75th Anniversary of the Sinking of the U352

Text and photos by Tanya Houppermans

When most people think of World War II, images of the great battles of Europe and the Pacific usually come to mind. What many don’t realize is just how close the fighting came to the shores of the United States.

Less than two months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, German U-boats were patrolling the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, engaging in battle with U.S. and allied ships. The greatest number of U-boat attacks took place off of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where residents would regularly hear explosions and see billowing smoke from the fighting taking place just a few miles offshore. And while the locals knew about the battles raging so close to home, the rest of the country did not, as the U.S. government forbid the reporting of U-boat activity for national security reasons. The result is that even today few Americans know of the destruction wrought by U-boats in the waters off of North Carolina, and many are surprised to learn that the wreckage of several U-boats still lie on the seafloor, easily accessible to scuba divers. The most famous of these wrecks is the U-352.

The U-352 prior to her departure for the United States

The U-352 began her life in Flensburg, Germany when her keel was laid down on March 11, 1940. She was launched on May 7, 1941, and commissioned later than same year on August 8. The U-352 was a class VIIC U-boat, with a length of 220ft, a beam of 20ft, and a height of just over 31ft. She had a surface range of 9700nm, and could submerge for limited periods, needing to surface for fresh air again after traveling approximately 80nm. Her top surface speed was 20mph, while her submerged maximum speed was a much slower 8.7mph. Like other U-boats, the U-352 spent most of her time at the surface, submerging when necessary to engage in battle or evade detection.

The U-352’s initial assignment was to patrol convoy routes in the waters off of Iceland, Scotland, and the Faroes Islands in January and February of 1942 as part of a 12-boat wolfpack. After finding little convoy activity, the U-352 was dispatched to St. Nazaire, France for minor repairs before departing on April 7, 1942 for the three-week journey across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States. Once in American waters, the crew of the U-352 attempted to sink the Swedish ship SS Freden by firing four of its 14 torpedoes, but none hit their target. No doubt frustrated by their inability to destroy even a single enemy vessel since the U-352 was commissioned, the crew was hoping their luck was about to turn on May 9, 1942 when they came upon the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Icarus off the coast of Hatteras, North Carolina.

The U-352 now lies in 120ft of water off the coast of North Carolina

Two torpedoes were fired toward the Icarus, but neither hit their target. Even worse, the location of the U-352 was now obvious to the crew of the Icarus, who quickly dispatched five depth charges, seriously damaging the U-352. At this point the captain of the U-352 made the decision to descend to the sea floor 120ft below in hopes of evading any further attacks by the Icarus; however, two more depth charges were enough to force the U-352 to the surface, where the captain gave the order to abandon the fatally-damaged sub. Still under heavy machine gun fire from the Icarus, the crew of the U-352 began emerging from the conning tower and diving into the sea to escape the now-sinking U-boat. The Icarus halted its attack, and began pulling the crew of the U-352 out of the water. Of the 46 men aboard the U-352, 33 survived the sinking, with one crew member dying from his injuries later that day aboard the Icarus. The survivors were detained by the United States as prisoners of war until they were released at the war’s end. The remaining 13 members of the crew lie entombed in the U-352 to this day.

 

A diver turns the corner around the bow of the U-352

The U-352 lay at the bottom of the Atlantic for 33 years before humans would set eyes upon her again. In 1965, history-enthusiast Claude Hall approached several of his friends, including native North Carolina diver George Purifoy, with a rough set of coordinates for the wreck of the U-352. They spent numerous days using grid patterns to search the North Carolina waters to no avail. It wasn’t until 1975 when George purchased the new state-of-the-art Loran-C navigational system that all of their years of searching would pay off. On a particularly rough day at sea that April, George along with friends Rod Gross and Dale McClough continued their grid-pattern search with the Loran-C. After only a couple of passes, they had a hit. The only way to positively identify the object was to get in the water, so the three men donned their scuba gear and began their descent. Even though the visibility was poor that day at only 20ft, there was no mistaking that the metal form emerging from the depths was the hull of the U-352. The men told no one except for Claude Hall about their discovery, and kept their secret for nine months while they made additional trips to the U-boat. Finally, in late 1975, the world was made aware of the location of the U-352, along with the story of the incredible detective-work of wreck hunters Claude, George, Rod, and Dale.

 

A diver hovers above the U-352’s conning tower

Today, scuba divers from around the world travel to North Carolina for the chance to spend time visiting the U-352 in her final resting place 120ft below the surface. Due to the depths involved, and the notoriously fickle conditions of the Atlantic Ocean, these are more advanced dives. But divers willing to endure the hour and a half boat ride out to the dive site are rewarded as they descend the line down to the wreck, and the cylindrical outline of the U-352 comes into view. All that remains now is her pressure hull, as her outer hull has long since disintegrated from years of exposure to salt water and currents. But the U-352 is not alone; life abounds on and around her. Divers are often greeted by large schools of jacks and thousands of small bait fish as they swirl around the perimeter of the wreck. Sea turtles can sometimes be found napping under the stern, and sand tiger sharks and southern stingrays are a common sight. Barracuda lazily patrol the waters, and small wrasse can be found darting in and around the corals growing on the wreck. Due to the U-352’s status as a war grave, the governments of the U.S. and Germany have agreed that no divers shall be permitted to penetrate the wreck. But there is plenty to see on the exterior, and a diver can easily circumnavigate the wreck at least once or twice on a typical dive.

Sand tiger sharks and sea turtles are some of the many species found on and around the U-352

The U-352 has been lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for 75 years now. The sea is slowly claiming what is left of her, but she still has stories to tell. Her scarred and broken pressure hull speaks of the Battle of the Atlantic, where ships and U-boats played a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse mere miles off the coast of the United States. Her surface whispers to the spottail pinfish and the seaweed blennies to come make a home in her corals. Her conning tower, gun mount, and torpedo tubes enthusiastically call to divers to enter her world, and to come see history with their own eyes. She gently reminds us of the sailors who lived and died in her, and the men who sacrificed years of their lives to find her again. And every time a diver descends to her, or tales are told of the great sea battles of WWII, her story will continue.

 

Even when surrounded by thousands of fish, the U-352’s conning tower, ready ammo container, and galley escape hatch are clearly visible

*The author would like to thank Sandy Purifoy Maschmeyer, daughter of George Purifoy, for her assistance in recounting the events leading to the discovery of the wreck of the U-352. Relics from the wreck of the U-352 have been preserved for display at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, North Carolina, which is open to the public free of charge. For a 3-D virtual tour of the wreck of the U-352 developed by Discovery Deep, follow this link: http://vr.discoverydeep.com/u352/.

 

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