America was bombed 1,000 times during World War II
Among the lesser known weapons used in World War II were airborne bombs, that drifted across the ocean like flying jellyfish. They were known as fugo, or fire balloons, and they were the only successful attack on the mainland United States.
Drifting across the skies above the Pacific Ocean, during 1944 and 1945, were nearly ten thousand bombs. Although Japan couldn’t match the size and population of a larger country, there were ways to turn the sheer size of the United States against it. The established air currents helped, but even with the wind cooperating, it takes navigation to fly to Japan. The continental United States is a bigger target that can be reached with less technology.
School children in Japan were asked to make gigantic balloons, thirty-three feet in diameter. The first prototypes were made out of paper, but later ones were made from silk. The balloons, when filled with hydrogen gas, were buoyant enough to carry a thirty-three pound bomb, as well as a few incendiary bombs and thirty-six sandbags. When released they would shoot up to 35,000 feet. They’d leak gas, slowly dropping, until a barometer caused one of the sand bags to drop off into the sea, at which point they’d go up to 35,000 feet again. The balloons could travel on air currents at up to 120 miles per hour, and so, when the last sandbag fell, they descended onto North America. For navigation less objects, drifting on the wind, a surprising amount of them made it over the sea.
Out of the nine thousand launched, about one thousand reached land, while the rest exploded in the sky or dropped into the ocean. The bombs went off as far east as Kansas and Texas. Some drifted down to Mexico, and some up to Canada. Although the bombs caused a few fires, American officials asked people not to talk widely about them. The bombs didn’t cause any actual casualties until 1945. Six people, five of them children, were killed at a church picnic, when they saw a deflated balloon and touched the bomb, not knowing what it was. A sad but touching epilogue came from the Japanese children who had built the balloons, also not knowing what they were. In the late 1980s, they sent letters and paper cranes to the families of the people who’d been at the picnic.
We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.
This bombing was neither the first nor the last of the conflict between Japan and America. These bombs were in response to the Doolittle Raid, an air raid on Japan, which was itself in response to Pearl Harbor. And then of course, there was the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The letter, sent decades later, is remarkable because it indicates that, whatever horrible things happen in war, nations and people retain the ability to reconcile with each other after wars are over.
Duquesne Spy Ring
Even before the war, a large Nazi spy ring was found operating in the United States. The Duquesne Spy Ring is still the largest espionage case in United States history that ended in convictions. The 33 German agents who formed the Duquesne spy ring were placed in key jobs in the United States to get information that could be used in the event of war and to carry out acts of sabotage. One man opened a restaurant and used his position to get information from his customers; another worked at an airline so he could report Allied ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean; others in the ring worked as deliverymen so they could deliver secret messages alongside normal messages. The ring was led by Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne, a South African Boer who spied for Germany in both World Wars and is best known as “The man who killed Kitchener” after he was awarded the Iron Cross for his key role in the sabotage and sinking of HMS Hampshire in 1916. William G. Sebold, a double agent for the United States, was a major factor in the FBI’s successful resolution of this case. For nearly two years, Sebold ran a secret radio station in New York for the ring. Sebold provided the FBI with information on what Germany was sending to its spies in the United States while allowing the FBI to control the information that was being transmitted to Germany. On June 29, 1941, six months before the U.S. declared war, the FBI acted. All 33 spies were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to serve a total of over 300 years in prison.
After declaring war on the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler ordered the remaining German saboteurs to work havoc on America. The responsibility for carrying this out was given to German Intelligence (Abwehr). In the spring of 1942, nine agents were recruited (one eventually dropping out) and divided into two teams. The first, commanded by George John Dasch, included Ernst Peter Burger, Heinrich Heinck, and Richard Quirin; the second, under command of Edward Kerling, included Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel, and Herbert Haupt.
On June 12, 1942, the German submarine U-202 landed Dasch’s team with explosives and plans at Amagansett, New York. Their mission was to destroy power plants at Niagara Falls and three Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) factories in Illinois, Tennessee, and New York. However, Dasch instead turned himself in to the FBI, providing them with a complete list of his team members and an account of the planned missions, which led to their arrests.
On June 17, Kerling’s team landed from U-584 at Ponte Vedra Beach, 25 miles [40 km] south-east of Jacksonville, Florida. They were ordered to place mines in four areas: the Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark, New Jersey; canal sluices in both St. Louis, Missouri, and Cincinnati, Ohio; and New York City’s water supply pipes. The team members made their way to Cincinnati and then split up, two going to Chicago, Illinois, and the others to New York. Dasch’s confession led to the arrest of all of the men by July 10.
Because the German agents were captured in civilian clothes (though they had landed in uniforms), they were tried by a military tribunal in Washington D.C., with six of them sentenced to death for spying. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the sentences. The constitutionality of military tribunals was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin on July 31, and the six men were executed by electrocution at the D.C. jail on August 8. Dasch and Burger were given thirty-year prison sentences because they had turned themselves in to the FBI and provided information about the others. Both were released in 1948 and deported to Germany. Dasch (aka George Davis), who had been a longtime American resident before the war, suffered a difficult life in Germany after his return from U.S. custody because he had betrayed his comrades to the U.S. authorities. As a condition of his deportation, he was not permitted to return to the United States, even though he spent many years writing letters to prominent American authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, President Eisenhower, etc.) seeking permission to return. He eventually moved to Switzerland and wrote a book, titled Eight Spies Against America.
In 1944 another attempt at infiltration was made, codenamed Unternehmen Elster (“Operation Magpie”). Elster involved Erich Gimpel and German-American defector William Colepaugh. Their mission’s objective was to gather intelligence on a variety of military subjects and transmit it back to Germany by a radio to be constructed by Gimpel. They sailed from Kiel on U-1230 and landed at Hancock Point, Maine on November 29, 1944. Both then made their way to New York, but the operation soon collapsed. Colepaugh lost his nerve and turned himself in to the FBI on December 26, confessing the whole plan and naming Gimpel. Gimpel was then arrested four days later in New York. Both men were sentenced to death, but eventually their sentences were commuted. Gimpel spent 10 years in prison, while Colepaugh was released in 1960 and operated a business in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania before he retired to Florida.
St. Martins, New Brunswick
One month earlier than the Dasch operation (on May 14, 1942), a solitary Abwehr agent, Marius A. Langbein, was landed by a U-boat (U-217) near St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada. His mission, codenamed Operation Grete, after the name of the agent’s wife, was to observe and report shipping movements at Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia (the main departure port for North Atlantic convoys). Langbein, who had lived in Canada before the war, changed his mind and moved to Ottawa, where he lived off his Abwehr funds until he surrendered to the Canadian authorities in December 1944. A jury found Langbein not guilty of spying, since he had never committed any hostile acts against Canada during the war.
Bombardment of Ellwood
The United States mainland was first shelled by the Axis on February 23, 1942 when the Japanese submarine I-17 attacked the Ellwood Oil Field west of Goleta, near Santa Barbara, California. Although only a pumphouse and catwalk at one oil well were damaged, I-17 captain Nishino Kozo radioed Tokyo that he had left Santa Barbara in flames. No casualties were reported and the total cost of the damage was officially estimated at approximately $500–1,000. News of the shelling triggered an invasion scare along the West Coast.
Bombardment of Estevan Point Lighthouse
More than five Japanese submarines operated in Western Canada during 1941 and 1942. On June 20, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-26, under the command of Yokota Minoru, fired 25–30 rounds of 5.5″ shells at the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, but failed to hit its target. Though no casualties were reported, the subsequent decision to turn off the lights of outer stations was disastrous for shipping activity.
Bombardment of Fort Stevens
In what became the only attack on a mainland American military installation during World War II, the Japanese submarine I-25, under the command of Tagami Meiji, surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon on the night of June 21 and June 22, 1942, and fired shells toward Fort Stevens. The only damage officially recorded was to a baseball field’s backstop. Probably the most significant damage was a shell that damaged some large phone cables. The Fort Stevens gunners were refused permission to return fire for fear of revealing the guns’ location and/or range limitations to the sub. American aircraft on training flights spotted the submarine, which was subsequently attacked by a US bomber, but escaped.
When World War II was fought off North Carolina’s beaches
At a little after two o’clock in the morning on Monday, January 19, 1942, an earthquake-like rumble tossed fifteen-year-old Gibb Gray from his bed. Furniture shook, glass and knickknacks rattled, and books fell from shelves as a thundering roar vibrated through the walls of the houses in Gibb’s Outer Banks village of Avon. Surprised and concerned, Gibb’s father rushed to the windows on the house’s east side and looked toward the ocean. “There’s a fire out there!” he shouted to his family. Clearly visible on the horizon, a great orange fireball had erupted. A towering column of black smoke blotted out the stars and further darkened the night sky.
Only seven miles away, a German U-boat had just torpedoed the 337-foot-long U.S. freighter, City of Atlanta, sinking the ship and killing all but three of the 47 men aboard. The same U-boat attacked two more ships just hours later. Less than six weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the hostilities of the Second World War had arrived on America’s East Coast and North Carolina’s beaches. This was not the first time that German U-boats had come to United States waters. During World War I, three U-boats sank ten ships off the Tar Heel coast in what primarily was considered a demonstration of German naval power. But by 1942, U-boats had become bigger, faster, and more deadly. Their presence in American waters was not intended for “show” but to help win World War II for Germany.
The abbreviated name “U-boat” comes from the German word unterseeboot, meaning submarine or undersea boat. However, U-boats were not true submarines. They were warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could submerge only for limited periods — mostly to attack or evade detection by enemy ships, and to avoid bad weather. U-boats could only travel about sixty miles underwater before having to surface for fresh air. They often attacked ships while on the surface using deck-mounted guns. Typically, about 50 men operated a U-boat. The boats carried fifteen torpedoes, or self-propelled “bombs,” which ranged up to twenty-two feet long and could travel thirty miles per hour. Experts have described German U-boats as among the most effective and seaworthy warships ever designed.
Within hours of the U-boat attack near Avon, debris and oil began washing up on the beaches. This scene seemed to be repeated constantly. For the next six months, along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, at least sixty-five different German U-boats attacked American and British merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the Allies in Europe — cargos of oil, gasoline, raw vegetables and citrus products, lumber and steel, aluminum for aircraft construction, rubber for tires, and cotton for clothing. By July of 1942, 397 ships had been sunk or damaged. More than 5,000 people had been killed.
The greatest concentration of U-boat attacks happened off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where dozens of ships passed daily. So many ships were attacked that, in time, the waters near Cape Hatteras earned a nickname: “Torpedo Junction.” U.S. military and government authorities didn’t want people to worry, so news reports of enemy U-boats near the coast were classified, or held back from the public for national security reasons. For many years, most people had no idea how bad things really were. But families living on the Outer Banks knew—they were practically in the war.
“We’d hear these explosions most any time of the day or night and it would shake the houses and sometimes crack the walls,” remembered Blanche Jolliff, of Ocracoke village. Even though ships were being torpedoed by enemy U-boats almost every day, just a few miles away, coastal residents had no choice but to live as normally as possible. “We sort of got used to hearing it,” Gibb Gray said. “The explosions were mostly in the distance, so we weren’t too scared. I remember we were walking to school one day, and the whole ground shook. We looked toward the ocean, just beyond the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and there was another huge cloud of smoke. That was the oil tanker, Dixie Arrow.”
Some Outer Bankers came closer to the war than they would have preferred. Teenager Charles Stowe, of Hatteras, and his father were headed out to sea aboard their fishing boat one day when they nearly rammed a U-boat, which was rising to the surface directly in front of them. The elder Stowe’s eyesight was not very good. He told his son, who was steering their boat, to keep on going—he thought the vessel ahead was just another fishing boat. “I said, ‘Dad, that is a German submarine!’ And it sure was,” Stowe recalled. “He finally listened to me, and we turned around and got out of there just in time.”
The war cut back on one favorite summer pastime for Outer Banks young people. “That summer we had to almost give up swimming in the ocean — it was just full of oil, you’d get it all over you,” Mrs. Ormond Fuller recalled of the oil spilled by torpedoed tankers. Gibb Gray remembered the oil, too: “We’d step in it before we knew it, and we’d be five or six inches deep. We’d have to scrub our feet and legs with rags soaked in kerosene. It’s hard to get off, that oil.” It is estimated that 150 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea and on the beaches along the Outer Banks during 1942.
Some local residents thought Germans might try to sneak ashore. Others suspected strangers of being spies for the enemy. “We were frightened to death. We locked our doors at night for the first time ever,” said Ocracoke’s Blanche Styron. Calvin O’Neal remembered strangers with unusual accents who stayed at an Ocracoke hotel during the war: “The rumor was they were spies, and the hotel owner’s daughter and I decided to be counterspies, and we tried our best to follow them around, but we never caught them doing anything suspicious.”
At Buxton, Maude White was the village postmistress and a secret coast watcher for the U.S. Navy. She was responsible for observing unusual activities and reporting them to the local Coast Guard. In 1942 one couple with German accents attracted attention by drawing maps and taking notes about the island. White became suspicious, and so did her daughter, who would follow the pair from a distance — riding her beach pony. After being reported by White, the strangers were apprehended when they crossed Oregon Inlet on the ferry. Records fail to indicate whether or not the strangers really were spies, but White’s daughter became the inspiration for the heroine in author Nell Wise Wechter’s book Taffy of Torpedo Junction.
Slowly but surely, increased patrols by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, and planes of the Army Air Corps, began to prevent the U-boat attacks. Blimps from a station at Elizabeth City searched for U-boats from high above, while private yachts and sailboats with two-way radios were sent out into the ocean to patrol and harass German warships. The military set up top-secret submarine listening and tracking facilities at places like Ocracoke to detect passing U-boats.
Many people who lived along the coast during World War II remember having to turn off their house lights at night and having to put black tape over their car headlights, so that lights on shore would not help the Germans find their way in the darkness. Even so, the government did not order a general blackout until August 1942. By then, most of the attacks had ended.
On April 14, 1942, the first German U-boat fought by the American navy in U.S. waters was sunk sixteen miles southeast of Nags Head. Within the next couple of months, three more U-boats were sunk along the North Carolina coast: one by a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber, one by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol ship, and one by a U.S. Navy destroyer. North Carolina’s total of four sunken U-boats represents the most of any state. By that July, the commander of Germany’s U-boats became discouraged. He redirected his remaining warships to the northern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, Germany considered its attacks against the United States a success, even if they failed to win the war. Gerhard Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has since called the war zone off the U.S. coast in 1942 “the greatest single defeat ever suffered by American naval power.”
As the years have passed, most of the physical evidence of World War II U-boat encounters off North Carolina’s coast has vanished. Submerged off the state’s beaches are the remains of at least 60 ships and countless unexploded torpedoes, depth charges, and contact mines. Even today, small patches of blackened sand offer reminders of the massive oil spills of 1942. On Ocracoke Island and at Cape Hatteras, cemeteries contain the graves of six British sailors who perished in North Carolina’s waters. Many people living in the state don’t know about the time when war came so close. But older Tar Heels who lived on the coast back then remember. In fact, they would love to tell you about it.