Ocracoke's history & its people

German U-boats off the North Carolina coast in WW I

January 20, 2015
Text and photos by Stacey L. Sutton

Mike Lowrey IMG_0036edit

Mike Lowery.  Photo by Stacey Sutton

While in recent decades it is has been revealed that German U-boats patrolled the coast of North Carolina during World War II, little known is that they also were here during World War I.

Michael Lowery, a guest lecturer with the National Park Service, revealed this aspect of Outer Banks history during a presentation Jan. 12 in the Ocracoke Community Center.

Lowery, who received his bachelor’s degree from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and his master’s degree in economics from North Carolina State, has been actively researching U-boat histories for the last 15 years.

“In August of 1918, Germany was using the U-boats for commerce warfare and thus targeting merchant vessels versus military warships,” Lowery said.

“One of them, the U-140 sank a total of seven merchant ships off the coast of the Outer Banks most of which didn’t even realize there were enemy vessels nearby let alone that they were being targeted by one.”

According to Lowery, the reason the U-boats were here was because the British had set up a blockade in the North Sea and the Germans set up a counter blockade which filtered down along the United States coast.

U-boat is a shortened version of the German word unterseeboot, which means submarine.

WWI Uboats presentation IMG_0077 (1)

Lowery, who works for the John Locke Foundation as a policy analyst, is preparing to publish a book on his research into U-boat history.

“I need a database to keep me occupied and 7,500 sunken ships (all over the world) is a big database,” he laughed. “As I was researching World War II, I found out that World War I stuff is much less researched. To me that’s more of a challenge, and thus, more interesting.”

While research of World War I may be more of a challenge, Lowery lamented that it can also be much more frustrating, “knowing that some of the mysteries will never be solved.”

Since Lowery studies all U-boat history, he gave the packed Community Center a general overview of U-boat statistics as well as details of local U-boat activity.

As for how long these vessels could stay under water, Lowery said a U-boat could stay down for one to two days, but often didn’t bother submerging. Because their profiles were so small to begin with, other vessels oftentimes didn’t see them even if they weren’t submerged. The submersible vessels would dive to avoid detection from aircraft, but in the entirety of the war, only one U-boat was ever sunk by enemy aircraft.  U-boats also could go two months without refueling.

Lowery’s excitement for his subject was evident as he discussed the findings of new wrecks, sharing examples of a U-boat divers recently discovered in the English Channel.

Uboats WWI IMG_0013

Another frustrating aspect of Lowery’s pastime is that divers who happen upon the shallow coastal wrecks oftentimes won’t share their finds with the historical community.

“Some divers will dive on a wreck for several months, conduct their own research and then publish a book on their find,” he explained. “Then I have to reverse-engineer the diver’s book for the specific information I need.”

Military wrecks are not subject to the laws of salvage, he said. So divers are not allowed to take pieces from the wrecks and sell them.  However, neither are divers required by law to report military wrecks to a governing agency.

“Luckily,” Lowery said, “at this point, historians are about 98 per cent finished in figuring out the eventualities of all of the military vessels from World War I and World War II, but it’s the last few pieces that fascinate me.”

Lowery’s presentation was part of the NPS “Know Your Parks” series.  According to Jennifer Pierce, the district interpreter for Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the goal of this series is to encourage community education and interest in the various national parks, of which the Outer Banks are a part, and to foster a feeling of ownership.

The slower winter months are a perfect time to hold these evening presentations which highlight different characteristics and histories of our local parks.  Past series presentations included such topics as North Carolina’s coastal dolphins, the Wright brothers and algae blooms to name a few.  “We are always looking for new ideas for topics,” said Pierce.

The date and topic for the next presentation have not yet been set. For more information on upcoming events go to: http://www.nps.gov/caha/index.htm, or to suggest topics for upcoming presentations, call (252) 473-2111.