Hunter Turned to Hunted
Text & Images by Mike Gerken
©All Rights Reserved.
(As seen in print in Nurkowanie Magazine, Aug 2011, Poland)
Nukowanie Dive Magazine, Aug 2011.
The predator, Kapitanleutnant Hellmut Rathke, of the German U-boat, the U-352, peered through his periscope at his unsuspecting prey. His desire for glory and his overwhelming sense of duty to the Fatherland must have clouded his better judgment, for he planned to make his first war time kill on a heavily armed enemy ship in broad daylight. It was May 9, 1942, approximately 28 nautical miles due south of Morehead City, North Carolina. On this day, the crew of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Icarus would prevail in battle and be responsible for creating one of the most compelling WWII shipwrecks on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The U-352 and her crew of 48 men had only just arrived on the American coastline a few days prior without a single kill to their credit. The month previous had proven to be a highly successful time for U-boat commanders operating off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The area from Diamond Sholes to Cape Lookout was named, 'torpedo alley', due to the considerable losses of allied ships there at the hands of the German U-boats. By the time Rathke and the U-352 arrived, allied shipping defenses had been considerably stepped up and successes for the U-boats were scarcer and operations considerably more dangerous. Regardless of the hazards it seemed apparent that Rathke was determined to make a kill.
A schematic of the USCGC Icarus
The Icarus, commanded by Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester, was on routine patrol that day searching for enemy subs. Jester was not a young officer lacking experience. To date, he served 35 years of his 52-year life in the Coast Guard. The first signs that the cutter was being observed by the U-352 came in the form of sonar contact that was detected near-bye. Several minutes later, a torpedo exploded in the sand some 200 yards off the port quarter of the Icarus leaving a plume of bubbles and sand rising from the seabed. It was apparent that a submarine had been fired upon the Icarus. Rathke, hearing the explosion assumed he had struck the cutter and decided to surface to survey the situation. As he looked through the periscope, he saw not a ship aflame but the Icarus, unscathed, bearing down upon his position. Rathke had taken his shot and dreadfully missed his target and tragically gave away his location at the same time. The hunter now became the hunted.
Attacking in broad daylight left Rathke without the possibility of hiding in the inky darkness of the night and by operating in a depth of only 110’ left him no option to dive deep as a means of escape. Rathke and his crew were in serious trouble. For the next 45 minutes the U-352 did all they could do to avoid the barrage of depth chargers being thrown at them from the deck of the Icarus but, to know avail. After sustaining terrible damage to his ship and with one crewmember already dead, the besieged U-boat captain decided to surface and evacuate the crew. The ballast tanks were blown and the sub began to rise to the surface. As soon as the U-352 emerged, the crew began poring out of the conning tower with military precision. The crew of the Icarus had mistaken this hurried exit as an attempt for the men to man the deck guns and so they began directing fire upon the stricken U-boat. The U-352 and her crew were sprayed with deadly machine gun fire and rounds from the 3-inch deck cannon on the bow of the Icarus. Chaos reigned everywhere. Once it became clear to Jester that the U-boat crew merely desired to escape their sinking vessel, he ordered a cease-fire. Thirteen of the crew of the U-352 would not survive the attack with many of them never making out of the sinking sub. The men that did managed to escape were equipped with life jackets and drifted in the current for up to 45 minutes while waiting for rescue from the Icarus. The 33 survivors including Kapitantleutnant Rathke were all taken immediately to Charleston, North Carolina where they would spend the remainder of the war as prisoners. Considering that nearly 80 percent of the sailors serving in the U-boat corps during WWII were killed in action, these men were fortunate to have survived. This was a historic moment in that it was the first time a German U-boat crew was taken prisoner during WWII. Lt. Maurice Jester was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the sinking of the U-352.
The USCGC Cutter Icarus returning to Charleston Harbor with the prisoners of the U-352.
|The crew of the U-352 with Rathke in front being escorted as prisoners of war in Charleston, SC.|
Today, I pilot the dive vessel, Midnight Express heading due south from Beaufort Inlet making 16 knots in a 2-3 foot ocean swell. The bow pitches upward on a swell and gently drops down in to the trough of the next. The eighteen passengers on board find a comfortable spot to hold on and enjoy the ride out to the final resting place of the U-352. It's been more than 70 years after her sinking and 37 years after her discovery and divers still continue to come from all over the United States and even the world to dive this enigmatic WWII ship. There are very few German U-boat wrecks that are as easily accessible to sport divers as the U-352 is. She sits in a mere 110' of seawater and is only a short 90-minute ride out from Morehead City via Beaufort Inlet. Anyone holding a recreational SCUBA diving certification card with proper experience may dive the U-352 if they wish.
As I approach to within 1000 yards of my coordinates, I slow down while my crew prepares to secure the vessel to the sub below. Equipped with a full-face mask with a surface communication device, the mate, wearing his dive gear, stands fast along the port rail as I motor over the wreck. The U-352 is being hunted once again but with different intentions this time. As soon as I see a clear sign of the sub on my depth sounder and my GPS indicates we are within 10 feet of my desired location, I signal for the mate to jump in with anchor in hand. With a clank of the chain and a large splash he disappears from sight in to the blue 78F degree water. After less than a minute, my diver radios up to me and says "OK, OK, OK" indicating he has successfully tied us off to the desired location on the port side drive shaft on the stern of the sub. Once the slack has been taken up and the line tied off, I call back down to my diver and say, "OK, how does it look". He replies, "all is ok, we have about 80 feet of visibility and a very light current heading from stern to bow. It’s beautiful down here!” I quickly head to the aft deck of the Midnight to give the good news to the divers and conduct a dive briefing. I use a composite photograph of the sub to demonstrate its layout and all the highlights. After the short briefing, I ask if there are any questions. Most at this point are anxious to get wet and abstain from saying anything that would delay their entry. Within minutes all of my 18 divers vanish from site under the blue water and head down the anchor line to the historic shipwreck waiting for them below.
|Captain Rathke as seen in the prison camp in South Carolina.|
Having been on the U-352 many times, I know the scene well and I know what they are in for. After my divers return, sporting excited news of their journey down to the U-352, it is my turn to don gear and grab my camera and log yet another great dive on one of my favorite wrecks off the Carolina Coast. As I hand over hand down the anchor line the stern of the U-352 quickly comes in to view. I can easily identify the rudders, drive shafts that are the running gear of the vessel. I look closely underneath the stern to see if the starboard propeller is visible. This time it is only half showing. Sometimes storm surge will strip away the sand and silt under the wreck while other times it will become buried. The port propeller had been removed and salvaged in the 1970's leaving the drive shaft behind that makes for an ideal tie off point for the dive boats.
The U-352 in her entirety.
This image was created with the use of 33 separate images stitched together to bring the U-352 to life.
Swimming over the top of the sub past a couple of lionfish, I come across the exhaust pipes where the diesel fumes would have vented while the submarine operated on the surface. While submerged, the engines would have been shut down and a large bank of batteries would have propelled the ship at approximately 3 knots. As I continue forward, an open hatch comes in to view and I shine a strong light inside to have a look around. The sheer size of the tiny spaces these men had to live and fight in for weeks at a time is astonishing. I continue on and come to the conning tower that is reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa due to the subs heavy list to starboard. Upon closer inspection, there is a very small hatch at the top of the conning tower leads in to the command room. The hatchway is so small it would be impossible for a diver donning full SCUBA gear to access the sub from this point. I can only imagine the chaotic scene 69 years ago as the crew of the U-352, many of them barely twenty years of age, frantically evacuate the sub one at a time from this hatch as exploding shells erupted and machine gun fire from the Icarus riddled the crew and their sinking ship. I contemplate the reality of war in the form of the remains of the men still inside. Yes, they were enemies of my country over 70 years ago but, to me, the war is over and these men have already paid the price. Holding a grudge makes no sense.
Before continuing on, I check my remaining gas supply. Noting I have sufficient bottom time and air remaining, I opt to continue on another 80 feet to explore the bow of the wreck. In route, I pass by the gun mount on the foredeck. The gun that once prominently stood here was likely blown from its foundation by an Icarus depth charge during the attack and lies buried in the sand somewhere in the vicinity. On my trip down to the bow there are two other open hatchways one of which is on a 45-degree angle and would have been used to load torpedos in to the forward torpedo room. Finally, after about a 200-foot swim from the stern, the tip of the bow and the torpedo tubes lying on an angle in the sand comes in to view. I always ask myself, if the weapons that were fired from here had met their mark, we would be reading a different story today. One about how the Coast Guard Cutter Icarus and her crew had met her fate at the hands of a larger, faster and more heavily armed German U-boat in 1942. After pausing here for a few minutes it is time to begin the long swim back.
Beyond the historical aspects, I also enjoy the marine life sightings on the wreck. It is this duality of wreck diving that is the likely reason why I love diving North Carolina so much. The wrecks are usually teeming with life. I spot amberjacks and little tunnies chasing schools of baitfish in to dense spiraling balls around the conning tower. This swirling action of the baitfish is mesmerizing to watch and on occasions the sheer number of fish covering the submarine considerably hinders the visibility. On this day, I see two sand tigers lingering around the wreck. These sharks are rare sightings on the U-boat and I waste no time on securing a few photos before they meander off in to the blue water.
A quick glance at my pressure gauge indicates it is time I made my way back to the ascent line and rejoin my passengers and crew on the surface. As much as we all want to stay longer the laws of physics indicate otherwise. Hand over hand I begin my climb back through the beautiful blue water while jumbo barracudas inquisitively watch my every move. After a long safety stop, I pass my camera up to a crewmember in waiting and clamber up the ladder of the Midnight Express. Before I can even spit my regulator out, many divers begin asking me excitedly, “So how was it?” I answer as I always do, “Outstanding in every way”. Many divers begin to tell me that they have wanted to dive this wreck for years and were ecstatic at finally being able to scratch the U-352 off their “bucket list”. Ever since the best selling novel, Shadow Divers, was released, which tells the amazing story of the discovery and identification of the U-869 off the New Jersey coast, sport divers, like never before, are seeking out their own adventure and desire to see and touch one of Hitler’s very own U-boats. This fascination by the mainstream community in U-boat lore will most certainly assist in keeping alive an important part of history of a mad time when the world was at war. Hopefully the lessons learned and remembered during this era will prevent these tragedies from ever repeating themselves.
The U-352 conning tower and forward gun mount.
Ordered: October 9, 1939
Laid Down: November 21, 1939
Launched: March 11, 1940
Commissioned: August 28, 1941
Builder: Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft
Type: VIIC Nazi German U-boat
Length Overall: 220 Feet
Range: 6500 miles
Speed: 17 knots surfaced; 7 submerged
Torpedoes: 14 bow
Deck Guns: 88mm + 45mm
Max Depth: 722’
Commanded by: Kapitanleutnant Hellmut Rathke
Sunk: May 9, 1942 by USCGC Icarus
Present Location: 26 NM south of Cape Lookout, NC
Launched: march 19, 1932
Commissioned: April 1, 1932
Builder: Bath Iron Works
Length Overall: 165’
Armament: 1 x 3”/23; 1 x Y Gun; 2 x depth charge tracks
Crew: 5 officers; 39 men
Speed: 16 knots
About the author
Mike Gerken was the captain of the dive vessel Midnight Express with Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, North Carolina up until 2013. He is an accomplished liveaboard dive boat captain, professional published underwater photographer, cinematographer, documentary film maker and writer who markets his work through his company Evolution Underwater Imaging LLC. Visit Mike's web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to view his complete portfolio.
To Dive the U-352
The Outer Banks dive season starts in late April, picks up speed in May goes full swing from June until the end of September and tapers off in October and November. Charters are sporadic, but they do run in the off-season, so check first before planning a trip.
Water temps in the pre- and post-season range from 65 to 75 degrees F offshore, with temps climbing as high as 80 degrees F in July and August. Visibility averages 50 to 60 feet with exceptional days over 100 feet in peak summer months. When the blue water pushes in you will think you are in the tropics, but be prepared for stiff currents.
Full-day offshore charters include two-tank recreational dives to a max depth of 130 feet. Extended-day offshore charters increase range to the less-visited wrecks but, with longer days at sea. Technical charters include two dives/day with max depth determined by certification and skill levels of the group. Inshore charters are available for beginners and divers in training with a max depth of 60 feet.
With more than 25 years of experience diving the wrecks of the Outer Banks, Olympus Dive Center (olympusdiving.com), located in Morehead City, is a good bet for getting to the U-boat and beyond.