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The approach of the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor on December 7 signals a pause to remember that period of American history. Although most Americans consider Pearl Harbor the last time a foreign power attacked their land, the United States was prey to another enemy that lurked close to her soil. On January 13, 1942, five German U-boats crept through the ocean to the banks of Cape Hatteras and the southern coast of the US. This operation, called Paukenschlag, or Drumbeat, marked Germany's declaration of war on the US.
War Zone, a 2 1/2-hour documentary produced by Kevin Duffus, gives a detailed account of German U-boat attacks off the coast of North Carolina. Beginning with the attack on January 18 that sank the USS Allan Jackson, War Zone profiles the merchant ships that were destroyed, the individual U-boats that fired the deadly torpedoes, and the U-boat commanders that accepted their mission to sink ships.
The documentary is divided into different themes, each personalized with a 1940's song recorded by North Carolina's own Gregg Gelb Swing Band. Moonlight Serenade begins the recollection of America's innocence and comfort with a war that was happening somewhere else. War Zone then details the commencement and end of Operation Drumbeat, followed by a second wave of U-boats over the next six months. Between March and July, the NC coast was defiled with oil and bodies. Residents of Ocracoke and Hatteras recall their suspicions of spies and the US government's attempts to control public opinion by propaganda and curfews. While some relationships began and flourished, others ended in death.
Before producing War Zone, Kevin Duffus said that he was aware that U-boats had come to the US, but had no idea how large the operation was until he began researching facts for the program. "This operation could have ended with Great Britain's defeat," he said. "I realized then that this was pretty significant."
War Zone begins at the end of 1941 with the sense of innocence that characterized America until the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. As American troops marched overseas to battle the Germans in Europe, the Germans sought to launch a U-boat attack off the coast of the US. Their goal--to force Great Britain's surrender by choking off her life support in food, supplies and fuel. To accomplish this end, Admiral Donitz of Germany assembled five U-boats to begin Operation Paukenschlag, a short-term but eye-opening assault that would interrupt sea trade routes between the US and Great Britain. The operation was much more successful than Germany had hoped; since US military personnel were in Europe, the coast was completely unguarded, leaving Germany an open door to lurk in the seas for two months and destroy over 40 ships and 500 lives. About one-third of those who perished were from merchant ships off of the southern coast.
U-boat presence did not end with Operation Paukenschlag, however. For the next five months, Admiral Donitz dispatched as many as 65 U-boats to the US coast with many headed directly to the Hatteras coast, near Diamond Shoals. The US lost most of its vessels during March, from merchant ships to passenger freighters, and the ocean off of the coast of North Carolina became known as the deadliest part of the Atlantic. During this time the government broadcast claims of sinking entire U-boat fleets, announcements that often listed U-boats that were still very much alive as their commanders chuckled as they listened to the radio broadcasts. Propaganda such as "Loose Lips Sink Ships" kept coastal residents quietly curious as they continued to see the explosions and hear the thunder of torpedoes at night.
Public awareness turned at the end of March, when the City of New York sank after a U-boat attack. A passenger ship from Europe, the City of New York carried a Yugoslavian woman who was pregnant, Desanka Mohorovic. On the lifeboat after the sinking, Desanka gave birth to a son, whom she later named after the ship that rescued them, the destroyer USS Jesse Roper. Newspaper stories about the sinking of the ship and the birth of Jesse Roper Mohorovic indicated that the US Navy had not completely ridded the North Carolina coast of the deadly U-boats.
By April, the North Carolina coast was feeling the full effects of the U-boats' sting. About 122 ships had been destroyed. Bodies of servicemen and merchant sailors washed ashore for children to find. The US government issued warnings about talking about merchant sea routes and schedules. Blackouts were scheduled at night for all coastal residents and shopkeepers, and curfews were issued to keep residents from driving with their headlights on. Residents of Hatteras, Ocracoke and other coastal towns talk about driving at night with black tape over their headlights and about the widespread suspicions about spies in hotels and restaurants.
War Zone synthesizes the stories of US merchant sailors, US Coast Guard members, coastal residents, and relatives of key participants in the violent drama of 1942. In addition, curators from the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, NC and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago add insight and analysis of the events between January and July 1942.
"The Outer Banks has been neglected and overlooked for so long in North Carolina history," said Duffus. "The Coast Guard and Navy were in the middle of a war. In addition, there was a huge sacrifice made by merchant seamen, who served their country and did so without much recognition."
Michael Gannon talks about the US' attempt to catch German spies and also rectifies some of the coastal rumors about U-boat crewmen who would come ashore and eat in the restaurants and buy groceries.
While some servicemen began relationships that sprouted into lasting marriages, many others said good-buy to friends that would never return. But in late April, the tide began to turn for the US. The USS Jesse Roper, the same destroyer that had rescued the survivors of the City of New York, spotted a U-boat in its path and chased it to its eventual destruction. Military aircraft spotted another U-boat and destroyed it as well. A total of four German subs were sunk off the North Carolina coast--the most of all states and Canadian Provinces. US Navy members treated the enemy survivors with surprising compassion. Beginning in May, the US began using convoys of ships, a tactic that England had recommended and that finally led to the defeat of the U-boats. The American retaliation against the U-boats signaled that the end of the U-boat war in the Western Atlantic was in sight.
By the time World War II ended, over 5000 merchant seamen and civilians had been killed and 397 vessels had been destroyed. Although Germany's U-boat operations claimed more lives than Pearl Harbor and wreaked more destruction, few Americans even know about them. War Zone brings to light a tragedy in US history that has been in the shadows too long.
Kevin Duffus is a documentary filmmaker who specializes in North Carolina and Outer Banks history. With twenty-nine years of experience in the television industry, Duffus has combined his skills of research, writing, photography and editing to produce a series of feature length documentaries. Those productions include: The Graveyard of the Atlantic-Four Hundred Years of Shipwrecks, Mysteries and Heroic Rescues, a Telly Award winner; The Cape Hatteras Light-America's Greatest Sentinel, winner of the gold Aurora Award; and Move of the Century, documenting the remarkable relocation of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
Duffus has produced programs in England about Walter Raleigh's voyages to the New World and in East Africa about drought and famine. In 1989 Duffus traveled around the world to document how Habitat For Humanity is building houses in other countries. In 1981 Duffus co-produced a national documentary on neighborhood efforts to fight crime and shared a George Foster Peabody award for excellence in journalism. Duffus' other honors include the World Hunger Media Award, the Edward R. Murrow award and the National Educators Association award.
With his wife Susan Kavanaugh, Duffus has dedicated his company, Video Marketing Group, to preserving North Carolina's rich and colorful heritage for future generations through their informative, thoroughly researched and visually appealing history and travel films.
Duffus' personal interests include sailing, mountaineering, wilderness skiing and long distance cycling.
Duffus has recently completed three years of research and interviews on the production, War Zone-World War Two Off North Carolina's Outer Banks.