19 merchant ships

Hunting undersea battlefields

By Jack Horan - Charlotte Observer

Seventy years ago last month, a convoy of 19 merchant ships guarded by five armed naval escorts sailed south along the Outer Banks, making its way toward Key West, Fla.

The United States had entered World War II eight months earlier and shipping along the Atlantic coast from New York to New Orleans was under attack by German submarines.

The targets of the U-boats were tankers and freighters that potentially carried fuel and supplies for the Allied war effort.

After Convoy KS-520 swung around Cape Hatteras on July 15, 1942, a German sub stalking it fired four torpedoes. They hit three merchant ships, sinking a tanker and damaging two others.

When the sub surfaced, two U.S. aircraft and gunfire from an escort sank it. A Navy tug sent to tow the damaged ships sank when it hit a mine in a defensive U.S. minefield.

Today, the ship, Bluefields, a Nicaraguan tanker, and the sub, U-576, repose on the seabed.

Their exact location isn’t known. Both shipwrecks are the focus of a research project, now in its fifth year, to locate and document with photos and videos ships that sank off North Carolina during the war.

The project is called the Battle of the Atlantic Expedition.

The expedition is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coastal Studies Institute of the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University and other federal and state partners.