This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Joe Hoyt
NOAA/ONMS, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

This paper is about theoretical approaches to cultural landscapes, specifically an applied cultural landscape approach that we have internalized at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. We opened the USS Monitor Center in 2007, which put to bed one era of the work that we were doing in the North Carolina area and began an ongoing period of conservation.

Around that time, we began to say “All right, what’s next? We’ve got all of this experience and all of this expertise working on heritage resources, offshore North Carolina.” It was pretty exciting to have the ability to begin the process of identifying resources and to be able to frame them under the lens of cultural landscapes; we could look at the broad area and understand it.

We completed an overview study, Graveyard of the Atlantic, An Overview of North Carolina’s Maritime Cultural Landscape, which is available online.[1] The first step in the study was to wrap our heads around the vast resources which exist around this area. We developed a database that includes about 2,000 points of named shipwrecks and associated terrestrial sites, lifesaving service stations, airfields, things like this. We thematically stove-piped all of this information so that we could begin to use it as a roadmap to cherry pick individual points from, and do in-depth analyses.

We framed the our data sets by breaking them into topics like the pre-contact period, the colonial era period, maritime commerce, various conflicts that have happened along the coast, as well as properties and places associated with coastal vernacular water craft and fishing heritage. This is discussed in more detail in the assessment.

Once we completed this approach, we considered what we should dive deeper into first. The natural progression was to begin with World War II. There are ten thousand battlefield sites in the United States from various conflicts. Very, very few are from World War II: Pearl Harbor, Aleutian Islands, a couple of isolated sites on the west coast. The Battle of the Atlantic on the east coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico is an American battlefield that has not been well interpreted and made known to the broader public. We saw an opportunity to apply some of the expertise of the sanctuary program to characterize this story in a way that has not been done before, and project it to as many people as possible.

Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States (December 11), and by January 18, 1942, the first ship was sunk off of North Carolina. It is pretty remarkable how quickly this happened. Clearly, U.S. enemies were ready for a war that we were trying to resist becoming involved in. As a consequence, there really was not a lot of coastal defense on the east coast, especially because the popular support for the war was in the Pacific theater at that time. We had all of these vessels operating up and down the eastern seaboard that were relatively exposed, with U-boats nearby, just sinking ships.

Why were they doing this? Predominantly, because of oil. There are huge oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil was coming up the east coast to Cape Hatteras, riding the Gulf Stream, then taking a right, heading towards Europe, where it fueled the RAF bombing raids and other initiatives. There was a huge resource of oil and tankers coming up the east coast, and the thinking of the German Navy was “We’re not going to be able to compete with Britain or the US; we’re not on par with their surface fleet. What we can do, is cut off the supply chain and, hopefully, squelch the ability for them to wage war in the European theater.”

Most battles take place over a relatively short period of time, maybe over the course of a couple of days or weeks. The Battle of the Atlantic is just different. It was a very protracted engagement that took place from the onset of World War II all the way to the end. It was underway in the North Atlantic well before the U.S. was even involved in WWII.

How do you characterize wartime action that took place over a long period of time, and really understand how it worked, especially if it is a huge geographic area, from Nova Scotia down into the Gulf of Mexico? In order to make sense of it all geographically and temporally we began a comprehensive shipwreck assessment of these World War II resources off of North Carolina. Through this process we really began to understand that North Carolina played a unique role in this history, but what made it unique?

We started to understand how incorporating features of the landscape was applicable to the overall interpretation of what was going on. North Carolina has some really unique geological features that made it particularly appealing, tactically, for the way that U-boats were operating. The shipping lanes were coming up on the Gulf Stream and two major oceanic currents come to a head right off of the Outer Banks. Historically, not just in the World War II era, these were massively important currents, because it was possible to get a few knots of speed pushing you towards Europe. It resembles one of those moving walkways in an airport. All of these ships were laden with fuel oil, heading across the Atlantic to support that war effort, and they came right along Cape Hatteras that acted as a natural bottleneck.

Also interesting about this particular naval engagement is that up until this point in history, prior World War I and World War II, naval battles took place predominantly on the surface plane of the sea. There, they were interacting with the environment—during the age of sail they were trying to gain the weather gauge or deal with shore line features, but the action generally takes place on a plane or surface. The Battle of the Atlantic was involved with merchant vessels, surface craft, but also submersibles, where the water column itself has a role, tactically, and also the water depth where they could operate. There was also the atmospheric column—air coverage was a massive threat to the U-boats, one of the best defensive aids against them. So there was this atmospheric 3-D column of space within which all of these different players were operating. Knowing this really allows us to understand and characterize encounters through that lens and understand the players’ roles, tactically.

The significance of some of the geographical elements to the Battle of the Atlantic was that the U-boats were a very good offensive weapon, but a pretty terrible defensive weapon. They relied on stealth; they relied on their ability to make sneak attacks. If they were spotted on the surface or they had to engage with a surface vessel, their main battery was still their torpedoes, and they had to actually maneuver the vessel on the surface. They were quite easy to sink, because they were comparatively delicate not made to be great surface crafts. Their primary defense was to be able to hide in deep waters. They wanted to be close to the shipping lanes, but they wanted to be able to get to deep water quickly, to be able to evade counterattacks.

The continental shelf is situated very far off shore on the east coast, north of Cape Hatteras, and it goes hundreds of miles off shore, heading north to New York, Boston, and New England. There are still heavy shipping lanes there, but the ability to get to deep water for safety is limited. So, there was U-boat activity there but the shipping lanes were more dispersed. It was better to operate in areas where the continental shelf was close to shore, narrow and in sync with the shipping lanes.

South of Hatteras, the continental shelf is very close to shore and heading farther south, it remains close to shore, but less favorable due to dispersed concentration of shipping, and the water is much warmer. Why is warm water a factor? U-boats typically liked to operate at night and there was a much higher concentration of bio-luminescent algae in that area. For that reason, they wanted to avoid that region because it could make them easier to spot at night by patrolling aircraft.

Thus, there are all sorts of natural features that made Cape Hatteras emerge as a hot spot of U-boat activity. This became known to the Germans, who were incentivized based on tonnage sunk, that this was a place where a captain could make his mark and hopefully gain a promotion. Cape Hatteras was preferred as a hunting ground. Many of the features in the landscape mentioned are relevant to other elements in the broader study. These conditions provide a baseline understanding, not just related to World War II history, but to other history as well.

Specific to the battlefield, there are other elements that we have been assessing—mercurial elements, like cloud cover, weather, visibility, airspace. Harry Kane, Jr., with the U.S. Army Air Corps out of Cherry Point, North Carolina, was the pilot of a Hudson aircraft who was the first person to sink a U-boat with aircraft off of the east coast. He sank the U-701 just off Cape Hatteras. In the narrative of his attack, he said he used cloud cover to conceal his approach; the U-boats were very aware that they were most vulnerable from air attacks. They actually had on the conning tower four people, any time they were on the surface, specifically to watch different squadrons of air so that they could crash dive if there was a threat of aircraft attack.

Harry Kane knew this, so he knew that if he was going to be on anti-submarine patrol that he had to conceal, as best as possible, his approach, and he did that using cloud cover. It is interesting that even intangible, fleeting elements have a role in the way human beings interact in this landscape. In World War II, it had an influence on tactics, in the battlefield sense.

There are, of course, tangible elements related to the battlefield, such as the proximity of air bases like the Elizabeth City airship base, Cherry Point Naval Air Station, and lifesaving stations along the beach. Also, there were the proximity of deep water ports; a defensive mine field off of Hatteras that influenced the way vessels operated in the area; and, of course, the shipwrecks themselves.

We began this larger study looking from a broad view for all of the types of resources we knew about. We focused on about a six-month period when there was heavy activity that resulted in about 90 vessels sunk—this was quite alarming because it was an amazing number of vessels to go down in a short period of time just off of North Carolina alone. We peeled that number back to the vessels that, we believed, were on the continental shelf, and that was about 50 sites.

That was quite a lot to manage and to try to understand, so we started with a GIS exercise. Through this, we were able to depict not just sites where there is actual, tangible material deposited vis-a-vis a shipwreck, but where there was any type of engagement. For example, a U-boat may have attacked and struck a merchant vessel with a torpedo, but the merchant vessel was sailing ballasted and it didn’t sink, and was able to be refitted. That was still recorded, because it is relevant to the overall story of how vessels were interacting in this environment. It allowed us to understand why certain areas had more significance than other.

We take this information, apply some statistical analyses, and start to develop hot spots of areas of battle-related events. This is important, not only for helping us understand where these hot spots are, but because we are a place-based management program. In order to position ourselves to argue for an expanded sanctuary in this area, we need to be able to back it up with reasons. Why an area like Cape Hatteras and not an area like Wilmington or anywhere else along the coast? This gives us the ability to, not only interpret the events more accurately and completely, but to be able to convey to the public, and anyone who is consuming it, why we think an area has significance, based on real data.

That’s the 30,000-foot view. Then, we began, also through an American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) grant, a partnership with East Carolina University, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a more laser-focused study looking directly at one discrete convoy battle. This broad study started by looking at all the different activity that was taking place over a six-month window.

Now, we are applying the same approach to one particular afternoon in July of 1942. There was a convoy of 19 ships sailing from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West, escorted by five vessels and some aircraft, which was attacked by the U-576. A Nicaraguan freighter called the Bluefields was sunk immediately. Two other vessels, the J. A. Mowinckel and the Chilore, were struck but did not sink. As a result of this, the U-boat popped to the center of the convoy in broad daylight. An armed merchant vessel called the Unicoi opened fire and two Navy Kingfisher aircraft came in and sunk the U-boat. All of this took place in the span of about 15 minutes.

We wondered, first, how can we find where this happened? Then, is it going to be applicable to study it as a key part of our ABPP grant? The first thing that we did was to partner with East Carolina University and grad student John Bright, who worked on developing some of the modeling. We collected archival material and started to figure how the convoy would have been situated and how it would have been moving through this space based on what we knew of how it was set up. There were five escort vessels that had zones set up along the convoy. There was a pattern to the position of the 19 ships. We were modeling based on the narrative of the event, which told us the most likely position of the U-boat. In our model, lines of different colors depicted the operational restrictions of the torpedoes, such as the maximum ranges and the optimum ranges of where they could be fired.

We could not know where something fit in the 3-D space until tangible remains were found—that was the focus of one of our projects. The survey model could help us figure out where to look. The model was permeated with elements of a landscape approach. You’ll see here, this is just a probability model that was developed based on all of the historic information that we had. You’ll see these individual positions are After Action Reports, which is really frustrating because there’s a half dozen After Action Reports. All talking about the exact same event that only happened in one place but they plot out like a 40 square mile area. It was really convenient.

Then, you have these other elements where we know the typical convoy route was to follow the 100 fathom curve lines so that it could avoid the Diamond Shoals. That’s what you’re seeing here, you’re seeing this lighter, sort of, snaking. That’s just were we know the convoy ought to have been running. Then, if you see, coming into shore here, we know that when the Chilore and the J. A. Mowinckel were struck. They were towed out of the field of fire and into an area where they were ostensibly going to be repaired, but unfortunately, were towed directly into the minefield where they also struck mines.

All of this information came together and we developed a probability model, and then we broke it down into areas that had the most likelihood to survey. We ended up using this model to develop and dictate the surveys we carried out. In the first year that we looked, we later found, we had been within 160 feet of the U-boat.

Fortunately, last year (2014), we were able to find the remains of the Bluefields. Fortunately, for interpretive reasons, the U-boat was about 200 yards away from the Bluefields. We’re hoping to get back to get some better imagery of these sites. The proximity of these features to each other is such an easy way to digest this notion of a battlefield, where you’ve got both of these elements that are really close together, in this one space, that allow us to interpret these activities. The remains of the U-576 were in deep water, about 700 feet down, so it’s got a really good level of preservation.

That is the focus we’ve had and the way the cultural landscape approach has directed our research. I’d like to mention that it has also permeated every aspect of our management, as we’ve been moving towards looking at things like expanded boundaries. I should also mention that by the end of 2015 we will have about 12 of these sites nominated to the National Register, working with Dede Marx who has prepared a lot of the nominations, as well as a multiple property documentation form for World War II resources in the east coast and Gulf of Mexico.

To finish, this approach, this way of thinking, has permeated every element of our management, from research through the public process. It allows us, not just in the Battle of the Atlantic aspect, but in the broader approach, to help form and identify stakeholders who we might not have had connections with in the past. We now have advisory councils made up of members of the public. We ask them to inform us about the concerns in the communities. We have to have something to say to a restaurant owner, “Here’s what the resource is, here’s the way that we interpret it. Now you can have a voice that’s more informed on how we should move things forward.” So, our advisory council made a recommendation that we look into expanding the boundaries to include other resources. All of that has been funneled through this lens of the cultural landscape approach, even towards the development of the boundaries themselves, which are still in flux and up in the air.

Then, ultimately if we do go forward with an expanded effort, we can use the elements of this cultural landscape approach to help develop required documents, such as our draft environmental impact studies. We can use that to better define the affected resources. It really ends up being our guiding framework, moving forward, at our little site.

[1] Joseph Hoyt, James P. Delgado, Bradley Barr, Bruce Terrell and Valerie Grussing. Graveyard of the Atlantic, An Overview of North Carolina’s Maritime Cultural Landscape, Maritime Heritage Program Series: Number 4 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, September 2014). Available at


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