppable rampage from Maine all the way into the Gulf of Mexico. As a boy growing up near the Outer Banks, my father would watch the fires of their victims burn, then fade into the black veil of night.
Paybacks can be a Bitch
After a year of U-boat terrorizing of the US coastline, Allied forces improved shipping through organized convoys with navel escorts. At the same time, homeland defense put out more long-range aircraft patrol and depth-charged equipped cruisers, while also developing improved methods of detecting submarines with active sonar systems, radio triangulation and coded message intercepts.
When US intelligence broke the German enigma code, U-boat operations became near suicidal. By the end of 1942, U-boat causalities rose to 64. In the first months of the following year, another 94 U-boats were terrorized, with casualties peaking in May with the loss of 41 U-boats. In the history books, that infamous month is now termed as Black May. One of the victims of this onslaught was the U-352.
At 218 feet long, the U-352 was a VIIC design, which included an 88mm deck gun mounted forward of the conning tower. Surprisingly, this vessel had not one kill to her credit. Worse yet, on May 9th, 1942, the last ship the U-352 did fire at was the US Coast Guard Cutter Icarus.
Dodging the U-352’s first salvo of torpedoes, the Icarus made her own attack run, deploying five depth charges which severely damaged the U-boat internally, wrecking the conning tower and blowing off the deck gun. Two more depth charge attacks forced the U-352 to the surface where its commander KL Rathke ordered his crew to scuttle and abandon the ship. In the end, 17 of her crew were killed, with the rest taken into Charleston as prisoners of war.
A Decade of Searching
For a battle that was so well recorded, nobody knew the exact whereabouts of U-352 until Captain George Purifoy (the man who started Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, NC), along with Rod Gross, Dale McCullough, and Claude Hall (the group who started the search through extensive research of WWII naval archives) decided to seek out the downed sub.
Their hunt went on for 10 years before it was found in April 1975, a full mile and a quarter from the original coordinates logged by the Icarus.
Getting on the Wreck
Even among experienced Outer Banks divers, the biggest challenge to diving the U-352—as with most area wrecks at depths greater than 70 feet—is waiting for the dive boat to hook up on the wreck and set the down lines. The procedure calls for a member of the crew to carry a line and physically tie into the wreck before anyone else can enter the water. In the U-352’s case, this is a 120-foot swim to the bottom. Depending on conditions, the drill can take 15 to 20 minutes. To expedite this process, Olympus Diving Center’s divers are equipped with underwater communication gear. From the bottom, the diver can advise the captain if he needs to move the boat or pay out more line, as well as give a detailed report of conditions from top to bottom.
The controlling variable when diving the wrecks of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is the weather. One day it can be great, with calm seas and blue water, while the next day can turn foul, with either strong winds and rough seas, or just plain grim visibility in the 10- to 30-foot range. The most influential force of nature is brought about by the Gulf Stream, which brushes the eastward protrusion of the Banks as it flows northward. As a result of the Stream, summer water temperatures can average in the high 70’s, sometimes rising into the low 80’s, with underwater visibility upwards of 100 feet. On many of the area’s wreck sites, there is often enough current to make the use of a down line imperative.