August 29, 2011 - U352 "From Hunter to Hunted"

August 30, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

The U-352: "From Hunter to Hunted"
by Mike Gerken
The U-352 with her crew at port.

The U-352 as she is today.
          As the predator, Kapitanleutnant Hellmut Rathke, of the German submarine U352 peered through the periscope at his unsuspecting prey, his desire for glory and his overwhelming sense of duty to the Fatherland must have clouded his better judgment as he planned to make his first war time kill on a heavily armed enemy ship in broad daylight.  On this day, May 9th of 1942, approximately 28 nautical miles due south of Morehead City, North Carolina, 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 wreck of the U-352 forward
looking aft. (stock)
            The U-352 and her crew of 46 men had only just arrived on the American coastline a few days prior without a single kill to their credit in the war.  The month previous had proven to be a highly successful time for U-Boat commanders operating off the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the war in what was dubbed as '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 defenses of shipping had been stepped up considerably and successes for the U-Boats were scarcer and operations considerably more dangerous.  Regardless of the hazards, it seemed apparent that Rathke was highly determined to make a kill.
Illustration of the USCG Cutter Icarus. 
          The first signs that the cutter Icarus was being observed by the U-352 came in the form of sonar contact only 100 yards away.  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 from the sea bed marking the spot.  Rathke had taken his shot and dreadfully missed his target while tragically giving away his location at the same time.  The hunter now became the hunted.  It should be noted that the U-352 was operating in water of depths of only an astonishing 110 feet, which some experts would consider is suicidal considering diving deep as a means of escape was out of the question in this shallow of water.  In the next 45 minutes, Rathke would do all he could to avoid the barrage of depth chargers being thrown at him from the deck of the Icarus, but to no avail.  After sustaining terrible damage to his ship, with one crew member already dead, Rathke decided to surface his ship and evacuate the crew.  As soon as the U-352 surfaced, the crew began to pour out of the conning tower with the intent of abandoning the sinking ship. 
The USCG Cutter Icarus returning to Charleston
Port with survivors of the U-352. (NARA)
The crew of the Icarus had mistaken their hurried exit from the ship for attempting to man the deck guns and began firing upon the stricken U-Boat and her crew.  The U-352 received relentless fire the Icarus until the true intentions of the submariners became apparent and the commanding officer ordered a cease fire. Thirteen of the crew of the U-352 would not survive this attack with many of them never making out of the sinking sub.  The men that managed to escape were all 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, South 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 corp during WWII were killed in action, these men were fortunate to have survived.
Prisoners of the U-352 being escorted
under guard to the prison camp. (NARA)
Kapitanleutenant Rathke standing in center at
the prison camp. (NARA)

Dive Vessel, Midnight Express.

       Today, I pilot the dive vessel, Midnight Express with a heading of due south from Beaufort Inlet making 17 knots right in to a 2-3 foot ocean swell. The bow pitches upward and gently drops down in to the trough of the next wave splashing water over the deck before repeating the process over and over again.  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 69 years after her sinking and 35 years after her rediscovery where divers still continue to come from all over the world to dive this enigmatic WWII ship.  There are very few German U-Boats in the world that are as readily 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.  Water temperatures climb in to the lower 80's F in the peak summer season making for a very comfortable dive experience.  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 prepare to secure the vessel to the sub below.  Equipped with dive gear and a full face mask with a surface communication device, the mate 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 anchor chain and a splash he disappears from sight in to the 78F degree water.  As he makes his descent to the bottom, my other mate handles the anchor line while I maneuver the boat.  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".  Today he replies, "all is ok, we have about 60 feet of visibility and a very light current heading from stern to bow".  "Excellent" I say to myself, "These are great conditions for my divers". 
More than 30 images were spliced together manually to create this composite photo of the
U-352. Photo taken in September 2010. 
I quickly head to the aft deck of the Midnight to give the good news in a form of a dive briefing.  I show them a composite photograph taken by myself that's made up of thirty separate images of the U-352 that when assembled displays the entire sub as she rests today.  Using this image I point out the highlights of the dive and go over the specifics in that she sits in 110' of water with a strong list to her starboard side. There are hatchways fore and aft on the hull that are open and accessible. Once inside a diver would need to navigate through a very small area with excessive amounts of silt.  As you swim through the sub you may be able to see well enough in front of you with a torch until you turn around to discover your fins have just kicked up the silt obscuring the visibility and your escape route.  I make it clear that only divers with special training and skills should attempt to enter the U-352.  Most everyone who comes to dive with me heeds my advice and is content on having a swim around the ship and maybe poking there heads in to the hatches for a look within.  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 historical shipwreck below.  Having dived the 'sub' myself at least 100 times, I can easily envision what the divers are encountering.

The U-352 with gun mount in foreground and
conning tower in the back. (new)
            Diving off the Outer Banks from June thru October means you will be diving in the warm clear waters of the Gulf Stream that surge up from the tropical Atlantic ocean.  As you hand over hand it down the anchor line the stern of the U-352 quickly comes in to view.  Dropping down to the sand and gazing upon this WWII artifact for the first time often gives one pause for thought.  A diver can easily identify the rudders, drive shafts that make up the running gear of the vessel.  If you look closely underneath the stern you will see the starboard propeller visible but half buried in the sand while the port propeller had been removed and salvaged in the 1970's.  Hovering over the top of the sub and swimming at a slow pace, you will come across the exhaust pipes where the diesel fumes would have been vented while the submarine operated surfaced.  While submerged a large bank of batteries would have propelled the ship at approximately 3 knots.  Past here the open hatches leading to within the aft section of the ship come in to view.  With a strong torch one can peer inside the blackness of the inner hull for a look inside the sub.  The sheer size of the tiny spaces these men had to live and fight in for weeks at a time is a wonderment.  After continuing forward for another few feet, the conning tower can be seen with a list to starboard that is reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.  Upon closer inspection 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.  One 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 evacuated the sub one at a time from this hatch as exploding shells erupted and machine gun fire from the Icarus riddled them and the sinking ship.  Upon further contemplation, the reality of war in the form of the remains of the men that never made it out, comes to mind for some.  Indeed the U-352 is deemed a war grave by the German government and they desire for it to be treated with such respect. 
Another composite view of the U-352 as shot looking directly down at the sub.
Photo taken in 2009.

            Once the conning tower has been reached and examined, a diver, if having sufficient bottom time and air supply remaining, may opt to continue on another 80 feet or so to explore the bow of the wreck.  The first thing to be seen on the swim down would be the gun mount for the forward cannon that once adorned the ship.  The gun itself was likely blown from its mount during the sinking and now lies somewhere buried in the near vicinity by decades of ocean sand and still awaiting to be discovered.  Passed the gun mount, there is another open hatchway leading to within and then yet another hatch only a few feet away. This one is on a 45 degree angle and would have been used to load torpedoes in to the forward torpedo room.  After analyzing the requirements needed to gain access within, most divers use prudent decision making and continue on with the tour from the outside.  Finally, after about a 200 foot swim from the stern, the tip of the bow and the torpedo tubes can be examined lying in the sand.  If the weapons that were fired from here had met their mark you 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 German U-Boat in 1942.
            Besides the historical significance, the U-352 has as a wreck dive the marine life that inhabits her today is yet another draw.  Amberjacks in their hunt for a meal chase schools of baitfish in to dense billowing balls around the conning tower.  This swirling action of the baitfish is mesmerizing to watch and on occasions the visibility is considerably hindered by the sheer magnitude of fish covering the submarine.  Other interesting marine sightings such as giant southern stingrays and loggerhead sea turtles as well as healthy grouper and snapper populations are but a few of the highlights.   Let me not forget to mention the intimidating and ever present fierce schools of barracuda that stand watch over the submarine in the currents above.  Once in a while we will even see sand tiger sharks on the U-352.  Sand tigers are a very common sight on the wrecks of North Carolina and a huge draw for sport divers to the region, but for reasons not understood they are not regularly seen on the sub.  For those who are lucky enough to see sharks swim along the hull of the U-352 is an added thrill.

The conning tower of the U-352. (New)
            Most divers who make it to the far end of the wreck will need to consider turning around very soon to make it back to the anchor line to regrettably begin making their slow ascent to the surface.  As much as we all want to stay underwater longer, the laws of physics indicate otherwise.  We are merely visitors to the underwater world and modern day dive computers remind us of this repeatedly through the course of the dive with there flashing and beeping warnings.  Hand over hand divers one at a time make their way up the anchor line, do their required safety stops and begin clambering up the ladders of the Midnight Express.  As each one climbs on board I log them in and of course ask "how was your dive?"  For most I get a very enthusiastic answer.  Many divers at this point even indicate that they have wanted to dive this wreck for many years and were ecstatic at being able to scratch this off their list of 'must dives'.  "I finally got to touch the U-352" one man says with water dripping from his smiling face as he climbs the stairs.  With all back on board it 's time to make our way home while during the ride excited divers tell stories about there trip down to the U-352.  As often as I have dived this wreck I never get weary of her and I thrive off of helping others get a chance to see with their own eyes this underwater relic that is a reminder of a time in our history when the world was at war.

A Few Words First
Hurricane Irene.
(Photo courtesy of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA)
         As Hurricane Irene approached Beaufort, NC as a category 3 storm with winds at better than 110mph I tried to find a reason to stay in my home with Annette for this event but could not find a single logical one. With the dive boats Midnight Express and Olympus pulled from the water and set on blocks at the local boat yard, I packed my computer hard drives in to a water proof case, propped our furniture up on chairs and headed to Raleigh to stay with friends. We kept track of the storm and the well being of friends from the internet and waited it out in comfort and safety. We even managed to take in a movie at the theatre and wander around a real shopping mall. Fortunately for everyone, Irene made landfall as a mere Cat 1 hurricane. I don't mean to downplay the storm or be disrespectful to those who lost or suffered during this but it could have been so much worse.  Annette and I returned on Sunday to find a few broken branches and the power off. Mind you Beaufort was in the eye of the storm as was Morehead City. My town home has a view of the intracoastal waterway and if you got on my roof you could see the ocean. We could find no signs of any major damage or flooding. As of last night the power came back on and life has begun to return to normal. Like I said a minute ago, we were lucky. If Irene came ashore as a Cat 3 with 130-140mph winds the outcome could have been much worse. With the Irene heading in to the history books and fading from the scene it is time to get back to business. Today, 29th Monday the Olympus will be placed back in to the water with the Midnight to follow today. Olympus has trips all this week while my boat will have to wait until Friday or Saturday before testing the waters out. Stay tuned for condition reports as soon as the first charter post 'Irene' is completed.
          Since the last Dive Blog Report the only diving that I have done has been in my bath tub. So for this weeks Dive Blog I will share with you a story I wrote on the U-352 for a Polish diving magazine, (apparently Poland's only dive magazine) Redakcja Magazynu Nurkowanie. The editor contacted the shop a few months ago looking for a story and accompanying photos of this famous WWII wreck and I thought it would be great writing practice to take them up on their offer. The magazine apparently is to be released this month but, unless you can read Polish, you might want to read the story below in English first. In case you are wondering, I didn't write the story in Polish. I wrote it in Mandarin and they translated it to Polish. I hope you enjoy this piece.
Keep your eyes out for a similar story to appear in SCUBA Diving Magazine in the Mar/Apr edition.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

Photo Tip of the Week
The best camera and strobes with the perfect ambient light conditions and exposure settings will not yield a great shot by itself. The subject matter and how to compose it is extremely crucial in obtaining a great shot. Do your homework and research your dive site or wreck and have a plan before you enter the water. For example, I had a great idea for shooting the Sand Tiger Sharks inside the wreck of the Aeolus in North Carolina. From previous diving experience on this wreck, I was aware of a round hole in the roof of the super structure leading out to the blue water. I figured if I couldn't shoot a Shark I would shoot a human model posed beneath this round hatchway with Ambient light radiating down and from the sides.  A few weeks ago my mate had reported several Sand Tiger Sharks swimming about within this section of the wreck. Perfect. I had a model and I wouldn't have to pay it. Before I even got in to the water I had already composed my shot in my head. Now it was a matter of setting the right exposure and hoping the shark would swim where I wanted it to. As it would be, I was in luck. For thirty minutes I sat there composing different versions of the shot below and fired off maybe 75 to 100 photos before I managed to land one that I was very satisfied with (see below). With a little planning and observation I managed to compose, what I think, was a great shot. You can do this as well. Explore a wreck or reef, find a scene that appeals to your eye, compose the shot and try your luck. If the first time around doesn't work, go back and try again. I have so many great ideas for shots on the North Carolina wrecks that I am waiting to experiment with. It's a matter of waiting for the correct environmental conditions to arise or certain marine life behavior to do just what you want it to. No one ever said taking a stunning image is easy. If it were everyone would be doing it and then it would be less interesting.
This photo was not an accident. A lot of planning and
thought went in to getting this shot. Having a shark swim exactly
where I wanted it to may be contributed to a little bit
luck as well or maybe not.

To learn more of Mike's UW photo techniques contact him to learn more about his live online photo courses. 

Please visit my web site to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.
If you wish to dive Graveyard of the Atlantic contact Olympus Dive Center for more information.
Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
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Mike Gerken

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