Dixie Arrow sinking

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

The goats were on the side of the Germans.

At the start of World War II, Ocracoke Island, a land that today is lush with scrub oaks and wire grass, was nearly bare. The goats ate everything. What they didn’t, the wild horses trampled. The island is only 17 miles long, so skinny in spots that the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound nearly touch. The animals ate and roamed and trampled for centuries. The people built their houses in a village on the south end of the island, as far away from the ocean as they could. But by January 1942, the animals had chewed and stomped so much that many people of Ocracoke village could see clear across from their homes to the ocean.

Which meant the German U-boats could probably see them.

Those damn goats.

For seven months in early 1942, the coastline of North Carolina was the lonely, unspoken frontline of World War II. Night after night, explosions rang the ears and rattled the psyche of towns from Sunset Beach to Corolla, as German U-boats destroyed merchant ships. The most anxious hearts lived in the middle of the coast, in Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke, where every night people went to bed waiting for the next blast. If they looked out into the ocean, out into that darkness, they knew that at any moment the blackness could become red, and the quiet could become a deafening boom.

The islands never came under attack by ammunition, but instead by something perhaps more crippling: fear. Residents looked more closely at strangers, accusing some of being spies. They turned off any light that faced the ocean, fearing they were helping the enemy identify new targets. And the most obvious sign of a deep state of worry: They stopped talking, fearing that anything they said would somehow make it off the land and into one of the cabins of an enemy submarine.

“It was really a sad, scary time,” says Blanche Howard Joliff, who lived through the terror.

It started on January 18, 1942, when German U-boats torpedoed the Allan Jackson due east of Oregon Inlet. The sky flashed red. The next day, the same scene, just seven miles from the coast, as the City of Atlanta went down.

War was here. Just more than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And every night, looking across that barren landscape and into the water where the ghosts lurked, the people wondered: Are we next?

‘Good news tonight’

At around 6 p.m. each night during the war, Blanche Howard, a direct descendant of the man who founded Ocracoke in the 1700s, sat with her parents and sisters downstairs in their house on Howard Street.

She was 22. She worked in the mail room at the Ocracoke post office. Each day she’d see women come into her office hoping for letters from their men overseas. They cried when they got mail and cried when they didn’t. According to records gathered by local historian Earl O’Neal, 125 people who had ties to Ocracoke — either natives or married to natives — served in World War II. That’s nearly 25 percent of Ocracoke’s 525 registered citizens in the 1940 census.

Electricity came to Ocracoke in 1939, and by 1942, many households looked like the Howards’, with parents and their children sitting around a radio and waiting for the news.

“There is good news tonight!” Gabriel Heatter said to start each of his nightly broadcasts.

Rarely was it true. Heatter was more positive than honest. The year of 1942 was a particularly unsettling time, with our forces scattered across the world just months after Pearl Harbor. The United States government understood the vulnerability of its citizens and persuaded the national media not to cover what would have been one of the most frightening stories of the time.

The Germans were right here.

They came to try to stop ships from delivering goods to ports in Allied countries. They shot with great power, destroying or damaging nearly 400 ships from New England to New Orleans. German U-boats claimed more than 5,000 lives in the first seven months of 1942 — twice as many as the number of people who died at Pearl Harbor.

“They didn’t need any intelligence,” O’Neal, the local historian, says. “It was like shooting ducks in a barrel.”

And almost nobody here knew what was happening; they just knew something was happening. When Blanche Howard sat down with her family to listen to Heatter, they were more likely to learn of war news from Europe than they were information about what was happening just five miles outside of their windows.

Real news, floating

Mullet fishermen love nighttime. And the men of Cedar Island — located just about 25 miles southwest of Ocracoke — loved mullet fishing.

At night, the fishermen traveled into the water on 16-foot skiffs, two skiffs making a pair. Each boat trailed about 250 yards of netting behind it, and those nets were tied at each end.

When they got out to sea, out into the darkness, there was silence. Then they’d listen. Eventually the sound would hit the men — the sound of breaking water, the sound of mullet fish. They headed to the spot in the darkness, and together the two boats circled the school, dropped the nets, and wrapped up the entire jumping school of fish.

But in 1942, those nets captured things the men had never seen. Bodies.

“Them old-timers weren’t used to that,” says William Styron, now 79. “It scared them, so they quit fishing at night.”

This area remains one of the darkest corners of North Carolina. Cedar Island is one of the least developed coastal areas of the country, mostly because of its remoteness; it’s about 35 miles from the town of Beaufort, which isn’t all that big itself.

In 1942, it was even darker than today. Cedar Island did not have electricity, and only a dirt road connected Cedar Island to the mainland, 11 miles away. Styron was just 9 years old then, and he spent all of his free time outside.

“We kids could swim by the time we could walk,” he says.

Styron’s father was a merchant who liked to go oystering. The family had an old ’34 Ford. But with nowhere to go during the war, there were some nights Styron’s dad drove the family down to Cedar Island Point, at the end of the island. He drove with tape covering the headlights, with only a slit in the middle left for light. Then the Styrons watched the ships burn red into the sky.

“We’d sit out there and fight the mosquitoes and look at the ships burning,” Styron says. “We knew what was going on. The water was like a park to us. We’d see the oil floating around. … The war was real here.”

Soon, people were ordered to stay off the beach. Ocracoke’s beach was closed all spring and into the summer.

When residents were allowed to return, they found their soft, white sand colored black from the oil – a physical mark of war that took years to clean.

Tales from the sea

Downplay the bad. Promote the good.

During a war that required participation from nearly every citizen, this philosophy seemed reasonable enough. At the government’s request, the quiet fear that spread throughout the coast of North Carolina never reached many places inland.

Silence may have helped the morale around the country, but it did nothing to serve the people who died and lived while riding on unarmed ships. The silence left their stories largely untold for decades. Stories like this:

The City of Atlanta left New York with 46 crew members on January 14, 1942, carrying things like coconut, soap, poultry feed, Scotch whiskey, and a new husband traveling back home to Savannah, Georgia. On January 19, the ship was heading south along the North Carolina coast, near Avon. Its lights were dimmed, but that didn’t matter. Just after 2 a.m., a U-boat hit the City of Atlanta with a thunderous torpedo strike. The ship turned over within 10 minutes. As it went down, the U-boat that fired the torpedo circled the ship with a searchlight.

As the City of Atlanta sank, the new husband, Robert Fennell, ran toward a lifeboat, but stopped. He’d left a picture of his wife in the cabin. So he ran away from safety and back into the cabin to get the picture, then returned with it folded in his pocket. He jumped from the ship and clung to wreckage for hours, until another ship passed and saved him and the two other survivors.

Fennell reunited with his wife days later, and the two started a family. One of their sons is now one of the top pediatric physicians in the state of Florida — here only because his father was able to survive the attack.

That’s only one of the stories Kevin Duffus has found in his years researching the war off the North Carolina coast. Here’s another:

A few months after the City of Atlanta wreck, a 28-year-old pregnant woman from Yugoslavia was on a passenger freighter, the City of New York, on Palm Sunday. She was 40 miles east of Cape Hatteras when the ship was torpedoed. The pregnant woman made it to a life raft with her 2-year-old daughter.

They were stuck on the raft for 40 hours. During that time, the woman went into labor. She delivered her baby at sea. Finally, the USS Jesse Roper saved her, her daughter, and the newborn. The woman named her son Jesse Roper.

Stories like these went untold for years. Duffus, an author, believes that’s a shame. His book, War Zone — World War II Off the North Carolina Coast, was published last May.

“There were an unbelievable number of stories of courage and tragedy, men hanging off a rope over an oil fire in the ocean,” Duffus says. “What happened on the East Coast of the United States was twice as devastating as Pearl Harbor.”

Shells from another beach

By late spring 1942, Blanche Howard had grown accustomed to not knowing anything. The explosions carried on at night, but nobody talked about them during the day.

She kept quiet, like all Ocracoke residents did, as the town they knew changed around them. The United States Navy began to build a base near the end of the island (where the ferries now dock).

The volume of mail picked up. More people, more letters.

The Navy built the first paved road on the island. Previously, wagon-wheel tracks marked the sand. Now, pavement.

The mail kept coming.

On top of a hill in the distance, Howard could see a group of servicemen doing work she couldn’t understand. Later, the people of Ocracoke would learn that the men were operating sophisticated electronic devices that monitored a web of cable sensors that stretched for miles in the ocean, hoping to detect submarine movements.

The mail kept coming. And so did the news from Heatter: “There is good news tonight!”

Once, during the height of the scare, a group of Europeans came to visit. The locals assumed they were German spies and treated them as such. Turns out, they were just artists from Austria. At the Wahab Village Hotel, now Blackbeard’s Lodge, the hotel manager’s daughter and her best friend took it upon themselves to be counterspies; they opened doors to rooms and searched visitors’ belongings when the guests were away.

In a community where most residents were kin, fear became poison, and trust became a sickened relative.

Howard listened to those radio broadcasts and looked to her father, who most nights said nothing. So she didn’t either. Not even in the worst times. One night, Howard says, she was upstairs in her bedroom when she heard an explosion. She went to her window and saw the sky a bright red. She wanted to turn on a lamp, but she knew the rule: no ocean-facing lights. She wanted to do her part. So she crawled back into bed and fell asleep while people burned in the water just outside of her window.

By the time the Germans called back their U-boats in July 1942 — after U.S. military forces began to strike back, sinking four enemy subs off the state’s coast — about 60 different ships were sunk off the coasts of Ocracoke and Hatteras alone.

The mail kept coming. Every day, a mail boat, which also carried people, took the same route. It started in Morehead City, then went north to Beaufort, then north to Harkers Island, then north to Atlantic, and finally to that dark little place called Cedar Island, where Styron waited for his family’s mail. The boat’s last northerly run every day was to Ocracoke.

Howard spent her days sifting through that mail and getting it to others. On the wall of the Ocracoke post office was a government-issued poster. It depicted Uncle Sam pointing his finger, with the words: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

One day an envelope came addressed to her. It was from one of her cousins, a Navy man who was off fighting in the Pacific. The letter didn’t include any bad news from overseas. Instead, he’d sent her a gift, a bracelet made of seashells. He’d purchased it from a local merchant on an enemy island halfway around the world.

Howard quietly put the bracelet away and finished her day at the post office. She walked past the poster of Uncle Sam and into another dark Ocracoke night, holding a bracelet of Asian seashells and wishing for one Navy to return home and another to leave.

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
59200 Museum Drive
Hatteras, N.C. 27943
(252) 986-2995
graveyardoftheatlantic.com

This story was published on

Graff is a writer and editor in North Carolina. He is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others. Stories he’s written or edited have been picked up by the Nieman Storyboard, gangrey.com, longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com. He was a presenter at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and the 2008 Poynter Institute Sports Writing Summit.

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